Humor in Business Communications: Must-do or taboo?
by Paul McDonnold
Did you hear the one about the guy who needed his own surge protector at work? It was to protect his mouth from spikes in his brain.
That reflects many people’s attitude toward the use of humor in business communications. They’re afraid they might say something they’ll regret, so they just shut it down.
There is definitely a risk to using humor in business settings. Use too much and you’ll be seen as a clown. Use it inappropriately and you could find yourself in trouble.
But there is also a reward to consider. Humor can be a great communication tool. It has been shown to be effective at facilitating listening, learning, agreement and even productivity. It can improve the internal unity and external appeal of your organization. As sales guru Jeffrey Gitomer puts it, humor “creates the highest listening environment.”
The reason is pretty simple. Humor, when it’s good, makes people happy. People are drawn to things that make them happy, and drawing people in - whether it’s customers, employees or shareholders - is the key to business success.
Since humor is often neglected in business communications, the wise use of it offers an opportunity to differentiate and elevate your firm above the competition. But to balance out the risks, here are some guidelines to consider:
Keep it uncontroversial: Stay away from humor built around ethnic or gender stereotypes or that could otherwise be construed as offensive. Keep it clean. Imagine that your humor will be printed in a widely read newspaper. If it won’t play there, think twice about using it, regardless of who your actual audience is.
Keep it limited: Make sure your humor isn’t crowding out your message. If it is, you have crossed the line that separates business person from comedian.
Humorous stories usually work better than straight jokes: This is especially true in speaking situations. Jokes can be hard to deliver effectively. A quick story, particularly one about yourself, often comes across more naturally.
For those unpracticed at comedy, self deprecating humor can be a good place to start. For instance, since I have a background in economics, that area is fair game for me. I can tell people about the economics professor who used the same exam questions year after year. Asked if cheating was a problem, she replied, “No. I use the same questions, but I change the answers every semester.”
A great way to get better at using humor is to spend more time with books, movies and people who use it well. Think about the techniques they employ. In addition to improving your business communications, a good side effect is that you might find yourself having more fun as well.