Presentation tip: Channeling Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis is known for his rubbery face, silly body language and odd voices.

Why would a well-respected business presenter want to do anything like Jerry Lewis? After all, you have important ideas and information to impart. To be anything but serious would cast doubt on your data, let alone your mental state.

Several years ago, after 28 years as a professional presenter, I learned the value of channeling my inner Jerry Lewis in my business presentations around the world.

I spoke at a conference for 750 business people in Singapore. The presenter before me was a standup comic/radio personality. His frenetic energy, exemplified by pacing, exaggerated gestures and facial expressions and vast vocal variety, mesmerized the audience. I watched their attentive faces and rapt attention. They were riveted on him, wondering what he would do next. They frequently erupted in laughter, not always at something he said, but more at what he did — holding a silly facial expression to solidify a point, or flinging his arms out to illustrate a story.

I thought that following him would be easy as he’d warmed up the audience. I could deliver my thought-provoking, self-revealing, poignant presentation and they would be right with me.


My polished, but less flamboyant body language, facial expression and modulated voice tone left them checking their text messages while I delivered my most important points. A few closed their eyes until I saw their heads nod forward. Some even brought out newspapers. I was humiliated that I could not keep their attention.

Afterwards, I analyzed what went wrong. I compared my more “professional” (read “low key,” “reserved” and “businesslike”) presentation to the presenter who wowed them. I vowed to learn from him and enliven my next presentation, even though I thought some of what he did was childish. I didn’t have to be so screwy I felt unprofessional, but I could certainly add more umph to my gestures, body movement, facial expressions and voice.

The next day I presented to a new group and tried out my new-found inner Jerry Lewis. Instead of gesturing with my arms part-way out, I flung them a full 90 degrees to emphasize a point. Instead of just telling a story about walking while tired, I illustrated walking tiredly. When discussing inappropriate eye contact, I exaggerated wide-open, staring eyes and held it for a few beats.

The audience loved it, laughing and staying present. They commented on how fast the day went and how much they got out of the seminar.

I refined the silliness over the next dozen presentations, finding a place where I was comfortable and yet much more goofy than I’d ever allowed myself to be. The audiences warmed up and we seemed to bond more quickly.

But I thought, “This is only effective with SE Asian audiences. This goofiness will be scoffed at in my US executive and Silicon Valley audiences.” But I tried amping it up a bit at the beginning of presentations. Guess what? They loved it too!

Why does unabashed behavior work, even in a serious environment? Think about an awards show. Which award presenters get the most attention, laughs and love? Those who can be sincerely silly and still on target. I’m not talking about narcissistically hogging the spotlight with self-aggrandizing, attention-needy antics. I’m talking about being willing to be in fun and yet still be on purpose.

Being willing to be playful, exaggerating movements and vocal inflections, shows you are bold and unembarrassed. As long as your frolicking and tomfoolery is in the service of your audience — keeping them engaged or cementing a point — your silliness generally will be appreciated.

However, if it is just to be the center of attention and you hijack the purpose of the presentation, then you will be seen as a fool. So make sure your focus is clear and pure.

Will everyone warm to your zaniness? Not all. But more will than you’d imagine. They will comment on how engaging and funny you are. If you skillfully integrate your unconventional delivery with on-target presentation design, your audience will remember your points more readily.

See if you can up your Jerry Lewis-quotient in your next presentation. Start out with making everything just a little bigger at first — your facial expressions, gestures, body movement and vocal variety. Then increase these as you see they are responding positively and you get more comfortable.

I think you — and your audiences — will be pleased with the result.


Clients have been asking me to teach their managers how to give more engaging presentations. If you’d like to discuss how I might help your team, give me a call.