David Block stands up for using humour in business
Fancy a mouth-watering discount on a shipload of tuna? Then maybe you’d better not risk trying to be funny when talking business. Using humour can be beneficial when you’re putting across dry but important messages to a business audience, but the downside of going over the top and shooting yourself in the foot (please pardon the acrobatically mixed metaphors) can be catastrophic.
That’s the opinion of Gerry Thompson, boss of Positive Comedy Learning and Development. “Humour can help you connect with people, be persuasive and win them over. It helps overcome barriers and dispel tension and awkward situations; it adds impact, and helps you be liked and remembered,” he says. “But humour that goes wrong might mean being vividly remembered for the wrong reasons and for a very long time.
“A safe strategy is to make fun of yourself rather than anyone else – mildly self-deprecating humour is a classic British trait that most other people can enjoy. But watch out for cultural differences. Characterising yourself to the Japanese as an abject specimen of humanity won’t help when you’re negotiating to buy a shipload of tuna at a knock-down price.”
David Clement events lecturer at London College of Communication and author of Live Event Production agrees. “Use a light touch and understand your audience,” he advises. David recalls a sales director who thought he’d get a laugh by showing slides of a woman with a large bosom (not his exact word) to demonstrate expanding sales. “You could feel an icy wind blow through the auditorium and his reputation never recovered.”
David continues: “A happier personal memory using humour was an anarchic version of Great Expectations – adapting Dickens’ story to an IT corporate message. It worked exceptionally well because we used professional comedy writers. Then again, we needed to be careful that the delegates didn’t go away remembering the medium rather than the message.”
Mary O’Hagan, MD of Vivace is convinced of humour’s benefits. “Where it works best is when you have long staff relationships because there has to be a huge element of trust,” she says. “We organised a conference for a major, and rather staid City institution in which the messages were very dry, so we wrapped them up in a series of TV game shows. Britain’s Got Talent went down a storm when a senior manager stood on his head with his legs folded. They loved it. The whole event brought everyone closer together because they saw a new side to one another. But there’s a fine line between being funny – so people remember the corporate message – and taking the mickey or being crass, which leave a bad taste.”
Chris Jones, of Boys and Girls Promotions, echoes the warning.
“It has to be appropriate to the audience,” he says. “There’s a danger that humour can be misinterpreted as sarcasm or over confidence so it’s really important to be humble and honest if you’re trying to add wit to a business message. So, if I think humour will add to the decision process, or as a barrier breaker and relaxer I’ll use it. After all, who doesn’t enjoy laughing?”