I used to work with a guy who was an excellent public speaker, as sales guys often are. Although I cannot remember any part of any presentation he ever gave, I remember very the time when he started off a talk with a joke that began, “A brunette, a redhead and a blonde…” After I got over the initial shock at the political incorrectness and the generally awful quality of the joke (it included the question, “how many ‘d’s are there in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”), I realized two important things:

  1. He had used up almost five minutes of his presentation time
  2. He had the audience completely and utterly in the palm of his hand

I resolved then and there to find or manufacture a joke that would do those two things and more: my presentation-starting ice-breaking audience-owning joke would be funny, and it would also be politically correct and vaguely related to the techy subject matter of most of my presentations.

It took a couple of years. Well, it took a couple of years to finally execute the google search that found me the raw material for the joke I needed. I practiced it, I tested it, and then I deployed it in the field, and it delivered for me. It even worked in France through a translator. It got a laugh in Germany – in English. In Asia, it also helped me figure out how fluent in English my audience was before getting to the meat of the presentation. This joke was almost as valuable as my wireless presentation remote.

Recently, my friend L successfully adapted the joke to her industry and bravely used it in front of a client on the first try. Brava!

And so, dear limereaders, in honor of the occasion of not having a better topic about which to write, I will share with you not only the joke, but also some important tips on how to deliver it and integrate it with your own presentations. I would be very interested to know if any of you have a joke or two that you use to open your talks.

It’s good to be here in [wherever you are, if you can remember – say something nice about the place and segue to…] The other day, I was walking around near the hotel and I passed a pet shop with a big sign, “we have talking parrots!” so I figured I’d check it out. Inside there was a huge cage with three parrots in it. I asked the shopkeeper, “so, how much do talking parrots go for these days?” [for some reason, I find this works better when you tell the story in the first person, perhaps because then its not immediately apparent that you’re telling a joke]

The keeper pointed out a beautiful green parrot preening itself on the bottom perch, and said, “that one’s $895” “Wow,” I said, “that seems like a lot.” “Well, that parrot can do telephone tech support” [pause here for a laugh, there should be one because this is the first sure sign that this is a joke. This is also where you might need to customize to your chosen industry and audience. If there’s no laugh here, its going to be a long, dark 5 minutes]

OK, I say, how about that one, pointing to the yellow and orange parrot sitting above the green one and chewing on some leaves. “that guy’s $2,095″” Two thousand bucks? What can that parrot do?” Apparently, the yellow parrot is Cisco certified for both voice and data networks. [this is the tough part of the joke, if you get a laugh here, you’re home free – it helps to ham up your confusion and skepticism about the talented parrots]

I can tell that I’m not in an ordinary pet shop, but I persevere and ask about the last parrot, the grey parrot on the top perch. [if you can stretch it out with a long-winded description of the parrot, it’ll help.] “Ah, the grey,” says the keeper, “he’s a very special parrot. I hate to see him go, but you can take him for $4,995” Now I’m starting to wonder about this guy, but I ask anyway, “what could this parrot possibly do to be worth that much?” [make sure you up the ante on your utter disbelief that the parrot costs $5k]

The guys says, “well, I’ve never actually seen him do anything, but the other two call him ‘boss'”

At this point, you are free to segue to whatever your real presentation was, with five minutes gone and a swelling of audience goodwill to carry you along. I usually make some pandering comment about how the people who do stuff in technology are not always the ones who get the big paychecks and credit, and use that as a springboard to talking about my company’s no-nonsense friend of the common network administrator positioning.

I’m sure you can see how this works almost anywhere except perhaps for an audience entirely composed of senior executives, the grey parrots as it were.  Pretty much everybody thinks that they know more then their manager.  Just fill in some technical details your audience relates to for the first two parrots. For extra credit, make some reference to “the third parrot” at some point in your presentation or closing.

Obviously this joke – or any other – won’t save you if your main presentation is lousy or if your delivery is bad or if your audience is hostile, or comprised of zombies, or both. Also, be aware that you may be heckled or confronted by people who actually know something about parrots and who want to correct any technical parrot details you might have used or abused. It’s from one of these folks that I learned that the prices in the original joke were actually quite low for parrots of any kind.

Giving credit not quiet where it’s due, you can find two variants of this joke here: http://www.plannedparrothood.com/jokes.html (gotta love that domain name) one for the legal industry and another closer to my high-tech version. This isn’t where I first found the joke, but I can’t find that link anymore. Sorry.

Disclaimers and credits completed, I just want to say that a joke is one of many ways to establish audience rapport, and that’s something that not enough presenters even attempt to do. So, take my parrots. Please.