January 31, 2013
Humor and business writing: At first blush it may seem like a strange marriage — Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn-level strange.
Humor is about taking chances, pushing envelopes, finding weaknesses and contradictions and pointing them out in ways ranging from lightly disparaging to downright cruel.
Business writing is about selling an idea, playing it safe (for the most part), giving the facts and explaining what they mean. These appear to be contradictory methods and goals.
Despite this, humor can be an effective part of a business writer’s arsenal. When you correctly execute it, humor will increase comprehension and help you win over your audience.
If you use humor incorrectly, however, then it will trash your argument, alienate your audience and force you to look for work in a country with limited-to-no-Internet access.
I am not suggesting dropping a few one-liners in the middle of a quarterly earnings call press release or beginning an annual report with “two nuns walk into a bar.” But, finding appropriate humor, such as showing funny ads you’ve run during a speech, can enliven and enlighten.
The rules for using humor in business writing are akin to those for using humor at the workplace. You must use humor appropriately, safely and in moderation, and it shouldn’t interfere with the workflow.
You cannot discuss topics that are “off-limits,” or call into ridicule someone or something who you should not be making fun of with a particular audience. For example, bosses cannot make fun of employees (with some exceptions) due to the power dynamic.
The safest person to use as the butt of your joke is, of course, yourself. However, you should not do this to the point that people start to think that you really are as “bad as you say.” Keep it light at all times, and you should be fine.
Why use humor? The most obvious answer is to keep your audience’s attention. As a rule, half of all business writing is boring, and the other half is even more boring. Business writing with a sense of humor will stand out.
Humor also helps to sell a point. “Sesame Street” learned this lesson back in the 1960s — people learn faster and better when you use humor to teach them. Both the joke and the lesson will stick in their minds; provided that it is the right joke for that lesson. Cookie Monster made children laugh — he also taught them how to count to 10.
Successful humor, in any circumstance, gives an audience the impression that the speaker or writer really knows the subject. To make a joke work, the writer has to understand what he or she’s discussing so thoroughly that he or she can see the contradictions or problems with it.
George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” showcases his knowledge of performing, obscenities, and the English language — all are strong suits for him. Since the bit worked, as listeners, we know that he has thought about these issues and ideas, and found an area of them that deserves exploration, discussion and laughter. (And, if you’ve never heard this bit, then stop reading this now and find it on YouTube. Just make sure there aren’t any children or office managers around — it defines “Not Safe For Work.”)
Similarly, if you successfully inject humor into your writing, then people will see you as knowing the subject so well that you can find the areas that can be ridiculed. This gives your audience the impression that you “really know your stuff.”
The most common use of humor in business writing is in public speaking. One of the first questions that people seem to ask when writing a speech is: “What joke will we use to open this?” It’s become an expected, and even overused, opening. But it is also one of the most effective.
There are two major mistakes that writers and speakers often make when opening with a joke. The first is picking one that does not work for the specific audience. It is offensive, unfunny, or hits an area that this particular group does not know about or want to laugh about.
The second is having a joke that is completely unrelated to the talk itself. If you start a speech with a fantastic story about a duck hunter and a priest, but don’t explain how that story ties into your key points, then you have guaranteed that no one will remember those points. All anyone will discuss is that “great duck hunter joke.”
But, if you immediately explain how you, your audience, or your topic is like “the hunter” (or, unfortunately, “the duck”) then your audience should remember both the story and the points you wanted to make.
The printed page is the most difficult medium for making people laugh (as this article is proving more and more). Think of all the things that have made you laugh out loud during the years — how many were something you read, as opposed to heard or saw? A reader has to add his or her own nuance and delivery to the written word, which deprives the writer of imparting his or hers.
Of course, since most business communication is written, this makes it even more challenging for the writer trying to be funny. Elements such as sarcasm and irony are extremely challenging — if not outright impossible — in print. If in doubt, then leave it out.
To end with a business term, humor can provide a large return on investment for the corporate writer. But, it also poses risk.
If you take small steps, get feedback from others, stick your neck out just a little, and save the challenging material for your screenplay or stand-up act, then you can improve your writing and your career.