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Should I start my presentation with a joke?

Updated: June 28, 2013 - 1:08 pm

Posted: June 28, 2013

If you peruse the public speaking self-help books at large booksellers, many books instruct people to start a talk with a joke. The writers of these books defend this position by suggesting that jokes "break the ice," show the audience that you have a sense of humor and - possibly - grab the audience's attention.

The short answer to this column's title is that a joke should rarely - or never - be used as a presentation opener.

Too often, jokes simply are not funny. Your audience may have heard the joke before. It may not be relevant to what the speaker intends to talk about, or the joke may be offensive. A joke should not be told if it would be offensive to anyone who hears it, a test that may be too high for almost any joke to pass.

If jokes cannot be told at the beginning of a talk, how does a speaker open a presentation and capture the audience's attention?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Pertinent stories - We all love to hear interesting stories about someone else's experiences. Stories do not even have to be funny or complex, just relevant to what follows.

2. Direct statements or questions - An emphatic statement or a question works. Statements such as "We are here today to solve a problem" or "What do you think will happen if we fail to plan?" are effective openers as well.

3. Vivid examples - Examples are good to capture people's attention, particularly if they illustrate something that you want to emphasize. To illustrate trust, I once began a talk with a small box that I said contained three objects that the audience would sincerely doubt could fit into the box. When shown the insides of the box, the audiences saw the three objects and were surprised. They also now trusted me in what I was about to tell them.

4. Strong quotations - Quotations are good openers, too, and connect well with presentation topics. Some quotations are overused, however. John F. Kennedy's famous inauguration speech "Ask not what your country can do for you... " quote is memorable but is quoted too much. It has lost impact as an opening line.

5. Important statistics - Using statistics to open is a great strategy, too. If a number is stated and an explanation follows, it is particularly effective. Think about how you would react if a speaker said: "200 percent. You will increase your salary by 200 percent if you follow some simple steps." Most of us would be intrigued and would want to hear what comes next.

There are many great ways to open a presentation. Telling a joke is not one of them.

The suggestions I have offered will help you be a more effective presenter.

Bob Stowers is a clinical professor of management and leadership communications at the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary. Visit http://mason.wm.edu/faculty /directory/stowers_r.php.