You’re giving a speech. You make a serious statement. The audience laughs. How should you respond? That’s the question that President Trump faced when he addressed the U.N. Assembly this week. After the president claimed that in less than two years his administration has accomplished “more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” over 100 world leaders and others in the audience erupted in laughter.
Trump made light of it at the time and later told reporters, “They weren’t laughing at me — they were laughing with me. We had fun.”
What happened to the president could happen to you, even if you’re addressing only a dozen people in your office at a committee meeting. If you follow these three guidelines, however, you’ll demonstrate high-character leadership.
Ask The Group, “What’s So Funny?”
When you get an unintentional laugh from your audience, use what journalist James M. Surowiecki calls “the wisdom of crowds.” The phenomenon of crowdsourcing is based on the idea that a group of people can make better decisions than any one person can. It’s smart, therefore, to seize the opportunity presented to you.
If you’re sincere about discovering what prompted the laughter you unintentionally got, asking “What’s so funny?” can help you grow. Years ago, during a three-year fellowship on leadership development I had, I asked a group of ten or so people why they’d laughed at something I said.
“It’s just that you often make jokes when we’re together, so I figured you were making a joke just now,” one of my fellow fellows said.
That was a revelation. I didn’t like hearing it, but I had no idea that this was how I came across. I made it a point from then on to be more judicious in making wisecracks, and that has served me well.
It’s not always possible to stop and do this kind of investigation on the spot. If you can, however, you’ll probably get feedback that will help you become a better leader (and person).
Appreciate The Varieties Of Laughter
Not all laughs mean the same thing. The U.N. Assembly’s laughter at President Trump’s statement meant, “We find this hard to believe.” The laughter I provoked during a leadership development program meant, “We’re assuming you’re making a joke as you usually do.”
The first example of laughter is a form of ridicule because the group thought Trump’s claim was ridiculous. The second example of laughter is a form of sincerity. The group honestly thought I was making light of something, and they responded accordingly.
Since this is a column about humor, I thought it would make sense to get the perspective of a professional humorist. I reached out to Andrew Tarvin, who shows leaders how to use humor effectively in their work.
“Laughter is a form of communication,” Tarvin told me.
When I get an unexpected laugh, I try to determine what the cause for it was. In that sense, laughter is just a form of data. And then I make note of it, so that I can intentionally do it again (if it was positive) or revise my message (if it was negative).
But it takes a certain character trait to react this way, which brings me to my third point.
Respond With Humility
Humility plays a major role in ethical leadership. I know Tarvin–we’re both members of the National Speakers Association and its local chapter–and I have seen firsthand his willingness to accept and even seek feedback. Like many of us, Tarvin knows that the only way to improve your performance is to listen to valid criticism.
Unlike many of us, however, Tarvin solicits this from time to time, and then he acts on it. He once willingly put himself in one of the most uncomfortable situations a professional speaker can be in: a showcase for other speakers. Even professional speakers get nervous before an engagement, but there is no more nerve-wracking audience than one made up of your peers.
I was greatly impressed by how Tarvin responded to the respectful feedback that his fellow speakers gave. Although I haven’t seen him make a serious statement that others laughed at, I can envision him responding with humility and grace when this happens.
The Bottom Line
There’s nothing better than a hearing a laugh you intended to get. It’s frustrating not to get a laugh you were hoping to get. Even more troubling is getting a laugh after you utter something that to you is deadly serious. The next time it happens to you, why not treat it as the gift that it is?