Using humor in business communications

Why use humor in business communications? Done correctly, humor can add personality and life to an otherwise dull or routine project. Anecdotes, humorous quotations or clever observations can help to win over a reader and make them more receptive to your message. In fact, many business books contain cartoons scattered throughout them designed to reinforce the text or garner a knowing chuckle from a reader who has “been there and done that.” (Indeed, that’s the entire basis of cartoons like “Dilbert” or television shows like “The Office.”)

However, if not handled with tact, comedy can backfire and ruin an otherwise fine piece of writing. Writer Suzan St. Maur penned an article a few years ago on using humor in business that makes several good points. She writes that it’s easy to get humor wrong, especially when communicating over the Internet, which is often devoid of context. Sometimes, it’s the body language or the inflection that turns a tasteless joke into a tasteful one. When that human element is missing, all bets are off as to how the recipient of the message will take it.

Still, humor can be used successfully if the proper precautions are taken. St. Maur advises writers to use jokes about situations, not people. All of us can relate to certain situations—a plumbing emergency, a toothache or a speeding ticket, for example—but we may take offense at jokes aimed at ethnic groups, minorities or public figures. St. Maur goes on to say that humor is best used like a spicy condiment in business communications: sparingly, and avoided altogether if one doesn’t know the tastes of one’s audience.

There are other ways in addition to those mentioned by St. Maur to inject a little levity into one’s writing. One is to be self-deprecating. While readers may be quick to condemn an author if that author pokes fun at someone else, they may be inclined to laugh along with the author if they’re poking fun at themselves. And the ability to laugh at one’s self and point out one’s own foibles can be viewed as a sign of wisdom, humility, confidence and a certain level of comfort in one’s own skin.

Another way is quote famous and respected humorists, whose work has gained a measure of respect and acceptance in general society. For example, Mark Twain once said, “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” A comment like that might offend if an unknown author made it, but coming from Twain, it is likely to make others smile.

Whatever approach an author uses, it’s always best to have respected co-workers (or two or three) review the piece before it goes to print. If it causes raised eyebrows in the office, it’s likely to do a lot more damage with a wider audience. As Shakespeare, himself no stranger to satire and the clever use of humor, wrote in Henry IV, “The better part of valour is discretion.” When in doubt, don’t.

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