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Set the Stage for a Little Laughter

There’s a reason radio stations still tout their “morning man.” The main players in morning drive radio are, in fact, still men.

There’s a reason for that too. Everybody knows women are not funny.

I’m not kidding. The broadcasting bigwigs will tell you that, to your face. And they’ll use it as an excuse to hire women for the later time slots with smaller audiences, or for morning sidekick roles doing the news or the traffic.

This assumption that humor is exclusively a male purview has implications way beyond broadcasting though. It influences how women are perceived when we’re speaking at conferences, board meetings, and even on webinars.

That’s what turned up in research for a piece in Harvard Business Review.

Newsflash: “Women who speak in an assertive manner are often perceived as less likable, less influential, and more threatening than their male counterparts.” I could have told them that—you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been known to speak in an assertive manner. And I have certainly observed the response. It’s not always positive.

That “less likable” impression is mitigated if a woman goes out of her way to appear warm and friendly. But that presents its own problems. The researchers point out, “when women do appear warm and friendly, their competence often comes into question.”

Ay, ay, ay, what’s a woman to do?

Apparently, the answer is: make them laugh. Humor, they say, can help female presenters get beyond the warmth-competence double bind. When a woman is amusing, audiences perceive her as both warm and competent. And that perception gives us more social influence.

Of course, there’s a caveat. (Isn’t there always?) The HBR researchers were quick to point out that the funny women in their studies didn’t tell the same jokes their male counterparts did.

They describe the women’s humor as “unique, personal, specific to the situation, and based in their experiences.” That sounds to me like a pretty good description of most humor that works, whether it comes from a man or a woman.

Nobody likes canned “jokes,” right? I especially don’t like them because my old-school husband persists in telling them. In general, though, there’s a reason people mock corny humor as “dad jokes.” That approach to making people chuckle is out of fashion.

I’d say we all tend to laugh more at stories that are unique, personal, and specific to the situation. So, as speakers and writers, male, female or somewhere in between, we’re better off to mine our lived experience for humor.

And indeed, these experts say that’s exactly what works in keynotes, pitches, and panel discussions.

Effective presenters use humor authentically in a way that fits their own style and identity.

There’s a reason this is especially important for women though. And it goes back to that “women aren’t funny” stereotype. We’ve been told for so long that we’re not funny, women are often reluctant to go for a laugh.

That means most of the funny people we see on public stages are men … and that further bakes in the idea that they’re the only ones who can use humor effectively.

Turns out that creates an opportunity for women. When we defy expectations, people can be surprised as well as amused. And that means when our humor works, audiences are even more receptive than they might be toward a male speaker saying the same kind of thing.

Of course, humor can be a minefield for any speaker.

A couple of quick caveats. As a speaker, you’ll want to stay away from wisecracks that can be construed as sexist, racist, agist, or any other kind of -ist. And no, it’s not your imagination. People have become much more touchy about perceived slights.

I read the other day about an educator whose job offer was rescinded because he sent an email to two woman and began with, “Ladies …” They called that a micro-aggression!

Unless you’re on stage at the Friar’s Club, avoid the racy or risqué. (See “people have become much more touchy,” above.) It’s not worth the risk of offending part of your audience.

The safest target for my humor is usually me. It’s possible to go too far and come across as lacking confidence. In general, though, funny and self-effacing is an effective and even endearing combination.

With that in mind, go for the occasional laugh.

Bottom line from the researchers: “Because women aren’t expected to be humorous, audiences perceive them that much more positively when they do use humor successfully — enabling these speakers to project the kind of warmth, competence, and influence that’s only possible when you manage to be truly funny.”

Can’t wait for your funny comment here …