We all know that laughter reduces stress, increases energy, motivates and makes people feel better about themselves and others. Yet many offices are serious spaces, with people worrying that a joke could offend, inspire ridicule or make them look unworthy of promotion.
Yes, humour can bring risks. But, handled the right way, the risks are outweighed by the rewards of happier people. And don’t forget that funny people attract attention and hotties.
After too many years of serious corporate writing, I’ve tried to be funny in some of my blog posts. As some of my readers might agree, often I’m a comedian only in my own mind. In case you didn’t catch on, this is an example of self-deprecating humour. No belly laughs, but maybe you smiled.
From much of the tedious communication that crosses my desk, I know that many others need help to rediscover their inner comedian.
I asked for advice from one of the funniest people I know, Kathleen McAulay, therapeutic clown, stand-up comedian and workplace humour consultant.
That last title is not a joke. She’s worked with many organizations that recognize the benefits of laughter.
Kathleen offered three tips for revving up humour: be yourself, tell stories and interact.
1. Be yourself
Kathleen urges would-be office comics to think about the kind of humour that works for them. “Some people just can not tell a joke, but they’re quick with the one-liners. Other people may want to illustrate their point with a funny story about what their kid did the other day.” Observational humour, satire, exaggeration, fantasy or silliness may also work.
To make my humour work for me, I might leverage the fact that I’m a speed talker. When I get going too fast, I will often pause briefly, telling people I need to breathe and let them catch up. It’s good for a chuckle.
The point is to cultivate your personal brand of humor. As Jerry Seinfeld said: “The whole object of comedy is to be yourself and the closer you get to that, the funnier you will be.”
2. Tell stories
Pick the physical details that will help your audience visualize your story. Share feelings they can identify with. Although the stories should be based on the truth, feel free to exaggerate.
For example, I’ve written about my frustration with my 83-year-old mother who insists on smoking outside of her nursing home in raging blizzards. I point out that she permits me to wheel in her snow-crusted body before hypothermia strikes. I could tear up at how sad my mother’s life is or how pathetic I am to let her control me. I prefer to laugh about her love for cigarettes and my struggle to act like the adult when she’s around. Don’t get me started about my bicycle-riding blind father.
With live humour, you must interact with the audience. Kathleen advises people who want to inject more fun into their presentations or meetings to take courses in improv comedy. “It’s the best way to learn how to read your audience and learn how to communicate through body language, tone and rhythm.”
For written humour, Kathleen recommends writing in a conversational tone, as if you were performing, building in phrases and styles that suggest body language, pauses and other live elements.
Now you’re probably rolling your eyes and making that “tsk” sound between your teeth, while muttering “How can I convey body language and interact?” Hint: I just did.
Kathleen encourages people to test out their comedy, especially if they’re in doubt, with someone who will be brutally honest.
Stay away from the sarcasm and humour that could take a nasty turn. Kathleen promotes humour that builds up, not tears down.
Often it’s tempting to build us-against-them cohesion, and laughs, by lampooning politicians and other public figures. But remember this works only if you have the comedic instincts of a Jon Stewart or Roseanne Barr.
Because office humour is risky, you need to be careful. But don’t avoid it. Stick to the humour that works for you with your family and friends. If you’re never funny in your personal life, you can still play the straight man to the guy or gal who grew up as the classroom clown.
Why do we need more laughter at work?
We spend more time with the people at work than we do with our families so there are plenty of reasons to laugh more. Here are a few.
• The bottom line will be served by decreasing stress and increasing motivation, energy and creativity.
• Customer service will be lifted up to a level of personal expression that warms customers, suppliers and prospects. Bosses, project leaders, customer service reps and sales people will connect with their teams and customers.
• People are far more likely to remember what you’ve said. “It’s like a highlighter,” Kathleen says.
• Humour makes us less likely to want to shoot one another.