How Can A Speaker Be Funny Across Cultures?

Being funny is hard, being funny across cultures is really hard
Being funny is hard, being funny across cultures is really hard
Image Credit: Gregory Gill

As speakers we all understand just how tricky humor can be to deal with. If we want to make things just a little bit more tricky, we can introduce the challenge of trying to deliver a speech to people who belong to a different culture than we do and all of a sudden the whole humor thing becomes that much more difficult. What’s the best way for a speaker to come across as being funny to different cultures?

Bridging The Gap

What is funny to you or to the types of audience that you normally address may not come across as being funny to an audience from another culture. The good news is that humor is universal; however, jokes are not. As speakers we need to realize that in order to connect with our audience, using humor is a great tool. However, if we choose to use jokes to get our audience to laugh we may be making a serious mistake because the thing that makes a joke funny may be a local thing that won’t translate well. If your audience does not understand the local context of your joke, then it is not going to translate well.

Beware Of Technology

Many of the speeches that we give today involve using some form of technology. The use of technology allows us to deliver speeches that span cultures and deliver the importance of public speaking much easier than ever before. When we deliver a speech live to a group, using humor can be tricky to use correctly. However, when we are delivering a speech virtually to a group, things can get even more tricky. One of the biggest challenges that we face when we do things virtually is that we can’t see our audience. This means that we can’t get any feedback from them about how our speech is going. This means that we can’t tell if our humor is being understood and well received. This requires that we test out any humor that we are going to use in a speech on a test audience before using it in a cross cultural speech.

Slides Help, Slides Hurt

Just about every speech that we give has some slides associated with it. If we are trying to be humorous in our speech, we often try to make our slides humorous. This is where we need to be very careful. We need to take great pains to make sure that our slides are culturally appropriate for our entire audience. Our goal here has to be to make sure that there are no culturally offensive references while at the same time not getting rid of all of the local flavor customization that we’ve made. Your goal has to be that your slides don’t distract from the humor that you are trying to share.

The English That You Use

I only know one language, English, and so every speech that I give is given in English. Thankfully, most of my audiences also speak English and so they can understand me. However, it is my responsibility to be understood. In order to make sure that I am understood, I have to take care and speak slowly. My goal is to make sure that my audience understands the words that I am using in my speech. As speakers we need to understand that different cultures will respond to your speech in different ways – some will let you know immediately what they think of what you are saying and some will become silent. You need to be able to interpret what they are trying to tell you.

What All Of This Means For You

Humor is a powerful tool that every speaker has available to them to deliver the benefits of public speaking. However, when we are making a presentation to a cross cultural audience, we need to be very careful about how we choose to use humor. Although every audience likes to laugh, the jokes that we tell may not come across as funny to a different culture. This is why as speakers we need to be aware of whom we will be talking to and make sure that our humor will work with them.

Technology is a powerful tool that lets us deliver speeches virtually. We can use tools such as Skype and WebEx to reach audiences that belong to a completely different culture than ours. However, the challenge of addressing these audience virtually is that we don’t get any feedback on how our humor is going over. This means that we need to test our our humor before trying to include it in a speech. Slides are an important part of just about every speech that we give. What we need to be careful of is making sure that our slides don’t contain any culturally offensive references. Most of us will be delivering our speeches in English. Although our audience may understand English, it is our responsibility to speak slowly and clearly so that they can grasp the meaning of our words.

Humor is a double edge tool. If we can make our audience laugh, then we’ll have a better chance of being able to connect with them. However, humor is very difficult to bridge across cultures and what may be funny to one group of people may be offensive to another group of people. As speakers we need to be aware of these challenges. We need to take the time to refine our speech’s message and make sure that we can come across as being funny to everyone.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: If you are giving a speech and the audience is not laughing at your humor, what can you do?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

What will make your next speech really stick in your audience’s mind? If you have amazing content and stunning visuals, these are all going to help. However, all too often we don’t have new information that will really rock our audience’s world with the importance of public speaking. Yes, what we are going to be telling them is important; however, we need to find a way to make our words really stand out. It turns out that there is a simple way to make this happen: use some vocal variety. We all understand that delivering a speech in a monotone is never a good idea, but we may not know what we have to do to make things more interesting just by using our voice.

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