Add a dash of humor to your writing

Why do most most of us business people shy away from using humor to communicate?

How about one or more of these three reasons:

  1. We don’t know how, or don’t believe we’re capable.
  2. We view humor as being inappropriate in business.
  3. We worry about failing or looking ridiculous.

I’m here to debunk or diminish all three of these myths.

Humor is an excellent business communication tactic. I’m not talking about the kind of rolling-in-the-aisles laughter expected of good stand-up comedians. I mean lightening up and finding ways to add more personality and wit.

  • Your audience will feel greater camaraderie and connection.
  • You will be perceived as being more confident and likable.

As I’ve been learning, humor is based on some fundamental principles that anyone can learn and apply, even those of us who were never the class clown.

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The basic principle of humor

If you are thinking of leaving this page, first read and remember this one truism about humor:

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’ll use a story about Dan Schreiber, CEO of consumer insurance startup Lemonade, to demonstrate the element of surprise. While talking about the state of the industry and the lack of trust and goodwill people have toward insurers, he mentioned a survey finding:

  • 25% of Americans believe it’s okay to defraud an insurance company.

Many business people would have made this 25% minority the focus, but Schreiber decided to focus on the majority—as it turns out, the moral majority. The most obvious statement he could have made lacks the element of surprise:

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

Another unexpected way to say it, which would have elicited at least a chuckle:

“Thank goodness 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:

“Thank goodness 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—another element of humor that I’ll share in a moment.

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:

Make two statements to set expectations and build anticipation, and then end with a third statement that’s a surprise twist.

Quick example:

Q1 revenue is in and the results are shameful. No region made plan, only three reps hit quota, and the top performer was Jane in customer service.

The humor formula of THREES

Another version of three in humor is the acronym THREES:

T for Target

Humor is usually directed at someone or something. To avoid offending someone, you can make yourself the target (self-deprecating humor) or focus on a shared enemy, like your company’s biggest competitor or a common problem experienced by everyone in your audience.

H for Hostility

Comedians can be harsh, angry and cruel. While I recommend business communicators don’t follow suit, a touch of hostility can be effective when it’s innocuous and aimed at a common, shared experience. For example, the copier that jams in the middle of #12 when you need fourteen copies of a report for a meeting in ten 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 a sure way to get a laugh. A smile? OK, maybe a groan, but a connection none-the-less.

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 when you have time for review and reflection, so you can find a trusted colleague or friend to give you an opinion before you hit publish or start your presentation.

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

If you’re worried about looking foolish, or that your peers will think less of you, start small and aim for lightness more than laughter. Be willing to stretch your comfort zone. Don’t be cruel or demeaning. And instead of joke-telling, opt for little stories and insights on commonly shared human experiences and beliefs.

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