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How to Handle Jokes Falling Flat During a Presentation

Imagine this scenario: You’re in the middle of a presentation and it isn’t going well, so you decide to crack a joke to lighten the mood. The problem? The joke bombs, and no one laughs. You start to panic and end up stuttering while gathering your nerves to keep going.

Fear not, many of us have been there. So how do you recover after a joke that falls flat in the middle of a speech? To find out, we called up Kelly Anneken, an Oakland-based comedian who has been doing stand-up since 2008. A regular at Punch Line Comedy Club and Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco, her name is familiar to many comedy-lovers in the Bay Area. Here are her tips for doing humor the right way in your presentations—and what to do when it all goes wrong.

How do you recommend interjecting humor into business presentations?

First, keep it clean. You don’t want to be inserting off-color jokes into business presentations. I’ve seen people do that, and it creates awkwardness and ends up tainting the presentation. Only tell jokes you’d feel comfortable telling to your grandmother or a small child.

Second, know who you are and know who your audience is. Make sure your jokes aren’t the presentation itself. You want to sprinkle them in with care. Don’t focus on being a laugh-a-minute.

What should a presenter do if he or she bombs on stage?

The most important thing is to keep going. You don’t want to belabor the point and draw attention to the fact that the joke fell flat. Also, don’t get upset with the audience for not getting your joke because it will make you look unprofessional. Instead, try to adlib. Add a “tag” at the end of your joke—something designed to keep the laughter going.

Then, move onto the next thing. Be like an athlete and plow through. Maybe they will laugh at your next joke. People have short memories; if your presentation is great, that is what they will remember, not your joke.

Besides telling a joke, what are a few good ways to get a laugh from a business audience?

Using visuals is a really easy way to get a laugh. Try a goofy image. Find a creative way to relate it to your topic, and make it a surprise for your audience. Visual jolts will get a laugh most of the time, so if you’re not yet confident in your ability to crack a joke, a funny picture is a great place to start.