Was That Supposed to be Funny?

The emcee of the dinner social event warned me ahead of time:

“It’s 300 partners from the law firm, and you should just know that at this event every year they often just keep talking to                                     people at their tables while the speaker is on stage. Don’t take it personally if they don’t pay attention to you.”

Don’t take it personally?

Heck, forget personally – I took it as a challenge.

A few people opened with introductory remarks, during which some attendees were indeed still engaged in side conversations while others went to the bar in the back for a beverage.

Then it was my turn.

I walked on stage as the partner emceeing the event introduced me, and handed me the mic.

I thanked him and the team who had invited me, greeted the audience, and then transitioned with one of my favorite opening lines in that kind of event:

“Has everyone had at least one drink so far? If not, please feel free to go to the bar back there to grab one now, and refill it                                      as often as you like while I’m up here, because the more you drink, the funnier and better looking I get!”


On cue, the room broke into laughter. I had their attention.

And I kept it throughout my keynote, which was NOT a standup comedy routine.

Like all my talks, it was serious content about leadership communication, including case study sample data ranging from presidential debate performances to family dynamics and more.

Like all my talks, it was serious content about leadership communication, including case study sample data ranging from presidential debate performances to family dynamics and more.

Most importantly, that opening line, along with a few other tongue-in-cheek “cue laughter here” comments sprinkled throughout the program, subconsciously helped them focus on the rest of my content, which enhanced my executive presence and strengthened their respect for me as a thought leader in my field.

That’s because:

  • The content of the humor was appropriate for the context of the event
  • It was playful in a way that showed I take my content seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously
  • Their brains get wired to associate me with the “happy dopamine shot,” which means they like me more, and people tend to trust others they like
  • I delivered the humorous lines in a declarative, matter-of-fact tone paired with a smile, which conveyed that I owned my comments, which demonstrated my confidence – both in myself and in my material
  • That visible self-confidence inspired the audience to instinctively trust me
  • I didn’t linger in the humor; the little “sidebar” comments were inserted here and there for a quick little dopamine shot to the brain, which “greased the mental skids” and opened their listening, and then without skipping a beat, I continued on with the real content.

The best part was that when I was done and came down off the stage, the partner/emcee came up to me and said, “That was amazing! They all actually paid attention the whole time! I don’t think that’s ever happened before!”

Now in fairness, I think it had a lot more to do with the whole talk – both content and delivery – but the humorous bits definitely sealed the deal.

I get so frustrated when I hear people – both men and women – steer away from the use of any humor for fear that it will undermine their authority.

“Gravitas” does not necessarily mean “grave” or “serious,” although it certainly can if the topic at issue is a particularly heavy one.

As a matter of fact, you could argue that there was a variety of gravitas in how I delivered that line: confidently, declaratively, intentionally.

Content-wise, when timed appropriately, people will find something humorous when the topic is about an inherently human, universally-shared experience.

For example, sometimes I’ll open an “elevator pitch” at a networking event with something like,

“Did you ever have a moment when you’re talking and you suddenly think to yourself, ‘That sounded better in my head!’?                                       Well, I fix that.”

No, it doesn’t typically elicit guffaws. And yes, it’s an incredibly vague generalization of my work. But it’s a reference that inevitably makes everyone nod enthusiastically and laugh together, as if I’ve seen into their souls, because everyone knows that awful feeling, and it evokes the one response we all want to hear after our elevator pitch:

“Tell me more – how do you do that?”

Then we can get more serious about the nature of the work that I do.

And that’s exactly why on this week’s episode of Speaking to Influence , I broke down the common myth that using humor undermines your authority and executive presence, and showed how it can actually boost your leadership presence.

Listen to the full podcast episode here or watch it on YouTube here.



It’s a short episode, but jam packed with food for thought (and fun!) about how to let your fun-energy part of your personality shine through while enhancing your own leadership image and reputation.

And that’s no joke!