Public Speaking:
Self-Effacing Humor

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Self-effacing humor, or making fun of yourself is quite a contrast. It is a very powerful form of humor that gets its strength from highlighting your weaknesses. It seems that people who have the ability to laugh at themselves in just the right amount during a public speaking engagement are perceived as secure, confident, strong, and likeable.

With this type of humor, a little goes a long way. If you overdo it during a public speaking engagement, you will look like a doomsayer who is always putting yourself down. If you can't bring yourself to use any self-effacing humor, you should learn. I must be candid here. Most people hate to deal with a stuffed shirt. Unfortunately, if you can't poke a little fun at yourself, that is the way you are perceived.

I think the reason self-effacing humor works so well is that weak people feel the need to inflate themselves and powerful people don't. If you have the confidence to tease yourself, you are indirectly sending the message to the audience that you are secure and powerful. Most audiences can see right through speakers who are trying to puff themselves up. It turns them off quickly.

The person who is not afraid to tease him or herself is the one who makes the greatest connection with the audience because everyone in the audience has embarrassed themselves or failed at something at one time or the other. If you use self-effacing humor, the audience knows that you, as the presenter, know how it feels to fail. That is a very powerful magnet.

Katharine Rolfe, President of The Lighten Up Club, takes self-effacing humor one step further. She says, 'I call it self-appreciating humor because it conveys a positive appreciation of ourselves as humans who are simply out there doing our best and bumbling along as we go.' Katharine's organization believes the key to a happy life is the ability to laugh at yourself, for then you are never without a source of amusement.

Unless you are a Don Rickles type presenter (known for his hockey puck teasing style of humor), you should never set yourself up as superior to the audience either socially, financially, or intellectually. You want the audience to accept you as one of them. Let them feel superior to you in some way. Your audience would rather hear about the time you fell on your face, rather than the time you won the race.

That is why self-effacing humor is great during speaking engagements. The audience likes the fact that you openly admit your weaknesses. They laugh, but they still respect you because you are self-confident enough to joke about yourself.

There are any number of things you can tease yourself about. Your physical appearance is good if you are especially tall, or short or fat or bald. Just make sure that the physical appearance is obvious to the audience. If you are disorganized, you could tease yourself about that. If you can't parallel park, you could tease yourself about that. Just about anything will work as long as you are the target.

What you want to avoid teasing about is any subject that has a direct tie to your credibility. For instance, if you were a nuclear control room technician, you would not want to joke about the time you pushed the wrong button. But, if you got fired from your job as a nuclear control room technician for almost pushing the wrong button, then this fact might be a good topic for humor. It could turn into a great topic if you now own a landscaping company or are in some other non-threatening position.

To use self-effacing humor, you don't necessarily have to joke about yourself. You can make fun of your family background, your profession, or anything else that directly relates to you. I tell a story in my presentations about the time my mom came from our very small hometown to visit me in the big city of Washington, D.C. The audience hears about how small Claysville is and that my mom's house is way out in the sticks. We didn't have city water, or city sewerage, or cable TV. I then go on to tell how we took a trip on the Spirit of Washington for a dinner cruise and went sightseeing all over the capital. Here's how the end of the story goes:

"When we got home that evening I was exhausted, so I told mom I was going to bed and that I would see her in the morning. She said, "OK. I'm just going to watch the news and then I'll go to bed." I got up at about 2:00 a.m. and there was mom sitting in front of the TV. Her head was nodding and drooping. I said, "Mom. What are you doing?" She said, "I'm just waiting for the news to be over." Well she would have waited a long time because she was watching . . .CNN 24 hour headline news."

In this story I was not directly teasing myself. I was teasing about my small town background and about the innocent and funny boner my mom pulled when she came to visit.

Former president Ronald Reagan was a master at using self-effacing humor. In his bid for the Presidency in 1980 his age appeared to be his biggest obstacle. He attacked the problem with self-effacing humor. He would joke about his age all the time which turned age into a non-issue. He told a group of reporters once, 'Thomas Jefferson once said, 'One should not worry about chronological age compared to the ability to perform the task.' . . . Ever since Thomas Jefferson told me that I stopped worrying about my age.'

Look for opportunities to tease yourself. This will be one of your most powerful tools to connect with the audience and a subtle way to show your strength.

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