The Serious Business of Playfulness: Projecting Presentation Confidence

Playful energy can play a big role in great presentation delivery, and in how you engage an audience with confidence.
A little playfulness can go a long way towards communicating confidence and engaging an audience.This post may border on personal style, which is by nature personal. Do not let me or anyone else dictate your individual brand of presentation.

For a while now, I have been paying close attention to how I engage audiences. Fortunately for me I get a lot of stage time, so I have developed the mental bandwidth to track some of the factors at play and how they create the result I want.

A recent experience had me arriving late for an important presentation. There were a host of factors, all within my control, but the morning just didn’t go as planned. When I arrived, I was frazzled, disorganized, and anything but confident.

The task at hand was to come across confident, so that I could achieve my goal of engaging the audience. I’d hoped that my dazzling content and impressive presentation visuals would do the job, but as I entered into my subject there were a number of reasons – besides my nerves – that this might not be enough.

I stood up near the front when I was introduced. As my biography was read, it was pretty clear that nobody knew who I was. Then my topic was introduced and again, no reaction at all. As I stood up to begin, there was no reaction whatsoever to my first statement, which was intended to get a laugh, but instead got me “crickets.”

Flash Forward: By the time I got through my intro, I had them.

Before I’d finished my open I had achieved engagement, which I drove into the body of my presentation to a pleasantly successful presentation experience.

What I used to achieve the engagement was playfulness – I got a little silly.

I noticed that what I did that began a chain reaction of real-time audience feedback (through gesture, posture, and facial expression) came from a subtle element of playfulness embodied while talking about serious subjects.

Research suggests that human beings don’t normally laugh with people they don’t trust. Laughter amongst people typically comes after trust in a relationship. That’s why presenters so often start out with a joke. The joke causes laughter to come earlier than it naturally would, and that triggers a trust reaction on the part of the audience toward the speaker.

Trouble is, if you’re like me, you discover time and time again that you’re not really funny. You think you’ll make them laugh, but you get smiles instead and those smiles are forced by the audience in order to protect your feelings.

Playfulness, however, is the not-so-funny guy’s comedy.

Playful people appear confident.

The energy I’m describing as playfulness can take on many flavors: delight, devilish, silly, goofy, curious, flirtatious, tongue-in-cheek, frenetic, irreverent, frisky, etc. And these flavors can be portrayed subtly, overtly, or overpoweringly.

My flavor of choice seems to be ever so slightly devilish, like I have a secret, or as though something very interesting is hiding in the background of my story that hasn’t quite come out yet.

The key for me is in the subtlety. I’m not a funny man, so I don’t want to be a joke-teller. I just ride through my content in a modulated sinewave of very serious, and just a little playful. Of course there are many moments where this ingredient is left out and I am more straight up serious. There are many moods in a presentation, but a go-to place is serious with a little playful.

I think a spectrum of human experience runs something along the lines of:

Fearful –> Anxious –> Neutral –> Comfortable –> Confident

If that’s true, then playful would have to fit in there somewhere toward the very confident end of the spectrum. People aren’t playful when they’re anxious. So the practice of finding the “performance of playfulness” allows you to communicate confidence, enjoyableness, and interestingness that draws people out of their shells into a curiosity state with you and your material.

From within that playful vibe, you can feel free to test out jokes if you want. I find that when I get in the playful vibe, lo and behold, my jokes make people laugh. This is the presentation equivalent of a comedian laughing between sentences to keep the mood up. It has to be authentic, so you want to practice finding the playful place, so that you can find it amidst serious topics, like a new business interview, training, or your presentation at the conference or to the board.

Try introducing some playful into your presentation style. Pay attention to your conversations at parties or happy hour to find out what flavor of playful naturally falls into your personality, and try bringing it into a presentation. Test this out when it’s not your make-or-break presentation. Try it in meetings, or less critical situations until you’ve got it down in a reliable form. Then bring it into more serious presentations, project interviews, sales, and other scenarios.

And share with us what you’ve experienced along these lines, and how you get yourself to a playful state in front of an audience!

What do you think? Share your thoughts below!


  1. Gail M. Weber on May 10, 2017 at 9:39 am

    Great article. Helpful, succinct and an easy read. I will forward it on to a couple of people that do some speaking.

    • Pete Machalek on May 10, 2017 at 12:29 pm

      Great, Gail! Let us know if you hear back from anyone.

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