Humor in Business Communications

Have you heard the one about humor in business communications? It’s funnier — well, at least more effective — than you might think.

When most marketers think about humor, it’s typically in the context of television and print ads. But humor can be an effective communication tool across a range of print and digital media, whether you’re talking to business-to-business or business-to-consumer audiences.

No kidding.

Business professionals are people, too. (Most of them, anyway.) And nearly all people enjoy a good laugh. (If they don’t, are you sure you really want to work with them?)

So how do you transform your business-as-usual communications into effective funny business — without turning your message into a joke? Here are six serious tips.

1. Don’t knock, knock it until you’ve tried it

At its best, humor brings people together. Just ask a comedy club owner counting his receipts. It also inspires — and gets talked about later. How often do your marketing communications have employees and customers quoting them for weeks, months, or even years after they appear? You don’t have to answer that.

2. Choose your target wisely

Every joke has a target. In business communications, aim carefully before you take your potshot. (Target audience is just an expression.)

Customers, employees, and other stakeholders must feel that they “get it” — and that the joke is on someone or something else, not at their expense. Humor creates a sense of community by affirming this unique bond between performer and audience.

Adding humor to communications can bring new communities together around the simplest idea: appreciation for your company.

3. Wear a watch, because timing is everything

Any stand-up comedian will tell you timing is everything when it comes to delivering humorous material. How does timing translate to print communications? To digital applications? It can be how punctuation paces a sentence, or how a photo, illustration, or animation makes the viewer do a double take. The littlest throwaway detail can lead to the biggest, most memorable laughs.

4. Play to the room

The literature for your next product launch is probably not the place for bathroom humor — unless you’re in the plumbing business. Fortunately, humor doesn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator to be effective. It can also be smart. More discriminating audiences simply require a more refined approach.

Wild and crazy. Subtle and clever. From the stand-up stage to the humor pages of The New Yorker, Steve Martin, for one, has proven that funny comes in many varieties.

Whether it’s slapstick or sophisticated, the best humor plumbs the experiences of the audience. Just like effective marketing communications. “Play to the room” is simply another way of saying speak to your audience about what’s important to them. Communicate only what you think is important and you’ll wind up the one with pie on your face. Or at least egg.

5. Remember that brevity is the soul of wit

There is such a thing as too much fun. Humor should serve your message — never overwhelm it. Less is more. Shakespeare said so.

6. Always leave them wanting more

In comedy as in business communications, the only thing more important than timing and brevity is knowing when to get off stage. Leaving your audience wanting more is always a better strategy than overstaying your welcome.

Tell people only what they need to know to understand your key messages — in the most engaging manner possible. They’ll ask questions (or heckle) if they want to know more. If you truly entertain them with your humor, they’ll become your biggest fans.

Stakeholder loyalty like that should make a joke or two worth the risk.

Seriously.