And out they go, on a limb as always, out go the serious presenters who end up being the only ones chortling at their own jokes. The day before the event (it is easier to remember), they rush to the web for recycled jokes, or they try out the latest joke heard in a bar or at the canteen. Jokes often have sexual, religious, or racial connotations. Upon hearing these, many instantly move from a neutral attitude to one of dislike. Some may even get up and leave. I witnessed such disastrous joke-telling at an international gathering of scientists.
Some stay away from risky jokes and instead try self-deprecating jokes; after all, it’s ok to laugh at yourself, is it not? “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, or it might have been… had you been able to skip my talk and run to the beautiful beach in front of this hotel.” or ” I’m delighted to be the one who has been designated to help you sleep after today’s copious lunch. So I’ll do my best to make this talk as boring as I possibly can. Could we have the lights down now, please? Thank you very much.” The audience did not come to attend your talk expecting to be bored! Your self-deprecating humor à la John Cleese will be translated by the audience as follows: “His slides are boring. He has not even bothered to rehearse his talk at all. He really doesn’t enjoy presenting to us, but he’s doing it because he has to.”
Last but not least, Starting a talk with a joke sets the tone for the presentation. People will expect more of the same. But then again, you will not deliver on the promises set from your entertaining start; after all, yours is a scientific presentation!
In short, avoid jokes altogether at the start of your talk, even cartoons that may be funny. A play on word requires a good understanding of English. Idiomatic expressions, or culture specific jokes are beyond the level of comprehension of scientists with English as a second language or from different cultural backgrounds.
To conclude, If you want the audience to relax at the very start of your talk, do what works 100% of the time: Face the audience, keep silent, and SMILE .