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“I like to break the ice with a joke.”

We hear that all the time. But how does a joke break the ice? Usually jokes thicken the ice because they are neither funny, nor relevant. Sometimes the joke is offensive, turning off substantial portions of the audience before the presentation begins.

We have a pretty strict policy against using jokes to begin a presentation. But if you must use a joke, then make sure it passes the Speechworks Acid Joke Test.

The Speechworks Acid Joke Test

If you want to use a joke as a hook, the joke better meet three criteria. The joke better be:

  • Funny – This first requirement cuts out 95 percent of the proposed “ice breakers/jokes.” These jokes are almost never funny. Usually, they are “groaners” or “eye rollers.”
  • Relevant to the presentation – We almost never hear jokes that are relevant to a presentation. The jokes usually consist of a throwaway line that has nothing to do with the presentation and merely serves to make the listeners wait an extra minute before you begin.
  • Tasteful – The joke must not have a chance of offending a single person in the entire room.

Passing the Speechworks Acid Joke Test Ain’t Easy

It’s extremely difficult to meet all three criteria.

We worked with an engineer who opened a presentation with the following: “I’m going to start by telling you what Elizabeth Taylor tells her husbands: “I won’t keep you long.””

Did the joke meet the three tests?

First, we didn’t think it was that funny. At best, we’d call it “cute.” It’s more of a groaner. But let’s give it a pass on the funny test.

Second, was the joke relevant? Absolutely not. In the presentation, the engineer wanted to persuade the management of a major office building to reengineer the building’s HVAC, and lighting system.

Third, could the joke possibly offend? Probably not. But don’t dismiss this issue too fast. Odd things offend people. What if there were an Elizabeth Taylor fan in the room? Or maybe there was a person in the room who had been divorced multiple times and didn’t find the subject humorous. What if someone was going through a painful divorce? High level decision makers often have had several divorces. Is it worth risking offending someone for a stupid throwaway line that is not really that funny? Of course not.

Unless the joke meets the three criteria, skip the jokes and get on with it.

Joey Asher

Joey AsherJoey Asher has worked with thousands of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book 15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is available now. He is also the author three previous books including “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition”, “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.”