While there are many factors one should consider when preparing to tell a joke during a scientific presentation, few are of more importance than knowing your audience. To clarify, I do not mean that you should know or be friends with every single audience member, although that certainly would make your task easier. Rather, you should have your audience at the forefront of your mind when you are giving the presentation and orient your talk to them. This same logic applies to the scope of your talk itself (i.e. how much background information to give, what jargon to use, etc.).
In the scientific community the most common presentations are lab/group meetings, department seminars, and conference talks. The audience in each of these talks is an important constraint that can vary drastically and, thus, so should your jokes. A general rule of thumb is the better you know your audience, the more material you will have to create your jokes. Just think of which is more recent, the last time you made one of your friends laugh versus the last time you made a random stranger laugh. In other words, think of it as “Knowledge is Power” except more like “Knowledge is Humor”.
Let’s see how “Knowledge is Humor” works in a department seminar. Depending on the size of your department you may know some proportion on a first name basis or you may not have the faintest idea. Likewise, you may be quite familiar with the department culture or you may be oblivious to its traditions and idiosyncrasies. Continually work to increase your knowledge in these areas as they are all fertile ground in which to develop your jokes.
For example, last year my advisor received a special award in recognition of his “outstanding contributions to teaching, scholarship, and service”. As he is already an endowed professor and chair of the department, one could argue this additional honor made his full title extremely long. As such, several members of the department poked fun at how many awards he had received or feigned confusion as to how to address him.
I formalized this joke in my department seminar by having my title slide initially state that I worked in my advisor’s lab, listing only his first and last name. I then began my presentation by looking embarrassed and quickly confessed that I had made a typo on my title slide, an inexcusable error. Before the audience grew frustrated at searching for a typo that did not exist, I advanced to the next slide, which was identical to the first…except that I had now added every endowment and fancy title that my advisor had been awarded to his name on the slide. Some laughter ensued and the seminar was off to a solid start.
Because I knew my audience (the department) was familiar with my advisor’s award, this was a reliable starting point to build a joke for a department presentation. I also knew that my advisor would be in the audience. This is important because if he were not present, some could view this joke as a mean spirited attempt to make fun of him behind his back…never a good idea. Finally, I knew that my advisor has a good sense of humor and can handle a joke at his expense in a department setting. Take all these pieces of knowledge away and the joke disappears right along with it. Know your audience and sooner or later, you will know your joke as well.
The JISP of it: Know your audience and the jokes will follow.