Adding Humor to a Grief Presentation: Challenges and Benefits

Every presentation needs variety. Without variety the speaker risks losing his or her audience. Humor is one of the best ways to retain audience attention. Because I’m an experienced speaker, I know this. Still, I struggled to find ways to insert humor into a workshop about growing from grief.

Why did I want to add humor? One reason was the healing power of laughter. Laughter relieves tension and can energize us. I also think people who are grieving need to give themselves permission to laugh. Laughter lightens the mood and helps us to believe in the future again. When people laugh together they come together.

So I reviewed my workshop outline and looked for places to add funny stories. This process made me think of the actor Eddie Albert, who was a close friend of my father-in-law’s. Dad and Eddie were both Minnesota “boys” and attended the University of Minnesota together. Years ago, Eddie called to thank me for a book I had sent him.

During our conversation he mentioned he was giving a talk that afternoon. He said his talk was done, but he hadn’t added humor yet. “You have to entertain in order to educate,” he explained. I have thought of his comment many times.

Adding humor to a talk can be tricky because humor varies from region to region. I am originally from Long Island, New York, and have a New York sense of humor. Would this humor appeal to my audience? The only way to know was to add some funny stories and give the talk.

First, I brainstormed on potential stories I could tell. Second, I made sure the stories fit the points I was making. Third, I reviewed the words I would use to tell the stories — action verbs, unusual word choices, and some of my favorite words. Fourth and finally, I practiced the talk with the stories and determined if the stories added energy.

As Edward P. Bailey, Jr. writes in his book, A Practical Guide for Business Speaking, boosting the speaker’s energy can boost audience energy. “Just act within your own personality,” he advises, and how you behave then you really care.

The first time I gave the talk I gave it to a group of grief professionals. They loved the stories and laughed when I hoped they would. The next time I gave the talk I shorted one story and impulsively added another. Again, the audience members “got” my humor and the stories lightened the mood. Humor can’t be added to all of your talks, but I think it can be added to most.

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