[Video + Blog] Should you use humor in academic or scientific presentations?
In early March, I presented a workshop at Science Talk on how to create compelling and engaging presentations. One of the participants wrote a lovely follow-up email about his experience with my workshop:
I very much enjoyed your workshop about creating compelling and engaging presentations. I have been to a few now in an effort to better my own skills and each time there are always ideas I have never considered (and yours had by far the best audience engagement). Lance Edens, Chemistry Postdoc, Washington State University
Anyway, Lance also asked a question:
In a similar “How make a presentation” talk, the presenter was adamant that humor should be completely avoided- especially when talking about science. I personally disagree with this viewpoint and think humor should be ubiquitous. I would love you hear your option/reasons on the matter. Should humor be used in presentations? If so, how much would you recommend? Lance Edens, Chemistry Postdoc, Washington State University
Fabulous question, Lance! Let's get to the answer. Oh, and do YOU have a question you'd like me to answer? Simply email me at echo (at) echorivera.com!
Watch the Video (My 1st explainer video!)
You'll definitely want to watch the video for this, because it's my first explainer video! I read the blog post, and you can watch the story come alive through drawings & visuals!
Video Notes and Screenshots
So what’s the deal with humor in a scientific or academic presentation? Should you use it or does it make you seem unprofessional? And if you can use humor, then how and how much is okay in a presentation?
Well, like everything in this world, it depends.
Take a look at these two scenarios. Which one do you want to see when you’re giving a presentation?
If you want to see the one on the left, then make sure you don’t use any humor in your presentation. If you want to see the one on the right, then Lance is right: humor is probably a really good idea.
I have to say, "don't ever use humor" is a really odd piece of advice.
And there’s a lot of bad advice out there, but I usually can at least understand where it’s coming from … but this one?
I mean, how is it that someone comes to hate humor in presentations? Who among us actually hates to laugh? And then takes it one step further to say it’s actually a bad idea to make other people laugh?
The best I can figure is it’s based on the myth that anything positive, fun, creative, or enjoyable is unprofessional and that if you want to be professional you have to remove all enjoyment and keep it dry and boring.
YIKES. Boris the Unicorn, Director of Joy at Creative Research Communications, LLC strongly disagrees. And so do I.
But, I guess it depends on how you define professional. If you define professional as something that’s unapproachable, elite, confusing, and boring ...then, okay. You would want to share information in really boring, unengaging ways.
But my definition of professional is that it’s effective. So, being a professional communicator means that people will pay attention to, understand, remember, and ideally use the information I share with them. Humor is one strategy that can help you achieve those goals, so of course you should use it (if you want to)!
Remember how Lance said that my workshop had "by far the best audience engagement" he's seen lately? Guess what -- I used sarcastic, dramatic, and silly humor in that workshop!
And it wasn't a fluke. Here is just a small sample of the positive feedback I've received on my data-driven research/evaluation presentations that included my weird, silly, dramatic, and/or sarcastic humor:
So, if you agree with me on that definition of professional, then you need to add some fun to your presentations. I talk more about this in another video, about the mindset you need to be an effective presenter, so be sure to check that video out too.
Like everything, though, there are some boundaries to set so that you use humor in the right ways. Here are 3 tips for using humor effectively in a professional presentation.
 Don’t try too hard, let it come naturally
So, here’s the thing...you don’t want to add jokes. Don’t go searching for funny jokes about fungi or fish or p-values. That will feel too forced and probably won’t make your audience laugh.
The best humor in presentations is more subtle than that. And good humor is an extension of YOU. Your audience will laugh at things YOU find funny.
And you don’t need to have a theme or only have one type of humor in a presentation. My humor is all over the place. I can go from sarcasm to super weird to silly in one presentation. But it works because it makes ME laugh, and is a reflection of my humor in general. So when I get to that slide, the audience can sense exactly what I’m feeling based on my body language and voice.
Using sarcasm/contradictions as humor
Here’s an example of my sarcastic humor. Not everyone gets or likes sarcasm and that’s okay. Another way to think about it is that it's a funny way to highlight contradictions. I drew this comic Or, to demonstrate how we tend to accept that we should be trained on statistical analysis in grad school, because just reading a bunch of journal articles doesn’t teach you stats….yet, when it comes to effective communication skills, all of a sudden we think we can learn how to create engaging presentations by watching them (which is especially funny because most presentations are awful so it makes even less sense). So, it’s a contradiction, but presented in a sarcastic or funny way.
Side note: I should emphasize that when I present this to folks, I say in a lighthearted way. I'm not up there lecturing or shaming people. Tone is an important element, too!
Side note #2: This comic was a hit in my workshop! Want me to draw a mini comic for your presentation or train you to draw your own? Learn more on my services page.
Using dramatic flair as humor
I’ve also been a bit dramatic at times to get people to laugh. Here, I was sharing the results of an evaluation project, and our clients did not meet their initial goal. It was actually pretty frustrating for them because they had spent a lot of time and resources on this initiative. So, we added a bit of dramatic flair to add some humor as we talked about something that was difficult. It helped relieve tension, which is a powerful tool to use as a presenter who shares difficult information.
Using goofy/silliness as humor
When I want to be a little silly. I’ll often use pics of my dogs (Biscuit & Sage). Cute pets are always a hit. Especially if they're little hams like this who take hilarious/adorable photos (*smoochy sounds*).
For example, I used this picture to briefly explain reliability to a group of service providers who participated in an evaluation project.
They didn’t need a whole lesson on it, just a brief introduction. And it worked! After that presentation service providers said things like, “I bet this research stuff is really complicated, but the way Echo presents it makes it easy for me to understand.” THAT’S the power of (effective) humor.
Hopefully these examples inspire you to use humor in your presentations. Don't forget to download this handout so you can reference these later on >>
 Don’t punch down, ever. Only punch sideways or up.
Because you should only use humor that you personally find funny...we have to talk about what you find funny. Because this is where you might come across as unprofessional.
For example, I just watched a documentary where professionals were being interviewed. And some guy tried to use humor to make a point about how excited he was about something. So, his joke, his analogy, was that he felt like a boy with a playboy magazine.
W.T.F?! That’s just nasty. I don’t know why men think jokes like that are funny. STOP IT! Again, this was not just some guy on the street being randomly interviewed. This was a professional being interviewed about a serious, important, academic topic.
So, don't be gross or pervy, and don't make fun of other people.
psst...Not sure how to use humor effectively or if your use of humor is unprofessional? I will work with you to perfect your humor strategy! Learn more about my presentation mentoring services over here.
 Don’t worry about how often to use humor
There is no formula, like "add one piece of humor every 5 minutes." Or, at least, I don't bother to use one. There also is a max number of times you can use humor. It’s just like I say with how many slides you should use in a presentation. That’s the wrong question to ask, because ultimately it doesn’t matter.
Add as much or as little as feels natural to you.
Bonus Tip  Humor isn’t your only option!
If you watched (or read) this and you’re feeling like humor won’t work for you then don’t force it.
Humor is only ONE way to add joy and engagement to your presentation. You could also:
- Use really beautiful or powerful visuals.
- Tell stories.
- Include fun or surprising examples.
- Add hands-on/interactive activities.
Choose what feels the most natural for you.
Download the Show Notes!
aaaand if you're still reading all the way to the bottom then you're super awesome, and you should totally check out my full line of presentation training, mentoring, and design services. All images/graphics on my website are copyrighted and are not available for re-use. But, I can work with you to make some or help you make your own!
Thanks for reading!
Dr. Echo Rivera