Using Humor in Business: Some Practical Advice

by Colin Shaw on September 23, 2013

Using Humor in Business: Some Practical AdviceIs business the right place to be funny? Surely business is a serious place and humor doesn’t have a place in it? I disagree, I think humour is greatly underused in business today and can differentiate you from the crowd. Let me give you an example…

When I was in corporate life I attended one of my first very senior meetings. It was on the top floor of our HQ, and in the special board meeting room where only the most senior exec met. You had to have an IQ test before they let you in!

As I entered the meeting room and sat down I looked around and was surprised by the lack of conversation as we waited for people to arrive. You could feel the tension in the room. I had to make a decision. Do I join them and just sit there and say nothing or do I act normal? Well normal for me anyway! I decided to act normal, so I did something terrible! I spoke to them and made a few funny comments! I decided to treat them as I would if I met them socially. I asked them how their weekend had been. These guys looked at me shocked! As I didn’t get much of a reply from them I started to tell them a funny story about something that happened to me at the weekend. Within 5 minutes everyone was laughing, the tone of the remainder of the meeting was business-like but when appropriate I threw in the odd quip to lighten the mood. I had cracked the ice and more importantly for my career, I had made an impression. They wouldn’t forget who I was…

If I go back in time I was not a model student. A teacher wrote in my end of year report that “Colin is the clown of the class.” I read that and I had to agree, if by clown they meant that I like making people laugh – guilty as charged. School gave me a great audience and I used it to hone my humor skills. I am not a joke teller, my speciality is every day banter or as we would say in England ‘taking the mickey’. These are the things that naturally occur in everyday conversations. You may call it wisecracking or sarcasm, but whatever you call it, that’s what I do.

Wisecracking has a price, however. All the energy and time that I was devoting to my witty remarks at school should have been used to focus on my studies. So when school was out I didn’t have the marks and education needed to really join the workforce in a meaningful way. While my friends went on to get good jobs and start their lives after school, I found myself stacking boxes. Not exactly my dream job!

What I have learned since then is what was a distraction in school has become an asset in business. I learned that humor is good for business and is not used enough. If you are funny, people like you and people want to do business with people they like. A joke can be the differentiator from landing the account to getting passed over.

Some people are naturally funny. My son, and my youngest daughter, have inherited my humor genes. But my eldest daughter, did not. She takes after my wife Lorraine who was bypassed when they were giving out the humor genes. It’s not she doesn’t laugh, it’s just that she is not funny. For those two, I often find myself saying, “If you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny!”

Comedians have common traits that make them able to be funny. They are observers and notice things that other do not. But seeing things is not enough. Comedians can also be judgmental, which when combined with humor is the basis for some forms of comedy, particularly stand.

But comedians are more than just complainers. Generally, they are more open to trying new things. They are curious by nature and are more open to new experiences. But that should not be confused with being agreeable. Their disagreeable nature comes in handy when complaining about the experience. This trait is another way that they can differentiate themselves from the non-humorous.

Using Humor in Business

Here is how I use humor in the workplace and it has helped me immensely when:

  • Building relationships: I use laughter, wisecracks, banter to get on with my clients and build rapport. I believe if someone likes you, then that is half the battle won. Our repartee let’s us get to know each other and start building a relationship.
  • Increasing the impact of my speeches: Audiences remember things better from speeches when they laugh so I now make sure I get the audience laughing when I deliver my keynote speeches LINK on Customer Experience as I find they retain more of my message this way. Like the comedian, I look for examples of where companies provide poor experiences.
  • Engaging audiences on a serious topic: Serious points can be a drag for audiences, and unfortunately, they can tune out. But if you combine your serious point with humor, they are far more engaged and you can still get over a serious message. We use this in our Customer Experience Management Training. It’s a combination of laughing at some of the poor customer experiences and why people do what they do, while, at the same time, communicating an important concept.
  • Creating a happier work environment: Humor goes a long way in the workplace atmosphere. Laughter can create a happier environment, which in turn creates a more harmonious team.

How Do You Use Humor in Your Customer Experience?

Humor helps create relationships and build trust. The basis of a good, long-lasting customer relationship is to create trust with them. But humor also begins the relationship with an emotion, maybe surprise or relief or amusement. Whatever the emotion, it is engaging your customer and generates value. As a regular reader of my blog, you know that a good customer experience is important. Here are some ideas on how you can incorporate this important tool in your customer experience.

4 Tips for Using Humor Effectively:

  1. Identify the right points for humorous interaction: Humor may not go over well in the accounting department, or at least they need to be number related jokes for them to get them. In my view, front-line staff should be encouraged to joke with customers, but they have to have the skills to do this. They will set the tone for the experience moving forward.
  2. Know the limits of taste: This is critical to successful integration of humor into business. You need to know what would be a great wisecrack to one person could be offensive to another, especially when dealing internationally. Always err on the side of caution.
  3. Encourage the natural exchange: Please resist stifling staff with scripts; we should encourage people’s personality to come forward.
  4. The only target is you: There is a big difference between laughing at someone than with someone. I have learned not to make fun of people in the audience but to make fun of myself.

Humor is underutilized in business situations. I believe that humor can be what aids your success in nearly every part of your working life. Most of all, humor can be the difference between landing the account and hearing that the client is ‘going in another direction’.

Maybe you, too, are a funny person. But honestly, it’s okay if you aren’t. There are things you can do to seem like a funny person. Better yet, you can hire people to be funny for you.

Colin Shaw

Colin Shaw is founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of four best-selling books & recognized Business Influencer by LinkedIn. Beyond Philosophy provide consulting, specialised research & training from our Global Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, USA.

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Colin ShawUsing Humor in Business: Some Practical Advice