Most speakers don’t associ- ate humor with tragedy, unless they’re delivering
a previously scheduled humorous
presentation that suddenly now
follows a tragedy.
The tragedy can range from
addressing an audience that just
heard devastating news from corporate headquarters to presenting
at a conference following a natural
disaster or terrorist attack. As I write
this, the most recent examples are
the mass shooting in Las Vegas, hurricanes in the Southeast and Puerto
Rico, and massive fires throughout
the Western United States.
To some extent, a group’s recovery from disaster can be monitored
by the stage of humor to which
they respond. Skilled speakers may
introduce humor to help attendees
move to the next level of recovery.
Initially there is a setback: a death,
an injury, an important loss of some
sort. Nothing is funny. In fact, it is
horribly inappropriate to laugh.
What is most needed emotionally is a catharsis. Crying, cursing,
and sweeping condemnations are
The time it takes to move beyond
confusion and emotions varies with
the individual and the catalyst;
e.g., recovering from the loss of a
fingernail takes less time than from the
loss of a limb.
The bottom line for the speaker,
and for your client, is that emotionally
upset people are poor listeners. If you
want them to retain your message,
you need to help put the problem into
perspective, if possible.
Late-night television host Jimmy
Kimmel’s impassioned monologue
after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting is an
elegant example of a humorous speaker
taking on a tragic issue. He shared his
feelings, identified the issue and its
background, and encouraged action.
There was no humor that night.
If you are aware of a major tragedy, check
with the meeting planner for a reading
on how the audience is processing it.
I had a humor presentation scheduled in Seattle on 9/11. The meeting
planner correctly assured me the
attendees had been kept so busy that
all anyone knew was that there was a
big plane crash “back East.” I made no
reference and got a standing ovation.
If I’d mentioned 9/11, their distraction would have undermined my
presentation. On the other hand, if they
knew about it and I didn’t mention it,
my presentation would have suffered.
How to Adjust
to the Needs of