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Using Humor to Engage Your Audience

I met this week with famed legal humorist Malcolm Kushner at an Inner Richmond cafe. In between some brilliant stuff and a few groaners, I managed to wrangle some serious advice from him.

Malcolm Kushner: The Legal Industry's Funny Man

While we’ve cautioned against using humor in forward-facing marketing content or at a press conference, humor can be a speech-saving element in a presentation or address where you can visibly connect with your audience.

Kushner, who has published two books on lawyer jokes and Public Speaking for Dummies, rides the chicken circuit teaching attorneys and others how to best deploy humor successfully. Here’s some of our conversation.

SK: Were you always funny? MK: If I were funny, I would be a comedian, not a humor consultant. I’ve written humor columns, but that’s not credible evidence.

SK: Does everyone have a sense of humor? MK: I’ve never met anyone who didn’t think they had a sense of humor. When you embrace that, you can use it to communicate effectively. You don’t need to be hilarious; small doses of humor open the door to persuasion, and encourage people to listen to you.

SK: So, is this being funny just for the sake of being funny, to warm up the crowd? MK: No. Use humor to make a point. Make sure your anecdote or joke ties in with your main message.

SK: What if I am not naturally funny or am completely phobic about employing humor? MK: A self-effacing anecdote is incredibly powerful. We all have stories about work, weird relatives, what happened when we were in law school, etc. If you can’t tell a joke, tell a story.

SK: If one wants to venture farther into deliberate humor, what are some guidelines? MK: There are several joke formulas. One is the “and/or” formula. It works like this. “In national restaurant news, Dunkin Donuts’ stock is down due to decreased store traffic. Or, as the Boston Police Department says, “We’re just not as hungry as we used to be.”

Closer to home is this squib. “The demand for lawyers is reaching record lows as recent law school grads face a weak job market. Or, as McDonald’s says, “Great news!”

Then there’s the subtraction joke. “I went to the University of Buffalo. It’s just like Harvard without the prestige.” The possibilities are endless, and only limited by your creativity.

SK: I’m not sure I can pull that off. Are there other options? MK: Sure, address the elephant in the room. I once had to fill in on 24 hours’ notice for famed business guru Tom Peters. I asked the audience, “How many of you have read Peters’ book, ‘In Search of Excellence’?” All hands went up. “Good, I’m going to give you some new information.” It was perfect. Had Peters been there, he may have said this: “Everything I’m going to tell you is common sense but I can’t help it that I get paid so much to do this.”

SK: Should lawyers tell lawyer jokes? MK: I’m not going to comment on that.

SK: C’mon. MK: You can take lawyer jokes and turn them on end. For example, “How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb?” There are dozens of denigrating punch lines. But consider this: “None, if the lawyers are Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Ghandi or Nelson Mandela. Then the light comes from within.”

That makes you smile inside, right?

On a serious note, Kushner stressed that humor creates connection and persuades an audience to identify with a speaker. And humor can help engender empathy.

If you are the final panel at a daylong conference held in a basement ballroom, all you need to say is “Let’s open those windows and smell the roses before we tackle the FTC, shall we?” All of a sudden, the audience is willing to hang in there.

“My contribution to the profession is to save the law from lawyer jokes,” Kushner says. “You don’t need to have a butt for your joke. Spread positivity, and ultimately the negative stuff will go away.”

For more lawyerly witticisms from Malcolm Kushner, check out his book Comebacks for Lawyer Jokes: The Restatement of Retorts.

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