Amended 29 April 2006 - The use of humour is one key
to the success of management gurus. Researchers Dr Tim Clark and Dr David Greatbatch, authors of Management Speak: Why We Listen to What Management Gurus Tell Us, analysed the
techniques used by world-famous gurus such as Tom Peters, Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Gary
Hamel. They found that successful gurus
employ skilful communication techniques, especially humour, to promote their sometimes
uncomfortable messages. Filling a lecture theatre or conference venue with laughter avoids
alienating their audiences and brings people 'on-side.'
"Examining live and video recorded performances of leading international gurus enabled us to
analyse the presentational techniques they use to disseminate their ideas during live
presentations," said Dr Greatbatch.
Gurus are faced with the problem of advocating unorthodox organizational practices - which
their audiences are probably not using - and disparaging the practices they are using. This is
a delicate task with an inherent risk of alienating their audience members. So how do they do it?
Dr Clark argues: "These gurus remain highly regarded on the world speaking stage
and we wanted to discover their grammar of persuasion - in other words the communication
techniques which underpin their frequently charismatic and persuasive public speaking
The study shows that gurus avoid offence by evoking laughter and telling stories. "Basically, whenever the guru says anything potentially uncomfortable
to audiences of managers they use humour and wrap it up as a joke," said Dr Greatbatch.
The researchers found that gurus used a number of specific techniques to 'invite' laughter.
"Collective audience laughter is not simply a spontaneous reaction to humour or jokes,"
argued David Greatbatch. "Rather the gurus invite laughter by indicating when it is appropriate for
the audience members to do so."
Gurus used verbal and non-verbal actions to invite laughter, including:
- laughing themselves
- using exaggerated, ironic or comedic gestures
- showing their teeth in a 'laughing' smile
Having achieved laughter from the audience, the gurus played on this bonding to encourage
the audience to feel part of an 'in group' sharing a common viewpoint with the gurus. The audience
then began to turn against the management practice(s) being criticised by the guru.
Story telling seemed to be particularly important in the two processes of evoking
laughter and deflecting criticism. The researchers found that more than two-thirds of audience
laughter studied occurred within the context of stories. Stories make the gurus' messages more
entertaining and memorable and also reinforce the authority of the gurus' knowledge. So their
stories make constant references to famous and respected managers and organizations, personally
known to the gurus. Audience research confirms that those speakers who use funny stories
to develop their arguments are those who are most remembered.
"Our research clearly shows that gurus deploy humour at those points in their presentation
where they face possible dissent," asserts Dr Greatbatch. "Because they package their ideas
in a non-offensive way, the world's leading gurus are never booed from the stage and
typically generate very positive audience reaction and a high feel-good factor. Anyone
can learn the techniques which they use and public speakers ranging from politicians
to trainers could benefit from having a greater range of presentation techniques to deploy
David Greatbatch and Timothy Clark have written an account of their research
in Management Speak: Why We Listen to What Management Gurus Tell Us, published by