I put together a Presentation Tip every day on Twitter. My latest is, “Be careful of jokes – they might backfire. You need to know your audience really well.”
I’ve been reading “Watching The English: The Hidden Rules Of English Behaviour” by Kate Fox. Fox is an anthropologist who has studied very carefully English mores and behaviour. She is masterly in observing how we English operate.
One of her many fascinating observations is how frequently we use humour and in particular, irony and understatement. Irony’s used as a socially bonding technique as it is a defence mechanism. It is so woven into the fabric of our language that people from other cultures can get very confused. Fox cites the example of Americans who complain they never know when the English are joking. As you can imagine, it’s particularly difficult and challenging if a £millions deal is being negotiated between people of different cultures.
Fox tells us that it’s part of an “Importance Of Not Being Ernest” attitude. When English people watch the Oscars and see tearful stars wearing their hearts on their sleeves, they feel uncomfortable. They get embarrassed. They use irony to relieve the discomfort. Note that English stars, when presenting tend to either give something low key and brief or light and humorous.
A few years ago, I had a client who was French. He was MD of a European company, subsidiary to a US firm. His senior team came from across Europe and everyone’s second language was English. He felt secure because like him, everyone else whether from Poland, Italy or Spain was adapting their style of communication.
However, he had just received news that filled him with excitement and not a little dread. He had been appointed by the Vice President of his company in the States to head up the English subsidiary. He knew that potentially he could be shut out of communication with his team. He would miss the jokes, the ironic references, the understatement even though he’d lived in the UK for 5 years. He knew that humour is a great motivator. He would need to learn how now especially since his company was in trouble and he’d been appointed to save it. He felt at a complete disadvantage.
Another client of mine an engineer, gives presentations to the excellently-educated, multi-lingual Danish. She is helping to restructure the company so it’s vital that everyone understands and supports her intentions. She prefers however to present complex processes and procedures in pictures and diagrams. She finds the message gets remembered and retained in a much more compelling and vivid way.
Jokes can divide your audience, especially if you are presenting to people from other cultures. Be especially careful of irony since your audience may not be able to follow and get confused.