Updated: Aug 27
That’s the age-old question coming up of late thanks to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and a Netflix comedy boom.
Let’s unpack the first part of this question. Should you use humor? A better question is, Why do you want to use it?
If it’s to relax your audience, align with them more closely, or entertain them, the answer is, as a doctor might say, “It depends.“
Because when it comes to comedy at work, context and who you are matters.
HBR SPOILS THE FUN
An utterly unfunny study published in the Harvard Business Review about the use of humor showed men who added jokes to their presentations were viewed as having higher levels of status within the organization and received higher performance ratings and leadership capability assessments. Good news, right? Not if you’re a woman. Women, who gave the exact same presentation, were viewed as having lower status, received lower performance ratings, and were considered less capable as leaders.
Sad news if you take it at face value. However, I think this study leaves out some important factors that influence the outcome. Like how well you know your audience, your brand of leadership, and leadership reputation. Plus, whether the jokes used were grandpa jokes or well written and clever. There seems to be a lot more credit given to men when they make an effort and forgiveness for them when they bomb.
NAILING HUMOR WITHOUT GETTING NAILED
In his 2016 White House Correspondent’s speech titled “Obama Out” President Obama crushed it. Note he brought in professional comic writers, not his funny bestie, and they were people who knew his style well. Plus, Obama personally knew almost everyone in the audience, having spent the last eight years talking with the majority of them. The timing of the speech gave him more latitude. Coming at the end of his presidency, there was little to lose, except perhaps being invited to speak at Goldman Sachs, which became joke fodder. Lastly, he reviewed and commented on each joke — meaning he didn’t just read it, he internalized it.
Obama stays in his humor lane, falling into the clever and unexpected. Specifically with:
Irony– language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. For example,“My brilliant and beautiful wife Michelle is here tonight. She looks so happy to be here. It’s called practice. Like learning to do three-minute planks. She makes it look easy now.”
Poking fun at the next administration while being reflective. “Eight years ago, I said it was time to change the tone of our politics. In hindsight, I clearly should have been more specific.”
He also used self-deprecating humor, as when he says,
“Eight years ago, I was a young man full of idealism and vigor. And look at me now. I am gray. Grizzled. Just counting down the days to my death panel.”
DELIVERING LIKE A BOSS
While great writing that’s true to your personal brand is paramount, your delivery can make or break you. When it comes to funny, you have to think and prepare like a Colbert, not the new guy at open mic night.
Obama stayed true to his leadership communications style — typified by a conversational tone and measured pace. He didn’t change his delivery to meet the joke
This is a frequent mistake made during company conferences. A C-suite exec jumps (or worse skips) around on stage looking like a rodeo clown distracting a bull. Then screams a welcome before rounding off with a lame joke. Uncomfortable at best. Damaging at worst. Especially if the leader’s credibility is already on the line.
THE RORSCHACH JOKE TEST
What type of humor is best for novices?
A Benign Truth that’s Unexpected. For example, I worked on a speech for the CTO of Walmart Labs who recognized younger audiences hold certain perceptions about Walmart style choices. So, we showed on trend products from Hayneedle and ModCloth. Then, the CTO asked how many people in the audience shopped at either place. Quite a few people raised their hands. The punchline came when he said,
“Well, I have to inform you, if you’ve shopped at one of these, you’ve shopped Walmart.”
Yes, the joke is on the audience, but it’s basically inoffensive as it simply points out an unexpected reality.
Self-deprecating humor can work, but only if you’re coming from a strong leadership platform and the audience knows you well. At one company’s first big global sales training meeting, the head of sales, a much respected and well-liked guy, made a pointed joke about feedback he’d received about past training materials by saying, “This year, I promise you will not be subjected to death by PowerPoint.” The crowd enjoyed their inside moment.
Then there’s visual juxtaposition. The president of a global pet brand company, known as an operational leader, wanted to start showing his lighter, more relational side. During a speech about company milestones, he slipped in a photo of a crazy mullet-wearing guy with a dog. It struck a lighter tone and earned him a laugh.
What doesn’t work?
Grandpa humor. Stephan Colbert can get away with silly puns in reference to the current president’s mangling of the word orange, but everyone else will just get an eye roll and a groan.
Mean humor. Poking fun at anyone to make them feel bad about themselves or their choices is verboten. Period. The competition included. You never know when you might want to buy the competition, be bought by them, or possibly become partners
I shouldn’t have to say this, but just in case, never use any type of base humor. In my stand-up class, we know a good fart or sex joke always gets a laugh, but we avoid it. There are so many more clever ways to do humor, why would you resort to the most basic? From a strategic point, it demonstrates nothing of value about you.
KEEPING IT REAL
When it comes to humor, know thyself. Very well. When I first started writing jokes, I didn’t know my own voice. Was my humor sharp and biting (John Oliver), hidden and clever, or playful (Ellen DeGeneres and James Corden)? Was my delivery droll? Over-the-top? Conversational?
Using your natural communications style (or if you’re writing for someone else, knowing theirs) works for most people in a business situation. Mine, no surprise, turned out to be exaggerated storytelling with a twist.
Still feeling lost? Start by watching comedy for a while — a wide range — to see what’s appealing to you (or the person you write for) across the comedy board. Then compare it to what you know about yourself and your leadership style (or theirs). Then modify. Borrowing is good, but if you hope to be like Two Dope Queens or Jim Mulaney, remember they’re one of a kind, and so are you.
And major tip — before you go prime time, test everything internally first with people who tell you the truth. (If you’re a CEO, spouses and grown kids are often good barometers.) Then, test your humor on trusted people outside your audience. If you get a negative result, kill the joke. When in doubt, don’t.
AN ON RAMP TO HUMOR
Interested in exploring the flavor of humor that fits your professional brand and can work with your audience? We have a workshop for that.
*Death Panel: Sarah Palin, former Republican Governor of Alaska, coined the term when she charged that proposed legislation on healthcare would create a “death panel” of bureaucrats who would decide whether Americans — such as her elderly parents, or children with Down syndrome — were “worthy of medical care”.