Home runs & humor — it’s all in the perspective

Casey Stengel knew humor — and baseball
By R on en.wikipedia – From en.wikipedia; description page is (was) here, Public Domain

Humor or heartache?

“The fans love home runs,” said Casey Stengel, the first manager of the New York Mets. “And we have assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

Classic. It’s one of my favorite baseball quotes—I love it so much, I don’t care whether he actually said it.

For those of you who don’t follow baseball closely, Stengel knows that the fans prefer home runs when their team hits them, not when their team’s pitchers give them up. So is this humor or tragedy? It’s all in your perspective.

Even today, more than half a century after Stengel’s time, the Mets remain a team that lives and dies by the home run. More the latter than the former, this season. Once again, the Mets have “assembled a pitching staff to please the fans.”

This almost total reliance on home runs infuriates me. I’d much prefer to see my team advance around the diamond one or two bases at a time. It’s not about one person shining; it’s about the entire team pulling together to succeed.

Humor, the “home run” of writing

You have a brilliant sentence. I mean, so witty and concise it makes Oscar Wilde look like a second-grader. The problem is, it doesn’t quiiiiite fit the rest of your piece.

What do you do?

There’s only one thing to do. Move your “home run” to the Outtakes file. Maybe it’ll make a great tweet someday, but right now it’s derailing your piece.

Now, I’m not saying you can never use humor. But your wit must serve the interest of your reader, first and foremost. That’s true of every word you write, by the way—you must always focus on adding value for the reader.

If your humorous remark fits the theme and advances the story you’re telling, by all means leave it in. But if it only serves to make you look clever…you’ve got to take one of the team. Hit a single instead. Don’t interrupt the flow of your prose, not even for a laugh. Unless you’re writing a standup comedy set, your audience expects—and deserves—something seamless.

Allow your sentences to work together like a great baseball team. The “fans” may cheer less, but your readers will appreciate you more.

I wrote this piece while watching the Home Run Derby, perhaps my favorite event of the festivities surrounding the All-Star Game. Would you like to discover how to find stories in the wild like this and use them in your writing? Join me on a field trip to the Getty Center in LA this August.

Puns: Because word humor is the best humor

Whoever said puns are the lowest form of humor did not write the Wikipedia page on puns. Word humor is the best humor and the Wikipedia authors respect that assessment.

The pun-hater was probably Samuel Johnson. He lived in the 18th century, which as I understand it predates Wikipedia by a year or two. But what did Johnson know about words? Okay, so he wrote the first English dictionary, in 1755—big deal. Writers had been punning in Sumerian cuneiform since the 31st century B.C.E. (And if you think that sounds like a long time, try calculating it in dog-years.)

It must be true, it’s right there on the well-footnoted “Pun” Wikipedia page:

“Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs were originally based on punning systems…”


“Punning has been credited as the fundamental concept behind alphabets, writing, and even human civilization.”

But go ahead and side with the Johnsons of this world. You must hate civilization. And laughter. So whatever you do, do NOT read this tweet by the British humorist Moose Allain:

word humor

No, seriously. How can you not laugh at that?

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Sarah Cooper: Stressed about work? Quit your job, Donald.

Sarah Cooper
Sarah Cooper
Today’s guest blog comes from the brilliant satirist Sarah Cooper. If you’re still livin’ la vida corporate, her book 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By Without Even Trying will make you laugh at your life. If you’ve escaped from the corporate world—as Cooper did—it will make you laugh at your former colleagues’ lives. Either way: laughing.

Stressed About Work? It Might Be Time to Quit Your Job, Donald

by Sarah Cooper

Are you constantly frustrated about work?

Are you increasingly isolating yourself, yelling at your television and binging on Kentucky Fried Chicken?

Have you surrounded yourself with sycophants who support your idiotic ramblings, enable your bad behavior and lie to the American people for you?

Has your son-in-law been implicated in an ongoing FBI investigation into your collusion with the Russian government?

If so, it might be time to quit your job.

“For some Presidents, when it’s time to leave a job can be quite clear — like when their term is up — but for others, it might not be so obvious,” says Bob Johnson, a career coach and author of You Should Leave Your Job Now, Donald.

Johnson says some presidents know when it’s time for a change, “because they become irritable and paranoid, longing for the life they had before, and ultimately end up sabotaging the entire country.”

Sometimes, people don’t realize they’re unhappy with their job until they admit it in an interview with Reuters, or they realize they aren’t getting to do many of the things they’re really passionate about, like playing golf.

“People who are unhappy at work constantly complain that the media is unfair to them, embarrass themselves on the international stage, and get frustrated that no one will let this whole Russia investigation go,” Johnson says.

Cassie Saunders, founder of Please Quit Your Job Mr. President, Inc., says, “When some people see the signs that it’s time to leave their job, they might try to improve the situation by lying their ass off about how much they’ve accomplished, threatening to abolish the First Amendment, or going into denial by firing the FBI Director. But others are completely unaware of the signals that it’s time to get out.”

If you’re thinking about resigning but aren’t sure, here are 5 signs your job isn’t a good fit for you anymore, Donald.

1. You lack passion. Instead of waking up with a feeling of excitement toward your job, you wake up in the middle of the night and start intimidating witnesses in an ongoing FBI investigation into your ties with Russia.

2. You really dislike the people you work with. You try to work out the problems you’re having with the Media, the FBI, the Justice Department, your own lawyers, Congress, Democrats, Republicans, the American people, Mexico, Canada, North Korea, and China, but sometimes these problems have no solution.

3. Your productivity is suffering. If you used to get 5 rounds of golf done in a day and now you only get in one, or you used to watch Fox News for 14 hours a day but not it’s down to 8, you have to ask yourself: am I making the most of my time?

4. You have poor work-life balance. When you find that you’re spending less time with your family even though you’ve given them all positions in your administration, that could be a sign of poor work-life balance. This is never a sustainable situation.

5. Your ideas are not being heard. Has it gotten so bad you’ve had to hire a team of private lawyers to defend investigations into your Russian ties? When is the last time anyone took your ideas about 3–5 million people illegally voting in the election seriously? Or Obama wiretapping your phone? Or your pitch to get rid of the legislative filibuster? The truth is you’re probably being taken for granted and your skills might be useful elsewhere, like on a moderately successful reality TV show.

Once you realize it might be time to leave your job, just leave. Quit. Life is short. Do some traveling. Do it for yourself. Do it for America. Do it for all of us, Donald. Please.

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The cliché makeover — tell a story

cliché makeoverHow many times have you waded glassy-eyed through the personality-type alphabet soup? Introvert-extrovert…I’m sure there’s valuable science in there, but all those acronyms—ESFJ, INTP—make my brain hurt. Still, when you’re dealing with people, it’s important to understand the different personality types you might encounter. Don’t just present the same old material in the same old ways; give it a cliché makeover

That’s what my friend Joan Garry did in her book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership. And at the risk of digressing, I often remind my writers to put themselves in their story especially when they’re dealing with subjects that might seem clichéd because while many other people can write about an issue, no one can write about it from your perspective. You’re not going to find a Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership written by Joe Smith. You know from the get-go you’re getting Joan’s advice, delivered from Joan’s perspective.

And Joan’s perspective can be wildly inventive sometimes. Perhaps that explains why we’re friends.

Cliché makeover: Personality types

So, the personality types. Instead of the ENTJs, Joan presents us with a series of archetypes. And not the standard Joe Go-Getter. No, she gives us characters we all know well:

Kermit the Frog

And then she invites you to choose one for your next board chair or executive director.

Each contender has something to recommend him. Of Superman, for instance:

“Would you say ‘No’ to him if he asked you for a donation?”

You have to admit, that’s an excellent point.

Joan uses real-world anecdotes to demonstrate what each character could offer in terms of nonprofit leadership. Finally, she outs herself as

“an ‘SK’—a Superman-Kermit combo. (Yes I am now making fun of every personality profile test you’ve ever been subjected to at work or during a retreat.)”

The gentle parody of the cliché makeover makes the material memorable.

Perhaps in the next edition she can find a place for Wonder Woman.

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David Sedaris and the Story Safari

David Sedaris
David Sedaris on the radio in Boston, Photo by WBUR , CC BY-SA 2.0

One of my favorite storytellers, David Sedaris, has published his diaries. Well, selections from the first 25 years of his diaries. At this writing, I’m still stranded metaphorically on the side of a desert road with him—he seems to have hitchhiked his way through much of the late 1970s. So I can’t report on the rest of the book. But I loved the Introduction.

Sedaris talked about his long-time practice of carrying a notebook:

“…a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that atrike me, not in great detail but just quickly. The following morning I’ll review what I jotted down and look for the most meaningful moment in the previous day…”

In other words, every day is a Story Safari for David Sedaris.

What kinds of things does he capture in his notebook?

“It could have been seeing an old friend, or just as likely it could have been watching a stranger eat a sandwich with his eyes closed. (That happened recently, and was riveting.)”

You never know what treasures you’ll pick up on a Story Safari. Some you may never use; others will turn out to be the perfect anecdote to illustrate a difficult point. But unless you write down the stories as you notice them, they’ll disappear in the fog of grocery lists and old phone numbers that envelops everyone’s brain eventually.

What did David Sedaris call his new book?

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that while I’ve praised the book, I haven’t yet told you its title. That’s a Story Safari on its own:

“Not long after deciding to release a book of diary entries, I came upon a five-pound note. I’d been picking up trash alongside a country road in West Sussex, and there it was between a potato-chip bag and a half-full beer can that had drowned slugs in it.”

Notice the details Sedaris gives us—as well as the one he left out: Why was he picking up trash by the roadside? Was it some sort of community service, or was he just doing a service for his community? At any rate, he told a friend about the £5 windfall and she informed him that by spending the money, he’d committed a crime:

“In the U.K., if you discover something of value and keep it, that’s theft by finding.”

Theft by Finding seemed the perfect title for the book, which (he says) documents other people’s feelings and behavior far more closely than his own.

I suspect to find the results of many fascinating Story Safaris in this new David Sedaris book. I can hardly wait to read them.

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How is business humor like broccoli? – Frequent Questions

Q: How is business humor like broccoli?
A: Some people hate it, but it’s really, really good for you.

how is broccoli like business humor?I am not a fan of cruciferous vegetables on my dinner plate. But I am a staunch advocate of humor in business communications.

Humor gets people’s attention. It helps your audience connect with you—and that connection makes them much more receptive to your ideas.

Got a complex or unfamiliar idea to explain? The best way to do it is to tie your idea to something your audience already understands. Draw an analogy. Tell a story. If it’s a funny story, all the better.

Business humor: It’s not stand-up comedy

I understand why some people feel wary of humor in a business context. We’ve all cringed through enough inept instances:

  1. The speaker who’s been told “Always open with a joke” and picks something random out of a cheesy joke book
  2. The speaker whose “joke” uses stereotypes that may have gotten a laugh 30 years ago but only offend now
  3. The speaker who confuses this business opportunity with an audition for Saturday Night Live
  4. The speaker so wooden that even a funny joke sounds a recitation of the balance sheet.

If these were the only associations I had with “business humor,” I’d run away from it too. Screaming.

So what’s wrong with those pictures?

  1. Your humor has to relate to your subject.
  2. The bounds of cultural acceptability shift over time. Before you tell an old story, check it against the current social climate. Does it trade on stereotypes? Does it demean any person or group? If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, throw it out and start over again.
  3. Successful standup comedians aim for 4-6 laughs per minute. Fortunately for the business speaker, one or two well-timed jokes in the first minute will suffice. Aim for a laugh as soon as possible in your presentation—but tie the humor to your topic as soon as possible after that. Too many laugh lines could detract from your message or your personal brand.
  4. If don’t feel comfortable telling jokes: Good news—you don’t have to. A humorous story will do just as well. In fact, if you can share a bit about yourself, your life, your observations, in the course of that humorous story, even better.

Not a comedian—a communicator

The purpose of business humor is not to turn you into a comedian. It’s to turn you into a communicator. Dust your ideas with a sprinkling of humor and the audience will listen to them and—according to British neuroscientist Sophie Scott—even understand them better. It’s the neurological equivalent of sneaking broccoli into a chocolate brownie.

Scott wrote a piece for the BBC called “10 things you may not know about laughter.” She calls laughter:

“…a form of communication, not a reaction.

The science of laughter is telling us that laughter is less to do with jokes and more a social behaviour which we use to show people that we like them and that we understand them.”

Sadly, I can’t embed the video of the BBC’s report on Professor Scott. But do click over to the article and watch it for yourself. She reminds us that laughing together unites people.

So do you want to get your audience on the same page, and help them understand your idea? Make ’em laugh.

And you don’t nearly have to work as hard as Donald O’Connor.


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Think, feel, and sing — Yip Harburg songs for a Sunday

“Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.”
— E. Y. “Yip” Harburg

Yip Harburg around 1950
Yip, around 1950. Fair Use

Other than Stephen Sondheim, my favorite theatrical lyricist is Yip Harburg. You’ve heard his work—you’ve probably even sung some of it, from the time you were little. Yip—or E.Y. Harburg, as his credits read—wrote the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz.

Yip never met a word he couldn’t play with. And words have always been my favorite toys. So I think I loved him from the moment I heard the Cowardly Lion sing:

What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the “ape” in “apricot”?

You’re probably completing the lyric in your head so I’ll write it down for you:

What do they got that I ain’t got?

Yip Harburg — more than just a great rhymer

My father loved Yip Harburg for writing the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow. He loved it because the main characters were Irish immigrants like, well, like some unknown people farther up his family tree. I loved it because Yip made up words and seemed to be having the time of his life doing it. The leprechaun (surely you can’t write a show about Irish people without a leprechaun, can you?) mashed up his words gloriously:

I might be manishish or mouseish
I might be a fowl or fish
But with thee I’m Eisenhowzish
Please accept my propasish
“Eisenhowzish”—yes, that’s a reference to General (not yet President) Eisenhower. Yip peppered his musicals with political references whenever he could.
Finian’s Rainbow is rife with leftist politics—its subplots deal with class struggle and racism, and one lively song (see below) contains a lyric about “the misbegotten GOP.” My father was a staunch member of that “misbegotten” party, yet he never seemed to notice the politics of Finian’s Rainbow because: Irish people! Accents! A leprechaun!
And that—that made me love Yip Harburg even more. Like ground-up broccoli in a chocolate brownie, he found a way to get subversive political sentiments into the heads of people who might have rejected a more direct argument.
It’s magic—and as far as I’m concerned, the best kind of magic: because it’s all done with words.

Write better when you write more often. The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.

How folksy is too folksy? Frequent Questions

Q: How can I tell if I’ve gotten too folksy?
A: Folks will stop laughin’—and stop listening, too.

Here’s the full Q from our correspondent this week:

I’m a straight-shooter, tell-it-like-it-is kind of person. Sometimes I think that comes on too strong, so I use folksy language to soften the edges. But how can I tell if I’ve gone too far? How folksy is “too folksy”?

First, let me just acknowledge what we’re all thinking. Okay, maybe you’re not thinking it because you didn’t just have to type it, like, five times in a row. But “folksy” is one strange word. Say it out loud. Now say it again. Don’t you want to shout, “Buy another vowel, dude!”

Is that what you mean by “folksy”?

  • the gratuitous Valley Girl “like”
  • the pop culture reference (the TV game show Wheel of Fortune runs the world’s only known vowel marketplace)
  • the hipster pronoun “dude”

Any one of these might cause my starchier friends in academia to toss their mortarboards at me. (By the way, that’s not folksy; it’s a lively, descriptive sentence.) And while I think the paragraph is perfectly fine—no surprise, since I wrote it—I wouldn’t subject readers to such a high concentration of slang unless I were writing satire.

be folksy, but not too folksyBe folksy but focused

So where’s the line between compelling prose and folksiness?

Imagine you’re telling a story about something that happened to you. Would you tell it to your parents any differently than you’d tell it to your long-time best friend? How about a business colleague? Our internal filters automatically adapt the language and tone for each of these audiences.

You want to invite the reader or listener in, but you also want to keep the focus on your message. Too much slang or informal language can become a distraction. Warren Buffett, who’s earned a reputation as a kind of populist storyteller—the Will Rogers of billionaires—miscalculated his folksiness in a recent interview.

At the beginning of her Huffington Post article about the incident, Emily Peck acknowledged,

“…the Berkshire Hathaway CEO has cultivated a folksy manner and it’s kind of refreshing when a CEO isn’t a jargon-spewing automaton.”

It is refreshing. Part of Warren’s appeal as a communicator is that he uses analogies and stories to convey sophisticated ideas. But one challenge with relying on folksy stories—especially old folksy stories—is you’ve got to keep them fresh. And you’ve got to be aware of cultural shifts.

The story that provoked laughter 20 years ago may provoke anger today. And that’s what happened when Warren trotted out an old story that used women as the object of the joke. In another era, most people probably heard it as a humorous observation about the challenges of romance. Today’s audiences hear it as making light of date rape.

Big difference there.

What changed? Well, in “another era,” women’s voices were not so amplified in the media. The top three Google hits on this story—from HuffPo, Mashable, and Business Insider, all carry women’s by-lines. And society has evolved in its understanding of date rape, even if the justice system hasn’t always kept pace.

Raise your hands, though, if you remember what Warren had been talking about, what action he was trying to explain with his ill-fated folksy story? You can’t. Exactly. The folksiness distracted from his message.

Write better when you write more often. The Bennett Ink 90-Day Writing Challenge—it’s time to get serious.

What’s funny about that? Humor in dark times

Regular readers will know I’m a big advocate for humor. It helps draw your audience in. It humanizes you and helps you connect with readers or listeners. Humor makes you and your message more memorable.

But what about difficult situations? Can humor help you there? Yes. At the right time and place, and with the right amount and tone.

Humor doesn’t erase tragedy, and it would be insensitive to expect it to. But even in the midst of tragedy, people need moments that remind them of their humanity.

The first Saturday Night Live broadcast following the attacks of 9/11 opened with a somber speech from then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani (getting a warm, extended ovation from the audience, so you know it’s a very old clip) paying tribute to first-responders and to the indomitable spirit of New York residents. Then quintessential New Yorker Paul Simon sang his song “The Boxer.” The song ends:

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains…

Not a dry eye in the house—at least in my house. (Even now, remembering it.)

After the song the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, came out to chat with Giuliani:

Giuliani: …and Saturday Night Live is one of New York’s important cultural institutions. And that’s why it’s important for you to do your show tonight.
Michaels: Can we be funny?Giuliani: Why start now?

Exercising perfect comic timing, Giuliani got the laugh. And we all breathed a sigh of relief.

The recipe: Lots of seriousness with a dollop of self-deprecating humor.

Humor and 11/9

Voters split nearly in two on 11/9: Clinton captured slightly more of the popular vote, but Trump won the Electoral College and in the U.S., that’s the win that matters. With the country so divided, many people may be happy with the outcome. Others—and this should not surprise you, I am one—are coping with rising levels of fear and anxiety.

How can this be funny?

It can’t—not the fear and anxiety part—but authentic emotion can bring us together. And then maybe you have a chance to work in something that will make even a traumatized audience smile a bit.

Seth Meyers, of NBC’s Late Night, started out his monologue on 11/9 making jokes. That is, after all, his job. But at about 3 minutes in, he takes a serious turn, talking about how the title of “first woman president” will be filled someday:

“…someone’s daughter is out there right now who will one day have that title.  Maybe, maybe you’re a woman who’s currently a Senator; maybe you’re in college. Hopefully you’re not a toddler, but who knows…?”

“Who knows?”—a small joke inserted into a serious passage. Not a knee-slapper, but it works. And then Meyers got more personal: “…whoever you are, I hope I live to see your inauguration. And I hope my mom does, too.” Authenticity. I dare you to listen without tearing up.

How can humor help you?

And that’s a blueprint business leaders can use in situations like this. Address the issue seriously. Acknowledge people’s feelings. Look for ways you can resonate on the same emotional plane as your audience. And if you try for humor, make sure it doesn’t poke fun at the pain people are going through. Make it self-deprecating, like Lorne Michaels did.

Interestingly, Seth Meyers was on the SNL writing staff after 9/11, so he saw the approach they took firsthand. Meyers’ 11/9 joke walks a fine edge—he’s nearly joking about the despair people feel. But since he feels it too, he has permission.

If you want to use humor to lighten the darkness, do it deliberately. Plan it in advance, share it with several trusted advisors and see what they think. This is not the time to ad lib! Even professional comedians would craft their words carefully in a situation like that.

Humor is a valuable tool to fight sadness. Use it wisely and you will use it well.

Learn to tell your story powerfully. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Wednesday November 30th at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific.