Oh no, I think I’ve done a Ratner

By 1991 Ratners was the world’s largest jewellery retailer and Gerald Ratner was the head of the family business. I can imagine him sitting up into the early hours laughing his head off at the content of his speech that he was to deliver the following day to the Institute of Directors at their Royal Albert Hall meeting in London.

24 hours later his big moment was over, he stepped off stage and straight into a media scrum. In the coming weeks and months he lost his £650,000 salary and he saw £500m wiped off the valuation of his company and a billion pound turnover slashed overnight. I get the feeling that Mr Ratner regretted making the following gags as part of his speech on the 23rd April 1991…

“We do cut glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver tray that your butler can serve your drinks on all for £4.95. People say how can you sell this at such a low price? I say – because it’s crap.” By now his adrenalin had really kicked in and there was no stopping him and so he threw in another one; “We even sell a pair of gold ear rings for under a pound which is cheaper than a prawn sandwich from M&S. But I have to say that a sandwich will probably last longer than the ear rings”…boom boom, and with those two gags, he was finished.

There is a time and a place for humorous presentations and speeches and for Gerald Ratner this was neither. I am proud to say that I am a fully-fledged member of the “I’ve done a Ratner” club.

A number of years ago I was asked to present to the Management Board within a retail organisation. Always up for a joke I thought that I would liven things up a bit and threw in a couple of funnies to lighten the mood. I’d practised the jokes at home in front of the current Mrs O – she groaned but I laughed my head off so I decided to use them anyway.

On the day itself I was expecting the audience to be rolling in the aisles, my profile raised and everyone thinking I was great, but what the CEO shouted took me a little by surprise – “If we wanted a bloody comedian we would have asked for one…now get on with it.” Of course I didn’t lose my salary and the valuation of the company didn’t shrink – but I did, I was absolutely mortified. To be honest, it knocked my confidence so much so that I avoided presentations completely for quite a while after.

Injecting a bit of life into a presentation is great, especially if it’s a long presentation or you are one of a number of people presenting on the day. It can break the sometimes tedious monotony and a laughing audience can help to reduce your stress levels too. However, the examples above show that there are also many potential pitfalls. So, before deciding on whether to use humour or not, it’s wise to think carefully about who your audience are.

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