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.


Satire or News? When reality becomes absurd

What’s a humorist to do when reality becomes absurd? So absurd that even intelligent, well-read people mistake it for truth?

During the campaign, I saw many articles by The New Yorker‘s resident satirist, Andy Borowitz, shared by people who mistook them for actual journalism. With all the “fake news” [proper translation: propaganda] flying around the interwebs, it’s become increasingly hard to tell humor from hyperbole.

And so The New Yorker has added a banner to its Facebook posts of Borowitz’s columns: “The Borowitz Report, Not the News.”

When reality becomes absurd, you need to clearly identify satire

Click on the link and you’ll find this above the headline:

when reality becomes absurd, label satire prominently

This isn’t a case of readers being unable to tell real news from propaganda, a trend this NPR report rightly calls “dismaying.”

It’s not because we’ve cheapened and corrupted the meaning of words to the point that vast numbers of people no longer believe the giant, undifferentiated enemy they call “the media.”

People can’t tell truth from satire these days because the truth has become so unremittingly absurd. This is not normal. None of what we are living through in the United States right now is even close to normal.

Reality becomes absurd: Trump’s first legacy

When reality induces more spit-takes than comedy, we’ve left our satirists precious little room to ply their trade. I mean, President Trump will serve not just as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces but also as Executive Producer of The Apprentice. Eight weeks ago, that might have been a headline on The Onion. This week it was a news story in Variety.

In the opening sketch on the December 4th Saturday Night Live, the actors broke character several times to remind the audience that the behavior they were skewering was not something their writers had dreamed up in a bourbon-soaked trance. One after another looked straight into the camera and said, “He really did that.” Because—guess what?—he really did.

The question is, what will we do?

It’s not just a matter of saving the Republic. Unless we act soon, our satirists will be put out of business completely. Saturday Night Live will become a news show. Andy Borowitz will turn into a journalist. And then who will amuse us?

One day we may be return to a world in which we can laugh at absurdities rather than fear or elect them. I hope I live to see it. I hope you do, too.

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.

Perfectly imperfect: What draws us in?

I have always hated being imperfect. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist because we’re all evolved enough to know that unless you’re a neurosurgeon, perfectionism is a character flaw. And—surprise—I don’t like thinking of myself as flawed, either.

My favorite business coach, Samantha Bennett (sadly, we’re not related), has tried to instill in me an appreciation for imperfection. “Don’t be afraid to get  a C,” Sam says. Or as PR expert Sakita Holley, the host of a delightful podcast I recently found, says in her latest episode: “Done is better than perfect.

Of course, they’re both right. I can think of only one upside to a world in which we all wait to achieve perfection before acting: A whole lot less email. Then again, we might not have any computers on which to receive it. Tech wizards have mastered the art of “ship now; debug later.” And annoying as it is when you’re the person who gets the wonky upgrade, I don’t see anyone clamoring to return to the days of carbon paper and carrier pigeon.

Imperfect is much more interesting

Cindy Crawford’s mole—a facial “imperfection”—made her millions. It made her recognizable; she stood out in the crowd of leggy beauties in our fashion magazines.

Flawless delivery, like flawless skin, is much less interesting. Think of all the boring Saturday Night Live sketches that only get funny when we watch one of the performers fight not to burst out laughing. It’s unexpected. And it’s endearing. The celebrity suddenly becomes human.

One of the reasons I find Sakita’s podcast “delightful” is that she is not afraid to be imperfect. Even though I’ve never met her, when I listen to an episode I feel like I’m gabbing with a girlfriend over tea, not listening to some blow-dried “expert.”

Now, please don’t mistake my praise of imperfection as license to be unprepared. If you stumble over a passage when delivering your speech because something distracted you momentarily—hey, it happens to the best of us. No harm, no foul.

But if you stumble because you haven’t read the thing before you stepped up to the microphone, shame on you. You’re not respecting your audience, and the time they’ve invested to listen to you.

Prepare to do your best, always—but don’t expect that “your best” will ever be perfect. It won’t be. And that’s probably a good thing.