Why you should add a dash of humor

Humor is one of the best ways to engage your audience.

Good speakers and writers find ways to inject wit, personality and humor into their speeches and writing, yet most business people shy away from humor. As an on-again, off-again member of this group myself, I can say with confidence that it’s due to one or more of these three reasons:

  1. We don’t know how or don’t believe we’re capable of being funny.
  2. We feel humor is inappropriate in business communication.
  3. We’re worried about failure or other negative consequences.

I’m here to debunk or diminish all three of these myths, because humor is an excellent business communication tactic. And the good news is that I’m not talking about side-splitting, tears-in-your-eyes, rolling-in-the-aisles laughter, but simply lightening up and finding ways to add more personality.  It will bring you a number of benefits:

  • Your audience will feel greater camaraderie and connection.
  • You will appear more confident and likable.
  • Both you and your audience will be more relaxed.

And as I’ve been learning, humor is based on some fundamental principles that anyone can learn and apply, even those of us who are not gifted with natural entertainment abilities.

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The basic principle of humor

If you learn nothing else in this article, remember this:

Humor is about the unexpected—leading your audience down one path, and then saying or doing something different and surprising, to the effect of, ‘Whoa, didn’t see that coming!’

I’m going to share an example later in this article, coming from a CEO in a business setting, to show how it can be done naturally and effectively.

Humor as easy as 1, 2, 3

I try to promote the “Rule of Three” in much of my business communication advice, because it’s useful in many situations, including humor. The rule of three for humor involves stating two things to set expectations and build anticipation, and then ending with a third statement that’s a surprise twist.

For example, I gave a speech that included a story of betting a roommate that she could get the table cleared after dinner and the dishwasher loaded in just ten minutes, and we agreed on a cushion of 30 seconds. Just before the timer rang, she broke a fine crystal goblet. I described this in the speech by saying, “I felt so bad. What a shame! She had to use her 30 seconds to clean up the broken glass.”

Combining those words with the right tone of voice, facial expression and timing got me a few chuckles and smiles all around.

The humor formula of THREES

Another version of three in humor is the acronym THREES:

T for Target

Humor is directed at someone or something. For appropriate business communication that doesn’t make Myth #3 a reality, it’s best to make yourself the target (self-deprecating humor), or a shared “enemy” like your biggest competitor, or a common problem or annoyance experienced by everyone in your audience. Of course, you should be very careful about making your company or its employees, leaders or partners the target—what you may consider poking fun could be perceived differently.

H for Hostility

Comedians can be harsh, angry and cruel. While I recommend business communicators don’t exactly follow suit, a touch of hostility can be effective when it’s innocuous and aimed at a common, shared experience. For example, the office copier that always jams in the middle of a big project, like the seventeen copies of a report you need for a meeting in 10 minutes.

R for Realism

Realism is about something your audience can relate to—like the above copier example—experiences and frustrations that are relevant and real.

E for Exaggeration

The key to making sure that your real story is funny is through a little embellishment, otherwise realism is really boring and mundane. Exaggeration is often necessary to bring out the humor in something, so take a little poetic license, especially when storytelling, and amp up the details. Maybe it was only seven copies you needed, and the meeting wasn’t starting for another hour.

E for Emotion

Humor is about feeling, and feelings are about emotions. Use of language, how you add color and detail, sharing your own feelings will all contribute to the entertainment factor. In the case of speaking, your facial expressions, timing and body language also will contribute to (or detract from) a humorous effect.

S for Surprise

This is the final one and the foundation of humor, already mentioned. An unexpected twist is key.

Humor in which industry?

Think of an industry sector that might be known for having a little humor, fun and personality. Now set that aside to hear about this example from an executive with an insurance company.

Dan Schreiber, CEO of consumer insurance startup Lemonade, was talking about the state of the industry and the lack of trust and goodwill people have toward insurers. To support that, he mentioned a survey that showed 25% of Americans believe it’s okay to defraud an insurance company.

That’s a startling data point that many execs would refer to as their opportunity for change and disruption. Instead he turned his focus on the other 75%.

The most obvious statement he could have made (and stating the obvious can be funny, when done right) lacks the element of surprise:

“Thank goodness the majority knows it’s wrong to commit insurance fraud.”

Another statement is a bit unexpected and could have elicited a chuckle:

“The other 75% were brought up better than to commit fraud.”

But what Schreiber actually said was brilliant, because he took a sharp, clear turn toward the unexpected:

“The other 75% were brought up better than to admit that sort of thing…”

Not only was it unexpected; it had just the right touch of realism, and even a little hostility targeted toward the 25% percent. Even if you didn’t laugh, you probably smiled.

And when we’re smiling, we’re thinking and feeling good things.

Busting the myths of humor in business

Let’s return to the three humor myths, in case you have lingering doubts:

1. We don’t know how, or we don’t believe we’re capable of being funny.

Remember the principle of THREES, and especially the essential rule of the unexpected.

2. We don’t believe humor is appropriate in business communication.

If an insurance exec can do it, I think any business person can, especially for planned communications. That gives you time to find a trusted colleague or friend in advance to give you another opinion.

3. We’re worried about failure or other negative consequences.

Is looking foolish the failure you have in mind? Be willing to stretch your comfort zone. Be authentic, don’t be cruel or demeaning and focus on shared experiences and beliefs. Start small and aim for lightness more than laughter.

And finally, don’t be afraid to inject a little humor in your business writing and speaking. For audiences accustomed to dry topics and lack of imagination in presenting them, humor can be a welcome surprise.

Watch interview with Lemonade CEO Dan Schreiber