An "ice breaker" is an activity in public speaking that is designed to immediately engage the audience and to get them ready to hear what you’re about to say. Many presenters attempt to “break the ice” by starting their presentation or speech with a joke. So, let's examine if that's really the best thing to do...
Why a Joke?
There’s a good reason that the established wisdom around public speaking tells us to begin with a joke. The right joke can get you off to a roaring start. It establishes common ground between you and the audience. It relaxes the audience and gives them permission to participate in the discussion. And it relaxes you.
Getting a big laugh at the beginning of your presentation is tremendously reassuring. However, your audience will be made up of many people with different experiences and sensibilities. It's possible that some may take the joke out of context. In that case, the misplaced humor can come back to hurt you and your presentation.
Jokes NOT to Use
Sarcasm - This is generally used to mock someone or to give pain. Since that is typically not the primary goal of your presentation, do not use sarcasm in your presentations.
Offensive jokes - These are generally meant to offend and upset people. Because your audience is not attending your presentation to be offended, you should not make offensive jokes.
Jokes that require long, complex set-ups - If you have not yet bonded with the audience, they may not be willing to listen to a long set up. In some cases, these can confuse your audience, who may start wondering what your presentation is actually about.
Jokes That Can Work for You
Modest jokes - A light chuckle is often better than a failed belly laugh, especially at the presentation's beginning. Don’t feel like you have to bring the house down right way. Especially since you are actually not giving a presentation meant to be a big laugh.
Self-Deprecating jokes - These allow you to poke fun at yourself, and can work well at the outset. They express a certain level of trust you have in your audience, and you can show that you are accessible to them.
Gentle, topical jokes - Find a joke that relates to something that will already be on the minds of audience members. Jokes about the venue, a minor technical issue with your presentation, the theme of your topic, or a timely piece of pop culture should go over well.
Humor is extremely powerful when used effectively. A good joke can loosen up your audience and make them more receptive to you as a person as well as to your message. Be aware that humor can have a negative impact on your audience. A bad joke can be worse than no joke at all, which can cause you to lose your audience before you really get started.
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