A Laughing Matter

By Lorraine Behnan, Communications Consultant and Speaker
From the Dec. 2000 Meetings & Incentive Travel Magazine

Injecting elements of humour into meetings and conferences can have a
seriously positive effect on your company's morale and productivity

Funny Business

Constructive examples that can work wonders at your next meeting

MAGIC OF MUSIC Use live or taped music to establish a fun and energetic atmosphere.

COMIC RELIEF After breaks have a quick quiz, team activity, or surprise guest before launching into the next seminar.

OUT-TAKES AND HAPPY SNAPS Start the day with candid moments from the day before. This can be a slide show or Polaroid poster board.

PARTICIPATION Allow attendees to experience non-threatening interaction in selected presentations. Ask for demonstrative volunteers; there is rarely a shortage in that department.

HUMOUR ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS Give prizes for things that have nothing to do with work and everything to do with acts of humour. Of course the prize should be funny.

JOKE IN THE BOX OR DAILY SMILE Positioned near the door, attendees can pick one as they enter the meeting room - or drop one in.

BABY PICTURE CONTESTS Match the adult to the baby (this can be done billboard-style in the main meeting room). This was hugely successful at a pharmaceutical meeting I attended last year.

PROGRAM SELECTION For every two business seminars offer a session that is for personal development or just for fun.


It's 9:30 in the morning. The room is sombre. We are midway through the plenary session of the conference kick-off and the audience's eyes have already glazed over. The presenter stands rigidly on the platform delivering an interminable slide presentation on the corporation's projected budgets and strategic action plans in a monochromatic voice. Not even the aroma of coffee and pastries is there to stimulate the senses. By 10:15, the session comes to an abrupt close. Polite applause, followed by muttering and shuffling, and we go in search of caffeine and sugar.

Clearly this is not a recipe for humour at work.

I was scheduled to speak later in the day at this conference. While waiting for my turn at the podium, I recalled the hundreds of meetings similar to this one I'd attended during my 15-year career as a professional speaker and pondered how this situation could have had a more positive outcome. Let's take a look at the events leading up to this humour-impaired scenario:

  • The attendees entered a room devoid of atmosphere and levity. Not even an organizer or planner was there to happily meet and greet.
  • No one, including the presenter, took time to prepare an energizing introduction to set the tone of excitement for the day. No reference was made to the fabulous reception that was a hit the night before.
  • The first speaker was internal and unaccustomed to the dynamics of effective presenting, and likely suffered from a severe case of HDD (Humour Deficit Disorder).
  • The presentation was too long and featured no audience interaction. The attention span of the average audience is approximately 50 minutes, after that they start having "personal" fantasies. Enough said.
  • The keynote ended with a simple "thank you" without taking the opportunity to share a few laughs or generate excitement for the next session.

In short, predictability became the theme of the day. The consequence? Instead of building on the momentum from the previous evening, the first meeting of the morning came to a dead stop - and so did the audience.

But business gatherings don't have to be like this. The presence of humour at meetings can contribute to the success of your event and allow the experience to be memorable and pleasurable for all involved. It is known that humour connects people, fosters creativity and productivity, and encourages audiences to be more engaged.

Injecting humour does not mean whoopi-cushions, strolling clowns or happy face name badges. It means atmosphere, comfort, camaraderie and a general lightness of being. The tone is set the moment the first attendee wanders up to the registration desk. To build a meeting that generates a lightness of being starts with every individual on your team. An upbeat communication style and the ability to demonstrate a sense of humour, even through crises, are essential to the overall success of the event.

Make recommendations on how to strategically plan programs for optimum pleasure. As you well know, attendees will always associate positive results with the event's organizers. The daily routines and stresses of the workplace are challenging enough. Incentive conferences, staff meetings and training sessions should be an opportunity to revitalize and renew the company. And the company that laughs together, grows together.

In fact, some companies acknowledge humour as a vital element in fiscal prosperity, according to Dr. Paul McGhee, president of Wilmington, Del.-based The Laughter Remedy. "A rapidly growing number of companies have decided that humour and laughter also make an important contribution to the health and productivity of their organizations," says McGhee. "Many companies now even look for a good sense of humour when hiring."

As meeting planners, you can suggest creative and playful ideas that will transform the atmosphere of meetings with programs that include stimulating decor, invigorating transition music, appropriate presentation placement and a diversified selection of sessions and speakers.

Take My Speaker . . .

No doubt, choosing the right speakers is arguably a key component to a successful conference or meeting. It's crucial to strategically select and position speakers. Don't just research their topics but investigate their style and content. An eloquent and dynamic speaker can address poignant issues and still be lighthearted.

Let's face it, if speakers do not engage the audience and put them in a receptive mood, all the pearls of information in the world may be wasted. Any workplace, including meetings and conferences, needs to balance the lectures with the laughter.

The choice of dinner speaker is also crucial. Dining is a time of relaxation, net-working and bonding. Keep the after-dinner speeches light and lively and give the participants a reprieve from slide shows. Allow the audience to happily digest their meals by choosing entertaining speakers and topics.

As a guest speaker once at an incentive meeting for a manufacturing company, I was invited to join a table to see a dinner presentation. The speaker was excellent, and though the presentation was compelling, it was also disturbing. An attendee seated beside me remarked how the speaker had put him off his meal. In essence, the atmosphere in the hall went from lively to gloomy. The speaker was dynamic and the content was excellent, but the placement in the program was inappropriate.

Open with a dynamic keynote presenter whose contagious energy will set the tone for the meeting. Close with an inspirational speaker who will ensure that everyone will leave rejuvenated.

Your Lightness of Being

While the choice of speaker can do much to lighten up the mood of the meeting, your part, as the meeting maestro, is also crucial. How you interact with the speaker can also enhance the buoyancy of the presentation. I cannot overstate the value of this supportive role. From a congenial tone to the smooth flow of technical requirements, all contribute to the success of the speaker's presentation by keeping the mood light and inspiring.

Like a theatrical stage manager, no matter what obstacles or crisis may erupt, you must always wear the mask of control, composure and confidence. A warm smile, enthusiastic vocal tone and a healthy sense of humour are all part of setting the stage for an exhilarating meeting.

I have met planners whose positive attitudes and buoyant personalities have put me at ease. Yes, even professional speakers need enlightenment before they speak. The more relaxed the atmosphere, the more confident the planner will be. In turn, the audience will be more receptive and the presentation will be better. If the planner is jittery and the audience is irritable, then the speaker is at a disadvantage.

When the expectations are high and the planning has been hectic, most planners admit it may be difficult to approach a big event with a sense of humour. Here are 10 ways you can cultivate and nurture your own lightness of being:

  • Start the day with music that invigorates you, either at home or in your hotel room.
  • Visualize the positive outcome of the day's events, not the impending challenges.
  • Consciously adopt an enthusiastic and positive demeanour.
  • Humour is self-generating when shared with others. Relate an anecdote from the previous day to encourage your associates to start the day with laughter.
  • In a crisis situation, exaggerate the worst-case scenario to put the situation in perspective. Imagine you are in a "Seinfeld" or "Mr. Bean" episode, or any other sitcom that you enjoy.
  • Avoid engaging in negative talk among your group - this is never productive and can do great damage.
  • Plan a reward for yourself after the event. Visualize this reward whenever you feel your stress levels rise.
  • Whenever stress levels go up, recall one of your life's funniest moments that always makes you laugh on demand.
  • Find an opportunity to take a few moments to be alone and to breathe, re-group and think happy thoughts - like the ecstasy you will experience at the end of the day.
  • Review the achievements and lighter side of the day as you drift off into a well-deserved and deep sleep.

How do you know if you have successfully incorporated humour at your meetings? The proof is in the attitude of the attendees. If you can see the smiles on their faces, if the energy is palpable and if the complaints are few, you have done your job. Remember, laughter is contagious - pass it on.

 ©2005 ExpressionLab Communications