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Mr. Bill's Law: "If anything bad can happen to you, then stay way from me, because I'll probably get it too."

Mr. Bill, Saturday Night Live

Chapter 9 Wake 'em Up  Business Presentations


Theory of Relevance

Are you afraid of bombing when you get up in front of a group? You don't have to be. With proper material selection, a few prepared comments in case of unexpected problems, and attention to time, worries about bombing can be virtually eliminated. Also remember one key point that Mike McKinley, past president of the National Speakers Association, told me: "The audience doesn't know your script. If you make a minor mistake, so what. Just keep on talking."

When you want to get a message across using humor, there is one overriding principle that will give you the greatest chance of success along with the least chance of failure. If you make all your attempts at humor relevant to your presentation, you get an automatic excuse from your mother if your humor is not all that funny. If your humor is received as funny, so much the better; but if it isn't, at least you made your point. Audiences will be much more tolerant if the humor ties into the subject at hand.

At social functions, relevance is not as critical as it is in serious business settings. If you stray off the main topic just for fun, it's no big deal. However, if you are still a little apprehensive about your humor skills in a presentation, the theory of relevance will always keep you safe. Even if your delivery is not great at this point, the proper selection of material will carry you a long way. You must consider the nature of the audience, your personality and style, and the nature of the subject.

If you keep the above principle of relevance in mind, you should never have to suffer the embarrassment of your humor bombing out.

Humor Risk
I'll be the first to admit that using humor carries a certain amount of risk. Most people believe, however, that the benefits of humor far exceed the risk. The risk comes in two forms. The first is in using inappropriate humor that offends. The second is using humor that is not funny.

If you follow the guidelines in Chapter 7, you should be able to minimize any risk of offending. I say minimize, because you can never please everyone. Most old timers in the humor field claim that 2 percent of any audience is there to be offended. Even if you don't use humor at all, you are likely to say something that will not sit well with someone. Some people get up in the morning and they are not happy unless they get offended. Poor souls. Don't let these people worry you. It's their problem, not yours.

Now, when it comes to the risk involved in not being funny, that is your problem. You need to understand that your risk changes depending on your position relative the group you are addressing. Such risk is in indirect proportion to your relative status.

Let's say you are the CEO of XYA Corporation and you are addressing your employees. You can tell just about any dumb joke (as long as it's not offensive) and get away with it. In the short run, it probably won't affect your career too much either way. I say in the short run because being a dork in front of your employees over a long period of time could affect their perception of you as a competent leader.

Now, let's play Star Trek and beam you to the lectern of a national conference where the audience is comprised of other CEOs and board members in your industry. The humor risk dynamics change quickly. If you make the same dumb mistakes that you did in front of your employees, you may be jeopardizing the image of your company. At the very least, you are making yourself look foolish. This could affect your future employability should you be forced back on the job market. It could also affect your negotiating power should you be involved in some type of merger or co-venture.

If you are an employee of a company and you are presenting to your superiors, your humor risk is naturally higher than when presenting to subordinates. Your promotability is now on the line. I'm certainly not trying to discourage you from using humor. You just need to know when you can be bolder and when you must be more conservative.

When presenting to a group of your peers, your risk is relatively low, but beprepared for the possibility of audience members giving you a hard time. Make an extra effort to make them feel superior. You could say, I'm not sure why I was picked to make this presentation because I know many of you have much more expertise in this topic, but there are certain things I discovered that I thought you might like to know about . . .

To reduce risk, regardless of your status, use humor only to make or reinforce a point. Also keep in mind what you learned about delivery in Chapter 8. Use the fewest words and least amount of time to get to the punch line.

Saver Lines
Saver Lines are what you say when your supposedly humorous statement does not get a laugh. You shouldn't be ashamed to have to use saver lines. The top comedians in the world need them and some purposely make mistakes so they can get a laugh from the saver line. Johnny Carson was an expert at this. After a poor response to a joke he would say a comically insulting line like, "May an aroused herd of Yaks make an everlasting commitment to your sister" or "This is the kind of crowd that would watch Bambi through a sniper scope."

When it comes to saver lines there are two schools of thought:

The First School of Thought is used more by comics and speakers who use a very high percentage of humor. This method is most effective when a speaker shows a high confidence level and is fairly experienced. Say a witty, mildly attacking line to force them to laugh after they didn't laugh at your joke or one-liner.
 Do any of you out there speak English?

 I've got a book for sale outside that explains these jokes. You may want to pick up a copy.

 (If one person is laughing) Will you be kind enough to run around the room so it looks like everyone is having fun?

 You have marvelous self-control.

 I've got 20 more bad jokes just like that one and no one gets out until you start laughing.

 [Pick out a well-known person in the crowd] Joe that's the last time I'm using one of your jokes.

 I know you're out there, I can hear you breathing.

 I'm not going to wait forever for you.

 I was waiting on you a little on that one.

 That was a Polaroid joke. It takes one minute to get it.

 Everyone doesn't have to be funny all the time and I just proved it.

The Second School of Thought is used by less experienced speakers

and speakers who don't use much humor anyway.

If you don't use a high percentage of humor, the audience may not realize what you said was meant to be funny. All you have to do is keep right on talking and delivering your message (do give them that short pause we talked about to give them a chance to laugh). As long as your humor is making a point, you will be forgiven if it is not tremendously funny.

Trick (advanced technique): Purposely set up a mistake or marginally funny joke so you can use a saver line.

Trick: If no one laughs, you laugh. Then they think they are stupid because they didn't laugh. Then they laugh.

Pre-Planned Ad-Libs
Another way to keep from bombing is to always "expect the unexpected." I touched on this briefly in the section on timing. Canned or pre-planned ad-libs are pre-written responses to unexpected happenings or mistakes that occur during a presentation, i.e., microphone squeals, projection bulb burns out, you say the wrong thing, etc. Prepared ad-libs keep you mentally ready so you won't fumble for words when problems come up in a presentation. Prepared ad-libs actually do more than just save you. They make you look tremendously polished.

Here's the continuum: A bad presenter will stammer around when a problem occurs. A ZZZZZs person will say nothing and try to ignore the problem. A great NO ZZZZZs presenter will make a witty comment that appears to be spontaneous.

This is especially important when you make a big mistake during a presentation. You should be the first one to joke about it. If you do, the chances are that your mistake will immediately become a nonissue, or a source of good-natured teasing later. If you don't joke about or at least acknowledge your gaffe, the audience will think poorly of you. There is a good chance they will be joking about you later behind your back or someone could start to heckle you and hold your feet to the fire over the mistake. At this point, you are going to have an uphill battle explaining away the mistake.

In truth, most of the problems that come up during presentations can be expected. All you have to do is write or search out a witty comment for each type of problem you think may occur. Go over your list before each presentation and soon you will have many of these lines ready to go instantly when needed.

NO ZZZZZs presenters are just waiting for a loud noise or for someone to yawn, or cough, or go to the bathroom, or write something down or for anything to happen so one of these lines can be used.

The audience believes you are originating humor on the spot. You are just quickly recalling pre-planned responses. Ad-libs impress listeners more than prepared jokes and they do not have to be as funny to get good laughter.

Only work on one or two responses from each category until your experience level increases. If you try to remember too many, you will hesitate when the time comes to ad-lib and ruin the effect.

I've included several common problems along with their possible responses. I've also included space for you to jot down some problems that you typically encounter. You can create some of your own canned ad-libs to deal with them.

(substitute name of actual item)

 That item must have been nervous.

 I must be so boring that item tried to commit suicide.

 I guess that item disagreed with my last point.

 Is that the signal that I have talked too long?

 I hope my point hits as hard as that item just did.

 [Look upwards and hold your hands as if you were praying] I swear I didn't make up that last point.

 If it wasn't for gravity, that would never have happened.

 I'm going to pretend that didn't happen.

 (Like Clint Eastwood) Go ahead. BREAK my day.

 I was just trying to wake you up.

 Humor can't fix everything.

 I would fix this, but the only thing I learned in shop class was how to call for estimates.

 That's what I get for buying this at a flea market.

 I'll fix this right up. Just give me a hammer.

 Does anyone have some SuperGlue?

 Does anyone have a dollar bill on them? [If possible, go into the audience in search of a dollar bill apparently to fix the broken item.] It won't fix this, but maybe I can bribe someone to get me another one.

 We really didn't need that [with sarcasm] MAJOR PORTION OF MY PRESENTATION did we? All great speakers have a plan. Unfortunately, I don't. No. I'm just kidding [go to alternate plan and you had better have one!]

 I know it's time for a BREAK, but this is ridiculous.

 This item just took a break so why don't we take one too. Let's resume at . . .

 Just when I was smokin', this darn thing gets broken. Let's [take a break, alternate plan, etc.]

 I guess I'll have to donate a portion of my fee to the electric company.

 The caterer will be here shortly with carrots for everyone.

 I guess God tried to hit me with a lightning bolt, but hit your electric box instead.

 I hope my talk hasn't left you in the dark.

 It appears that I need to shed some more light on this subject.

 Since you're all sleeping anyway, I decided to turn off the lights.

 This is carrying energy conservation too far.

 This is the portion of my presentation where I do my elephant impression.

 That is a result of many years of inhaling helium.

 I'll bet you never heard anyone clear their throat like that before.

 Don't be alarmed. This is only a test.

 Don't worry. I pass out earplugs at all my talks. If I don't, someone else will.

 If you think that's bad, wait until I start singing.

 Is there an ear, nose, and throat specialist in the crowd? You'll have plenty of business tonight if this keeps up.

 The microphone and I are squealing with delight because we are both happy to be here.

 For those of you who can still hear, welcome.

 "Squeal" comes from the Latin word "Squel-en" which means: You will look like a big dummy before you start your talk.

Overriding principle according to Nathan Hale I will only regret it, if I have but one bulb to lose for my audience.

 This is the first time I have been brighter than my equipment.

 I don't understand. I left this thing on day and night for six days to make sure the bulb worked.

 [Talk to projector lovingly while patting it] Now, don't be shy. These nice people really want to see you. [Sternly] And so do I.

 [Wave hand in front of the lens] Wake up in there! Yoo Hoo. Wake up!

 I have a joke. How many projectors does it take to mess up one presentation?

 Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me a light bulb."

 Does anyone happen to have a [long description, recited quickly] quartz, two-prong, Model 921 EYB, 125-Volt, 250-watt overhead projector lamp on them?

 These overheads/slides are a little darker than I expected.

 [Refer to blank screen] Can anyone see this in the back or front or anywhere?

 [Refer to blank screen] Don't you enjoy the vivid colors of my visuals?

 [Pretend to read a service tag] Last serviced by Thomas Edison.

 This slide looks good no matter how you look at it.

 You may want to stand on your heads for this one.

 I'll get another one; this one must be defective.

 I have reversed my position on this issue.

 I really want you to try to understand my position on this.

 Maybe if I turn the screen over, you'll be able to see this one better.

 It was really difficult to take this picture.

 If this slide doesn't confuse you, then you'll love the rest of my presentation.

 This is my favorite slide and I didn't want anyone else to see it.

 This slide holds a very special position in my carousel.

 This is the dry part of my presentation.

 I'm out of ink. I'll be back in a wink. ("K" words are funny.)

 I wish I'd bought the extended warranty on this.

 Does anyone know where I can get this serviced?

 Old speakers never die. Their highlighter just fades off into the sunset.

 No comment.

[Make one of these comments then go smoothly to your next document or visual. If you have a break coming up, tell the audience you will find it then.]

 My dog ate my visual/paper, etc.

 I had it here just a month ago.

 Just give me a few hours. I'll find it.

 [Pull out any piece of paper. Pretend it is a note to you.] Dear (your name) I borrowed that (visual/paper etc.). I knew you wouldn't mind. Signed (college roommate or the name of an individual, not in attendance, who is significant to the group).

 Is there a magician in the house that can make my (visual/paper etc.) reappear?

 I guess you are all wondering why I called you here?


 I hope you like my presentation, but you'll have to come to another room to hear it.

 [Directed toward the speaker in the room as an apology for interrupting] Let's have a big hand for your speaker.

 I think everyone here except me is in the wrong room.

 I hope I didn't keep you waiting long.

 Is this where I sign up for squash lessons?

 I just stopped in to let you know that, if you need me, I'll be in the (conference room/Jefferson Room etc.)

 I just thought I'd drop in to say "Hi!"

 Did someone here order a pizza?


 As Mark Twain once said, "I don't give a damn for a man that can spell a word only one way."

 Oh! I apologize. My word processor had a virus.

 That is the Swahili/pig Latin spelling.

 That was put in there to test you.

 I knew I shouldn't have had my dog proofread this.

 I also do magic tricks.

 It took years of finishing school to learn to do that.

 I had a good trip. See you next fall.

 I'm the only speaker who can fall UP a set of steps.

 Is there a doctor in the house? [Say this in a playful manner so you don't alarm the audience.]

 All that money I spent at Arthur Murray's was a waste.

 OK. Who planted the banana peel?

 I used to be too humble to stumble.

 Give me an inch and I'll take a fall.

 [Sing] Blow the man down matey, blow the man down.


God must be throwing lightning bolts at me.

 I always like to start off with a bang.

 I'm flattered. You ordered fireworks for me.

 Was that a real noise or was it Memorex?

This is a special category because there is a real physical anger involved. Whether you like it or not, you are in charge of the calm evacuation of the room. You should already know where the exits are located, and have a plan in mind for an orderly exit. You must stay absolutely calm. The audience will take their cues from you. If you sprint off the stage screaming, you will be morally responsible for someone getting crushed in the ensuing stampede.

I keep the following comments in mind at all times:

[Calmly] Well it looks like it's time to take a break whether we need one or not. Please stay seated. It's probably a false alarm, but as a precaution we will go outside and see what is happening. Are there any disabled persons who may have a difficult time moving toward the exit (you should know this already in smaller crowds)? One person on either side should assist them. [Now direct the crowd, by rows if necessary, to calmly move toward the emergency exits].

To recite the above directions calmly takes about 30 well-spent seconds. After returning to the presentation room, and if nothing really serious occurred, you can use humorous ad-libs to regain the group's attention.

 Boy, I knew I had a hot topic but this is ridiculous.

 I must really be a hot speaker to set off the fire alarm.

 "I feel like the javelin thrower who won the toss and elected to receive." George Bush

 This (broken or malfunctioning item) must have been made by (competing company). Note: Be careful with this one. You might want to work for this competing company someday.

 For an encore ladies and gentlemen I will now juggle chain saws. I think it would be easier than being up here right now.

Think up some problems that are specific to the presentations you do and list them below. Then try to think up witty responses to go with them.

My prepared one liners:


My One Liner:


My One Liner:


My One Liner:


My One Liner:


My One Liner:

The overriding principle here is never ignore that which is obvious to the audience. This shows the audience that you are aware and interested in them and that you are strong and secure enough to mention the problem.

Sometimes you can even take advantage of a situation without doing any fancy ad-libbing. A few years back I was introducing a seminar leader at a hotel in Columbia, Maryland. As soon as I started, a maintenance person came through a door that was directly behind the dais and started fiddling with the thermostat. I could see all the eyes of the audience members looking at him not me. I knew there was no sense in trying to compete with this distraction so I decided to take advantage of it.

I stopped the intro and walked over to the maintenance person and asked him to read the introduction. Without missing a beat he did so, and quite well I might add. The audience went nuts and the seminar leader came on to a very lively audience. By acknowledging what the audience was thinking about, the introduction was far better than the planned version would have been.

Acknowledgments to Tough Situations
There will come a time when you will either be in front of a hostile audience or a hostile question will pop up during a relatively calm presentation. This is a tough situation at best and you have to handle it with kid gloves. Humor can save the day and maybe even help you become president.

When a hostile situation arises, you have to be especially careful that you don't antagonize the questioner or group further by making a flippant response. You can use humor to distract the antagonism, but you should always make a serious reply to the question at hand.

Let's say you are speaking at a stockholder's meeting and you are telling them about all the wonderful new products that are coming out. Then someone yells out, "What about the supreme turkey of a widget you came out with last year?" Now you are on the spot. If you ignore the question you will look like you are hiding. If you use a comeback that attacks the questioner or makes fun of him or her you will turn the rest of the group against you. So what do you do? Use a prepared one-liner or some mildly amusing admission of guilt and then immediately go into a serious response to the question.

We are donating all those widgets to the Navy because they have a shortage of boat anchors this year [pause for laughter]. But, seriously folks, based on all the available research we had at our disposal the widget looked like it would be a good solid seller for us. Then when the gizmo industry took a big hit, we no longer had a market for the widgets.

Then get back to your agenda.

If you expect to be in a position like the above speaker, try to anticipate the hostile questions that could arise and prepare responses for them. You might not be able to anticipate all the questions that could come up, but by preparing in advance you are giving yourself an infinitely better chance of responding correctly. Another good resource is What to Say When . . . You're hat to Say When . . . You're Dyin' on The Platform Dyin' on The Platform by Lilly Walters.

One of the most famous examples of good preparation came during Ronald Reagan's 1984 bid for reelection. Reagan made a very poor showing as he stumbled through his first debate with the democratic challenger, Walter Mondale. The media jumped on this and Reagan's age and possible senility became a big issue until about two-thirds of the way through his second televised debate with Mondale.

A question was posed to the president that ask him if he was concerned about how his age would affect his ability to do the job. Reagan's prepared two-line response virtually nailed the lid on Mondale's coffin and squelched the age issue even though he was four years older than he was in the last election. He said, "I'm not going to inject the issue of age into this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political gain my opponent's youth and inexperience." Some say this comment won him his second term of office. That's the power of preparation.

Watch Your Clock So They Don't Watch Theirs
One of the quickest ways to bomb is to go overtime or try to stuff too much information in too little time. I have done talks here I was a big hero at 30 minutes and a bum at 42 minutes. One time I even got in trouble with the meeting planner. She was sitting in the front row laughing the whole time then afterwards said, "You went too long." OUCH!!

When that incident happened, I was feeling the pressure to fill up the time I had been booked for. That attitude is a mistake because it pays no attention to how the audience is feeling. Now, I counsel the meeting planner to let me be the judge of when to quit. Most open-minded planners will go along with me on this.

They understand that I'm not trying to be lazy and quit early. I am trying to give their audience the best presentation they can handle under the circumstances.

If the audience is really great, it sometimes makes you want to go overtime because things are going so well. Don't do it. Leave them wanting more and you will always be welcome back. If you are susceptible to losing track of time, recruit someone or have the meeting planner assign someone to stand in the back of the room and signal you when five minutes (or whatever length of time suits you) is left.

One of the worst things you can do is to try to fit all your material in a shortened time period by speaking faster. The audience won't be able to absorb it anyway and you'll look foolish besides. I regularly cut material without missing a beat when my time gets shortened or the audience is exhausted because of a long day or evening. To do this without becoming flustered takes a little preparation and a few tricks up your sleeve.

The first thing I do to make things easy on myself is to prepare a talk that is five to ten minutes shorter than the allotted time period. Rarely is your time ever lengthened, but it is routinely shortened. Even when it is not shortened it is shortened. If you are supposed to go on at 1:00 p.m., you will very seldom actually start talking until 1:10 p.m. People take time to get seated, then you have a few announcements, and then your introduction, etc., etc., etc. If you have allowed for these delays, you don't have to cut any material at all.

When your time gets cut more than 10 minutes, you must take appropriate pre-planned actions. I rank my material in order of importance to that group. I know. I know. It all should be important, but there is always something that is more important than something else for a given group. If you have studied them enough in your pre-program research, you should have less trouble deciding what material could be cut in case you are asked to shorten your talk. After you have ranked your material for a particular talk, write down how much time each segment takes so that you'll know how much time you save by cutting a particular chunk of material.

The other supertrick I use when I have a long story to tell is to have a quotation ready that makes the same point as the story. If my time is cut, I simply use the quote instead of the story and save several minutes.

Keep a clock on stage with you that you can glance at to keep yourself on track. Or, get a speaker timer that you wear like a pager that vibrates to let you know time is almost up. There are two schools of thought about looking at your watch while on stage. I'll give them to you and you decide which is right. The first school of thought is that you should never look at your watch while on stage because it will cause the audience members to start looking at their watches. The second school of thought is that you should look at your watch to let the audience members know that you are aware of time. This supposedly allows them to listen to you rather than worry if you are going to go too long.

I don't know which one of these schools is right, so I simply make a statement to the audience sometime during the talk (usually the beginning or end) that I will not go overtime. Then I keep track of time with my hidden timer on stage.

To recap, keep your humor relevant to the points you are trying to make. Have a few saver lines ready to go and prepare responses for "expected," unexpected occurrences. And keep track of time. If you do these things, you will never have to worry about bombs falling on your NO ZZZZZs presentation.

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