A few weeks ago, I listened to a speaker who had his audience in stitches by employing a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Eager to add a new trick to my repertoire, I decided to use the same approach in a meeting later the same day.
In that meeting, I shared several insights on customer behavior that my team uncovered using sophisticated analytical techniques. At one point, I referenced myself as a “super nerd” and got a pretty good laugh. I walked out of the room feeling I had mastered the technique. But that feeling did not last for long…
As I walked away with one of my colleagues, he said “You know you really don’t need to do that.” When I asked what he meant, he said, ‘Self-deprecating humor is powerful, just avoid using it in ways that undermine your authority on the subject you are speaking about.’
In his excellent critique of Daniel Pink’s 2009 TED Talk on motivation, blogger Andrew Dlugan summed up the same thing: “When using self-deprecating humor, don’t poke fun at your expertise in a way which weakens your credibility.” In that speech, Dan Pink was using the master metaphor of building a legal case. However, he referenced his poor performance in law school to get a laugh.
Here are a few quick tips for how you should use self-deprecating humor:
Tip 1: Use self-deprecating humor that does not undermine your authority
Revealing flaws that weaken your credibility on the topic you are speaking about is a sign of insecurity. In contrast, revealing other information, such as unrelated past errors in dating judgement, will humanize you and build your connection with your audience.
Tip 2: Embed self-deprecating humor in the dialogue of other characters
By implanting humor in the dialogue of other people in your story, you will get twice as many laughs. Saying “My wife thinks I’m an idiot” is simply not as funny as telling a story where your wife says, “Honey, I love you but you are an idiot!”. Innocent comments made by children are also particularly effective.
Tip 3: Expose the elephant in the room
In the middle of winter, I arranged to meet photographer and creativity expert Joseph DeRuvo, a speaker that I recruited to present at TEDxMillRiver. I told Joseph that I am easy to spot since I’m 6’5″, 205 lbs and I wear a big black parka and black ski cap. Joseph said, “You will have an easier time spotting me since I do not wear shoes.” Joseph won. Though he has some valid reasons for eschewing shoes, his decision to highlight that fact was not only funny but also reinforced his personal brand as an artist and an innovator.
Try It Out!
Test out self-deprecating humor in your next conversation, meeting, or speech. Embed the humor in the dialogue of other characters while telling a story. But, most importantly, steer clear of humor that undermines your personal brand or the perception your expertise on the topic at hand.