Persuasive Presentations, Part 5: Incongruity

Have you ever been in a presentation where the speaker is droning on and on about something – it could be The Most Important Information in the World – but you wouldn’t know. You are plotting your escape from this living hell. Can you fake your own demise by having a hellacious coughing fit, thus enabling you to rush from the room? Sure, it might tear up your throat, but it would be worth not having to sit through this.

“How much attention would I call to myself if I got up and walked out?”

The I in our SPICES acronym stands for Incongruity. Incongruity is an odd word. It’s meant to be. In our world of persuasive presentations, the Presenter needs to be expert. They need to have authority. However, none of that matters if they don’t get your attention, first, and then keep it.



Incongruity, in our evolution as sentient beings, has helped us survive. Humans are wired to notice things that are different. Different can mean food. Different can mean danger. So we are pre-wired to pick out a break in the expected. What’s expected may be a good thing in construction, but it doesn’t make for a very exciting or memorable presentation. This is where incongruity in a presentation can help.


Remember “One of these is not like the other” on Sesame Street? Big Bird is no fool.


The first thing that Incongruity does is catch us off guard.  It causes surprise.  Surprise has actual physiological effects on humans.



Surprise also has neurological effects. Electroencephalograms (EEG’s) reveal increased activation in the amygdala and the temporoparietal junction (a part of the brain which detects self/other), showing that incongruity gains our attention and disables cognitive functioning and for a brief but critical moment. The use of humor (incongruity) in a presentation can cause a positive surprise. It is in that moment – when a person laughs out of surprise and the brain disconnects for a moment – that the Presenter can make inroads.

Used in the expert hands of a Supersuader, humor can reinforce the intelligence of the presenter while making them likable, and therefore memorable. Think about a presentation you’ve been in that was delightful. Chances are good that it involved the Presenter mixing humor into the content.

Humor, Dear Reader, is funny because of Incongruity.



Humor based on incongruity disarms the listener precisely because it is so unexpected. The smartest humor allows the listener to complete the sentence, or make the leap to complete the joke, as opposed to an overly-long or dumb joke (e.g. the difference between slapstick, and banter).



When the listener is disarmed by humor they are more likely to open up to suggestion – and if the speaker says something witty it reinforces the intelligence of the Presenter in a non-showy, not-desperate way.  Witty humor is delightful in the true sense of the word, and delight is typically not something associated with most presentations.


Think of ways to delight your listeners by using incongruity and humor in your presentations.  Their smiles will be their way of saying, “Thank You”.  Hey, it beats snoring.


Our next stop is C, for Confidence!

(this is part 5 of an 8 part, serialized presentation illustrated by Nikki Mueller, and given by Carol Rickard at the AIA’s Architecture Exchange East).


Comments currently closed!