“Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you’re probably watching the wrong channel.”

Groucho Marx

A good laugh is cathartic. I find I’m in a much better mood when I’ve had a chance to laugh. Often times it’s my husband who is responsible for this. Out of nowhere he will come up with these hysterical one-liners—often directed at himself—and it’s hard not to laugh. You see, he’s an engineer—not known for his communication skills. I would even say he’s a man of few words—not because he isn’t social—he is, but because he doesn’t need many words to get his point across. He uses humor. He’s self-deprecating, honest and real. He doesn’t take things too seriously, unless he has to. Those who work for him find him likeable, approachable and one of the most effective leaders they’ve ever had. The point here is not to stroke his ego—although I’m sure he is loving this boost! The real takeaway is that you don’t need an expansive vocabulary to be a great communicator. When you get people to respond the way you’ve intended, you’ve succeeded. Comedy is a great way to achieve this.

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I think we can all admit that corporate communications has always been a bit, shall we say, “dull”?  Your typical corporate piece—whether a memo, email or article—is dry and either excessively wordy or lacks any real context to help the reader understand what it is they are supposed to do once they’ve read it. Ultimately, it is quickly forgotten, or worse, not even read because no one has the time, energy or desire to read something that takes so much effort.

Take politics—not sure about you, but I’ve always found government and politics very hard to comprehend. There are so many moving parts and nothing—I mean NOTHING—is simple. Things don’t just happen (like building a website—ahem) —it takes months, if not years for something to become law or be accomplished. But, there is plenty of fodder for everyone from executives and teachers to stand-up comedians and talk show hosts to pull from for content inspiration.

You’ve all seen Jon Stewart’s, The Daily Show, right? Jon is damn funny—whether you agree with the direction he leans or not. His stories are, as Chris Bliss outlined in a TED Talk, “grounded in a commitment to facts.” Not only are they funny, they are effective. In fact, a Fairleigh Dickenson market research study showed that Daily Show viewers are more informed than other cable news show viewers. Those who watch the Daily Show are about as informed and knowledgeable as those who listen to NPR. 

In Chris’ TED Talk, he explained the brain science behind this and it makes a lot of sense. When adrenaline is released in our brain, it signals a “fight or flight” response. We all know that feeling. On the other hand, when we experience “mental delight”—such as when we attend a comedy show—our brain releases endorphins which bring down our defenses so we can take in the moment more. We can even retain what we just read or heard better. How many times have you shared some of the jokes you’ve heard at a show because you laughed so hard you couldn’t wait to tell others? Chris explained that comedy is “inherently viral” and only more so now that we have social media and a 24/7 news cycle.

So, as a communicator, how can you effectively use humor as part of your strategy? I will admit, humor timed poorly or that appears to be too edgy can be risky—especially in a corporate setting. Finding a good balance is key and the safest place to start is usually by poking fun at yourself—not in a manner that erodes your credibility—but in a way that shows you are genuine and just as vulnerable as everyone else. This kind of humor can be incorporated into speeches, in collateral materials, shared via town hall meetings, in emails and other forms of communication. It’s worth noting that it can be more challenging to convey humor in words than when shared verbally because it’s easy to misinterpret something in writing. The appropriate tone is more difficult to capture so it requires more finessing than perhaps when delivered in person. One way to do this is to adopt a more conversational tone in your writing. Less corporate speak, more real language. Write as if you talking to your audience.

Timeliness is the most important thing to consider when infusing humor. We’ve seen too many examples of attempts at being funny falling flat because the timing was off—as was the case with shoe designer Kenneth Cole who sent out an insensitive tweet linking his new shoe line to what was happening in Cairo, Egypt. A successful example at humor is Oreos perfectly timed ad tweeted during last year’s Super Bowl blackout: “You can still dunk in the dark.” As some have said, they “won social media” that night. That, they did.

Speaking of timeliness, here is a post that appeared this week on the Leadership Blog of the Washington Post website on this very topic: Did you hear the joke about the CEO? You know I planned it this way, right? Great minds…

How do you use humor as part of your communications strategy? Share with us in the comments below.