Is it frowned upon to add slight humor and sarcasm to academic presentations? For example, I flip to a background slide and say "This is a typical slide used by researchers in (field) just to show off how difficult their work is." before going through the content of the slide. Is there a difference in doing that in different settings, like a department seminar vs an international conference?

  • 9
    If the previous speaker's talk is filled with slides like that, your innocent funny remark could strike home in an embarrassing way. :) Aug 31, 2016 at 12:32
  • 3
    As an ordinary speaker at a conference you're unlikely to have got the time or the recognition to spend on something like this. That's not to say you can't (try to) raise a smile or even a laugh -- many conference sessions could be improved by loosening up a bit. But be careful not to deprecate anyone except yourself.
    – Chris H
    Aug 31, 2016 at 13:36
  • 2
    I had a technical writing professor who once told my peers and I that "Humor is the best way to make a good presentation great. It's also the best way to make a good presentation terrible."
    – tonysdg
    Aug 31, 2016 at 15:58

5 Answers 5


There is nothing wrong with a little humor as long as you can pull it off well. Lightening the mood is often welcome, especially in settings where the expected norm may be long, dry boring, content (such as a conference where people are attending session after session all day).

Besides making people laugh, a joke or two in an academic presentation can help make you and the audience more comfortable, make your presentation more memorable, and help you come across as a confident, competent presenter.

Of course, there are potential downfalls:

  • A joke could fall flat, which may be awkward and embarrassing.
  • Jokes that might come across as insulting can be dangerous (though gently poking fun at your own discipline can be fine--I have no problem with your proposed statement, especially if you make it self-deprecating, such as "I have made this slide extra complicated so I seem important". I have taken this approach and it usually goes down very well.)
  • Too much humor can distract from your message. Use a little humor, and it helps engage people, and they will be paying attention to your serious point. Use too much, and no one will remember anything but the jokes.

But overall, I say go for it. Having a boring, forgettable presentation is a much bigger danger than a joke that falls flat.

  • 2
    Good answer, the "as long as you can pull it off" part is key. Do you usually interject a little humor when you speak? If you do, go for it. If you've never done it before or are nervous when you speak, I might suggest not trying it first in an academic presentation.
    – Jeff
    Aug 31, 2016 at 13:48
  • 2
    Self-deprecating humour is the most safe, as long as you are sure nobody really thinks it may apply to you or it is not relevant to your professional work. Aug 31, 2016 at 13:49
  • 1
    Regarding self-deprecating humor, you have to be really great to pull this one off. It's more something for senior scientists. Also, I think there is no "safe" (or even "mostly safe") way to make jokes today. Just look at what happened to Tim Hunt, or comedians avoiding campuses. But I also think that people who object to (almost) everything shouldn't set the tone — and most people (or those who matter) see through this outrage. So, yeah, go for it — and stand by it if there are negative reactions. After all, laughter is the best medicine (unless you work in pharmacology). Aug 31, 2016 at 14:24

I'd say you should know what audience you're presenting to. If you're presenting groundbreaking (or at the very least, important) information at an international conference full of notable researchers in the field, you might be able to get away with a single joke or sarcastic comment. Most people are there to learn, not to laugh.

On the other hand, if it's among people who know you well (e.g. department seminar or something of the like), you can add a little more humor to lighten the mood a bit.

One thing to take away from my answer is that you should reread your question: you're giving an academic presentation, not touring as a stand-up comic. A little humor can be well-received, but too much will make you seem foolish.

  • 1
    No humor at international conferences? I don't agree with that.
    – user24098
    Aug 31, 2016 at 12:54
  • 5
    @dan1111 - one does have to be more careful at international conferences because the presenter's humor may not translate well. The better you know your audience the easier it is to have most understand the joke.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 31, 2016 at 13:16
  • @JonCuster That was exactly my reasoning Aug 31, 2016 at 16:49
  • 1
    @TheRumpler - indeed. I was only trying to be explicit with the other commenter.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 31, 2016 at 23:30

I think it depends if it related to the content of your presentation. Nothing wrong with a little bit of humor. But in this particular example, it looks it only serves to rediculise other people their presentations. I think that is inappropriate.


hmm.. I have mixed feeling about this... Adding jokes makes it easier to get people attention and some time help to convey the message. However, there are many better ways to achieve this without using jokes or sarcasm. Having a clear, focused presentation is much better than adding jokes..


One thing to consider is that humour is subjective. Not everyone finds the same thing funny, and it's possible that not everyone will realise that a statement is a joke. As a comment on another answer points out, this is particularly true if the first language of the audience isn't the same as that of the speaker.

In particular, unless you know your audience very well, don't make hyperbolic statements on the assumption that your audience will realise they are untrue. 95% of the audience might find "and this identity can be used to solve five other grand challenge problems before breakfast" mildly amusing, but the PhD student who wastes a month following up on idea won't.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .