In the countless business meetings I've attended, I've observed meeting leaders use self-deprecating humor to diametrically opposing results: making me feel awkward and lacking confidence in their leadership, or feeling comforted and confident.
During my own leadership growth, I find myself giving firm and conclusive advice to myself that oscillates between these two: Don't use self-deprecating humor. Establish and portray confidence. Digging into yourself communicates that you're not even confident in what you're saying yourself, so why would anyone else be?
The next day: Take advantage of your sense of humor. This is a huge edge to have. Taking a dig at yourself when the timing and degree is appropriate disarms intimidation and cuts through tension.
The better version of this is probably not that either is universally the better advice. Rather, like anything, it needs to be calibrated. I don't have a golden rule for this, at least not yet, but I do have some guard rails:
- Assume people are good at sniffing out the source of your self-deprecating humor. Look into yourself. Do you stand behind what you're saying but just have some stage fright about saying it out loud? Snip the humor, it will only draw a circle around discomfort that has nothing to do with your belief in what you're saying.
- If you feel the need to deploy some self-deprecation because you perceive the audience sees something wrong with your presentation, there's a good chance they don't. There's a good chance you're not as good at detecting that as you think you are. Take the audience's temperature and ask a question first. I've seen this happen too many times where a meeting host is doing a great job and then reveals their lack of confidence about some minor thing that no one really cared about anyway.
- If you sense animosity towards or intimidation by you, self-deprecating humor is generally more appropriate than usual.
- When in doubt, err on the side of not using it.
- Deprecation that factors into a competency you're expected to have for a given forum is less likely to work in your favor than one that factors into something extraneous to that forum. If you're in a work meeting, there is a difference between joking about how disorganized you are for a meeting versus joking about how lazy you are around the house. This sounds obvious but there's a temptation to do this anyway because we want the audience to know that at least we're not oblivious to our falling short of an expectation. That's a sage observation but there are better ways to communicate that.