by Steve Adubato, PhD

I’ve said it before in this space, but it bears repeating. Great communicators—even competent communicators, must know their audience. But when a professional broadcaster who communicates for a living is so misguided and off the mark with his audience, there is a lesson for all of us.

Consider the case of now YouTube sensation, Australian broadcaster Karl Stefanovic.

This past week, Stefanovic was doing an interview with the Dalai Lama. Ask yourself. How would you talk to the Dalai Lama? What sort of communication approach would you use in order to engage him in conversation? I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’ll tell you what you shouldn’t do, and that is go with a lame and virtually impossible to translate “joke” that Stefanovic used when he leaned in and said the following to His Holiness; “The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop…and says ‘Can you make me one with everything?’”

Actually, that’s NOT the way it was communicated on the air. This is how convoluted this communication approach actually was. Stefanovic had to use a translator in the interview, so what he actually said was, “The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza parlor” and then had to wait for the translation, which took several seconds because the Dalai Lama looked at the translator and then back at the interviewer as if to say, what the heck are you talking about?

Stefanovic must have realized that he was communicating on very thin ice, especially on live television. He started nervously giggling to himself and then finished the rest of the so-called joke saying; “…and says ‘Can you make me one with everything?’” Again, the translation, and again, the blank stare.

Stefanovic tried in vein to communicate the humor by repeating the words ‘one with everything’, but still, nothing. No matter what language you use, the communication approach came up empty. Embarrassed, the professional broadcaster put his head down, his hands on his face as if he was saying to himself, “what was I thinking?”

Even though the rest of us will never actually have the opportunity to talk directly to the Dalai Lama, the lesson is no lesson should be just as obvious. Consider the following.

Humor is very risky business and jokes are the riskiest types of humor. It’s not even that the TV host was responding or reacting to something that happened. It was a set up, prepared, canned, joke, which requires a punch line that connects with your audience. I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who said it best; “Comedy really is serious business that should be left to the professionals.”

The other big lesson is that if you are going to communicate on a high wire, you better have a net. Stefanovic had no backup plan if the joke went sour. It was all or nothing. Either the Dalai Lama laughed or gave him a blank stare, which basically said who is this guy and why am I sitting here talking to him?

The broadcaster had no plan B and no way to get out of it. I strongly recommend that other professionals who do attempt humor in a business presentation have a backup plan. What do you do if the humor flops or is misunderstood? You must have a plan and wishful thinking that things go well is no substitute for a strategic communication plan.

Don’t let what happened to Stefanovic happen to you. Play it straight. If you are going to use humor, make sure you’ve tested it out on an audience that is comparable to the one you are going to try it in front of for real. That is, of course, unless you want to become a laughing stock and YouTube sensation. For most of us in business, that’s not something we should be shooting for.