When was the last time you heard a really funny joke? Could you tell it to an audience right now?
Probably not. In fact, you may not even be able to remember the topic of the joke, much less the punchline. And therein lies a mystery.
“I’m going to remember that one!” No, you probably won’t.
The use of humor in public speaking has always been a conundrum for presenters. Sure, everyone wants to start off with a funny joke, then keep the audience laughing throughout the talk. Hundreds of thousands of articles and blog posts have been written to tell you how.
But it seems to come down to whether you’ve got it — or you don’t. Most of us don’t. Humor is not easily taught, and public speaking professionals are quick to recommend something else to the unfunny majority, perhaps a “gripping description of a problem facing the audience.”
Riffing off Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign may seem like an obvious opener for this stock photo model, but hilarity comes down to timing and talent, not facial hair.
More to the point: No matter how you begin your presentation, it will almost certainly be more memorable than a joke.
Why Can’t I Remember a Joke?
For a refresher on what makes memories, well, memorable, re-read our blog post, “The Neuroscience of Stickiness.”
Each time you refresh a memory, your brain strengthens synapses (the electrical nodes connecting two nerve cells) that encode that piece of knowledge into a file your brain can retrieve at will. If this is the second time you’ve read that particular blog, more of it will be encoded into your long-term memory. If you read about neuroscience or memory regularly, you’ve already constructed a knowledge framework of multiple synapses pertaining to those topics, which will make remembering our little blog even easier.
As I wrote last year: “When you stimulate different pathways surrounding the same memory — through repetition, studying, storytelling, association with other memories, or learning something through multiple sensory pathways (say, visually and aurally, like during a PowerPoint presentation) — you are actually constructing a cellular pathway. Each long-term memory physically changes your brain.”
Your memories are an elaborate, physical framework — a story — onto which you can hang bits of new knowledge for easy retrieval. For instance, why jokes are funny — but not memorable.
“Really great jokes,” explains Natalie Angier, “work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them.”
A joke is funny because it connects two otherwise unrelated bundles of synapse and memory suddenly and surprisingly. From the front page of Reddit this morning:
“What do you call a stolen Tesla?”
If you’re a typical Redditor, your historical pet peeve is that Thomas Edison cynically co-opted Nikolai Tesla’s inventions, repackaged them, and sold them off for personal profit. Edison became one of the world’s richest men, while Tesla died impoverished and alone, except for his beloved pigeon. That’s synaptic bundle “A.”
If you’re a typical person, you know someone who has had their car stolen, which remains a low-intensity worry you confront every day when you lock your car. You probably also know that Tesla is a brand of luxury automobile. That’s synaptic bundle “B.”
In just nine words, those two synaptic bundles came crashing together in your head, hopefully eliciting a laugh, or at least a smirk. In a couple of hours, without some sort of reinforcement — retelling the joke, or writing it down, or hearing it again at the water cooler — those bundles will detach, and you’ll forget all about it.
(Although, now that I’ve dissected the poor joke and turned it into a long, unfunny explanation, it will be easier to remember — more on that in the next section.)
“Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”
Why Do Stories Make Jokes More Memorable?
This stock photo model understands that presentations must be memorable, not just entertaining. Which is why he’s using the power of story to make the other models laugh.”
If you watch stand-up comedy, you’ll notice that most comedians employ two types of jokes. First, a barrage of one-liners for easy laughs, which are then usually strung together in the context of a longer story. Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix specials are great examples. You might not remember many of his one-liners, but you probably do recall that he met O.J. Simpson on four different occasions. Also, that you were doubled over in laughter.
Jokes told as stories work with your brain on several levels. Instead of just slapping two synaptic bundles together for a quick laugh, it connects them piece by piece, usually for a big reveal at the end. This does three things.
First, it activates mirror neurons, by presenting a protagonist, in this case Chappelle, and putting you in his shoes. You are part of his journey as a young comedian who idolized Simpson the football player, and was disappointed and troubled by the idea that he was also a murderer. Those neurons help solidify the memory.
Second, a good story weaves disconnected neural bundles together slowly, which ingrains those connections more firmly in the audience’s long-term memory. If you’re old enough to understand Chappelle’s extended joke, you already had several bundles devoted to O.J. Simpson: His football career, the Airplane movies, the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, the Ford Bronco, the murder trial and acquittal.
Third, it makes you anticipate the big reveal at the end. Chappelle introduces the story as “The four times I met O.J. Simpson.” You know exactly when the punchline is coming. [SPOILER ALERT] At the end of the special, when he seems to finish the show without completing the story, the audience’s brain goes on high alert, which kicks in the Zeigarnik Effect.
This is the tendency for people to remember things that are unfinished. You’ve probably used this in your own presentations, by introducing a new idea right before the lunch break. That way, your audience will be working on the unresolved problem subconsciously while they eat, priming them to pay attention when they return — and remember the topic for the next several weeks.
What Does This Mean for the Average Presenter?
The problem with using Dave Chappelle as a public speaking teaching moment is that he’s a comic genius, and you probably aren’t. But, if you do have a flair for comedy, and want to incorporate it into your presentations more memorably, there are some actionable takeaways.
- Use one-liners to keep the audience awake and entertained, sure. But don’t rely on them to illustrate the main points of your presentation. The human brain is designed to forget them.
- Make the joke relevant to both the topic and the audience. You aren’t trying to shock their synaptic bundles with a surprising revelation. You want to gently bring two disparate ideas together slowly, in ways that make sense within established frameworks of knowledge, to create a durable memory.
- Introduce the joke early on, then weave it throughout the speech or seminar. The promise of a punchline at the end will keep people paying attention, and etch the topic more deeply into their long-term memory.
- Create a protagonist to whom your audience can relate. Mirror neurons make memories that last.
- Finally, have fun. If you’re nervous about using humor, don’t force yourself! There are lots of other ways to make your presentations entertaining, memorable, and actionable.