Q: How is business humor like broccoli?
A: Some people hate it, but it’s really, really good for you.
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:
- The speaker who’s been told “Always open with a joke” and picks something random out of a cheesy joke book
- The speaker whose “joke” uses stereotypes that may have gotten a laugh 30 years ago but only offend now
- The speaker who confuses this business opportunity with an audition for Saturday Night Live
- 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?
- Your humor has to relate to your subject.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.