As we reel from recent events, wordsmiths and cartoonists wonder at the pitfalls we face. It has become harder to speak out fearlessly and all the more so if, like me, you spice your communication with humour.
What price ‘free speech?’
As one whose living comes from words, both spoken and written, the terrorist attacks are disturbing. Not just in Paris; there are many journalists imprisoned or murdered for doing their job. Australian Peter Greste is just one who has been incarcerated on flimsy charges. Write letters, sign petitions, pray for his freedom. ‘All that is needed for evil to flourish is for good men [people] to do [say] nothing.‘ (Attributed to Edmund Burke.)
Are private words safe?
We dash off a comment on FaceBook or Twitter and it’s out there, fair game. But not if a quick, private email might be hacked and circulated. A respected professor of literature Barry Spurr resigned from his job at the University of Sydney because leaked emails (a ‘whimsical game’ with a friend) were dubbed racist. Big Brother won. A growing chorus urges the Australian government to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Under 18C it is unlawful for a person to commit an act, in the form of words, sounds, images or writing, (all part of my tools of trade!) that is “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people”. This “offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin” means many of the cartoons Charlie Hebdo freely published in France would fall foul of the law in Australia. Sad.
Let’s lighten up
There’s an old joke: “Do I have to inject humour into a speech?” “Only if you want to be paid.” People warm to humour, if well handled. There are pitfalls. Excerpts from my book Speak Out-Don’t Freak Out give tips to add safe humour to presentations. (A quick 90-minute read to pep you before a presentation; it’s available on Amazon or hard copy. Or email me for training or one-on-one coaching.)
Do we NEED to be funny?
Where relevant, humour can be a big audience winner. Jokes are safest if turned on oneself, perhaps relating a mishap or embarrassing situation. People respond to your openness. Don’t embarrass other people. Beware especially of racism, profanity, or stamping on religious and political corns. Test those hilarious jokes on the family over breakfast to discover just how effective they are. If you do upset anyone, have the courage and grace to apologise. How do we give birth to a healthy joke? First don’t announce it’s on the way! Dress it subtly, let it grow unawares. Curb that expectant grin. Pause for emphasis before the delivery, then wait a moment for listeners to register and laugh. It will be stillborn if you rush on before they have time to react. If a joke does miscarry, carry on regardless.
But be yourself
Opening with a joke, especially if well-chosen and to the point, can be brilliantly effective. However it is not essential, especially if joke-telling is contrary to your personal style. If it crashes like a bombed plane, both speaker and listeners may be tempted to go home early. A self-deprecating anecdote usually is better digested than a canned or ancient, recycled joke. Audiences appreciate original humour directed towards oneself, are repelled when it denigrates a defenceless victim. If your take-off is smooth the rest of the flight usually flows with fewer bumps. Navigate your course with a clear focus on the horizon – your audience – rather than dwell inward on your own queasy stomach and sensitive ego. Most fears are self-centred. Keep looking out! And, in this climate, we can only keep looking up!