Yesterday I had the misfortune to break a thread on my overlocker, which meant that I had to sit down and rethread it. Not a problem! While threading an overlocker is a relatively complicated exercise I had the ‘how to’ instruction book, which was easy to understand, and after all I had done it a number of times before, so what could go wrong?

Well, I started early as I had a number of sewing jobs on hand, and by lunch time I was still attempting to get the machine started! For one reason or another, the simple task of threading this thing was proving to be impossible. I believe I may have mentioned that I am an organised creature, and the fact that my whole day’s planned routine had been disrupted certainly caused me frustration.

So much so that the husband searched out some of our ancient British Comedy routines as an antidote. So instead of flat fell seams and herringbone stitch, I spent the afternoon with Mrs Slocum and the gang at Grace Brothers – it certainly lightened the atmosphere and I felt so much better afterwards. Laughter is certainly the best medicine.

For such a simple and enjoyable thing Laughter has had mixed reactions over the centuries; of course we have been told “Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone” which to me indicates the infectiousness of laughter. Haven’t you noticed that when one person starts laughing, it is often impossible not to join in? And in a climate that is filled with doom and gloom, surely laughter should be appreciated and encouraged.

It has not always been the case; that arbiter of good manners and taste in the eighteenth century, the Earl of Chesterfield, instructed his son that “there is nothing so illiberal or ill-bred as audible laughter!”. Goodness, I was certainly illiberal and ill-bred yesterday, and thankful for it.

Historically there have always been a number of divines who have warned against the evils of laughter. St John Crystostom in his serious tome Homilies informs the faithful that “Laughter does not seem to be a sin, but it leads to sin!” and I suspect the unspoken message is “So stop it at once!”

Professional speakers, unlike St John, have learned the value of laughter. A speaker who makes their audience laugh is guaranteed a warmer hearing than one that does not. We like people that amuse us; it is, despite the Earl’s wisdom, natural for us to do so.

And when we like someone we have a natural tendency to want to believe them. We are much more open to be convinced. So humour can be an important tool for us. Alas, it is one of the most difficult things to do well. Humour is always subjective. I was talking to a friend last night and I mentioned that I had spent the afternoon enjoying the comedy of Grace Brothers, “Don’t tell me that you wasted a day with that load of rubbish. It is so politically incorrect.” was the response.

Well may be, but it was funny. And I suspect that if you consider it offensive you will find things to offend you. It is a poor society that cannot laugh at themselves and their foibles. But in any audience we are going have those who believe, as did my friend, that some things just are not funny and who will find some things offensive. If we are willing to believe those that amuse us, consider what the response will be from those who we have offended.

So if we wish to include humour into our speeches, what kind of humour is safest? I try to avoid external humour, I find it too risky! So I opt for self-depreciating humour. I choose to laugh at myself, and the situations that I find myself in; or even to gently laugh at those I love. Humour, to be done effectively, needs to be all embracing as well as enhancing our underlying message. Otherwise it can be counterproductive.

So what is my advice to novice speakers? Avoid it. Yes, having said that it is one of the best tools that we have to create a receptive audience; my advice is to avoid it. Avoid it that is, until you are confident about your ability to work with an audience. The disaster waiting to happen when your attempt at humour fails miserably needs a confident and effective speaker to overcome. Best to avoid the risk when you first start out.

Laughter is indeed the best medicine, and like medicine needs to be administered by a professional! Doctors need to study their craft before they can dispense medicine, and we speakers need to study ours before we can risk including it in our presentations.

After all, we don’t want to be thought illiberal or ill-bred now, do we?

Michele @ Trischel

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