Wait! Was that Supposed to be Funny?! Depends!

It took many emails, phone calls and personal visits to establish my credibility with this group of senior managers who had gathered in our Hong Kong office for a carefully-orchestrated strategic planning meeting. But all of that changed in an instant with one inappropriate, poorly-timed joke by my manager who had insisted on kicking off the meeting. (Since I had invited him, they held me accountable for his behavior.)

For years afterward, I squelched my natural proclivity for teasing, erring on the side of caution, especially in business settings. It just never seemed worth the risk. Likewise, I have advised my cross-cultural training clients to avoid humor when in doubt. But, the more I observe people who use humor effectively to interact with an audience, the more I realize that humor can be an incredibly effective way to engage with and connect to an audience, if you know how, when, why, and where to use it.

For this edition of Communique, I turned to Izzy Gesell, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), “Organizational Alchemist,” coach, facilitator and keynoter  who helps individuals and organizations enhance their effectiveness by applying the principles and practices of humor and improv. No one has a better appreciation for the benefits of well-placed humor, how and why it works (or doesn’t), and why it’s usually worth the effort. Here’s some valuable guidance distilled from my conversation with Izzy, which can be put into practice immediately. And that’s no joke!

  • To deliver humor effectively, use it in the right context. Just because you laughed at your friend’s joke over dinner last night, doesn’t mean that this morning’s audience will find it funny. “Off-the-shelf” humor rarely works well. An important part of “timing” is context. Take the time to understand your audience’s make-up, common interests, shared concerns, relationships with each other, and other factors to best determine how, whether and when to use levity. For example, if people are gathered to explore a serious topic, tread lightly. However, if this is a team-building or brainstorming session, the crowd may expect and appreciate a healthy dose of humor throughout the day. Know that every time we use humor, we take a bit of a risk. It can turn a neutral person into a fan, a friend or an enemy. Just because your intentions are honorable, your humor will not have the intended impact if you don’t frame it in the proper context.
  • Use humor to build bridges. Even when a group of people have no common language or shared experiences, if something strikes them as funny at the same time, whether they’re laughing silently or out loud, they are building relationships. Whether you’re presenting, facilitating or training an audience, the key is to find that bit of humor in whatever form it takes that will cause your audience to smile, nod or laugh in response. Not only are you making a connection with your audience, but you are helping them to connect with each other, too. As skillfully-placed lighting can illuminate a theater, laughter can help fill up space in a positive, energizing way. For example, think to a time you were on a plane with a humorous flight attendant leading the safety demo. Chances are you laughed, looked around and saw others laughing and felt the shared experience with the others. People tend to laugh more when they are around others who find the same thing funny. Humor has a way of making us feel safe and connected. Laughing together can be an antidote to loneliness, helping us create shared connections.
  • Using humor as a “shield” can help forge connections with our audience, if used wisely. Self-effacing humor can help us achieve a kind of parity with our audience, making people feel like “we’re all in this together.” For example, if you trip over a cord or tip over your water bottle, making a joke about it, (“Please keep track of the number of times I trip; 3 is my record!”), can help put your embarrassed, empathic audience (and yourself) at ease. However, self-deprecation, where you put yourself down (“I’m sorry I’m so clumsy, I do this all the time”) can have the opposite effect, creating discomfort for your audience, diminishing your credibility. Know the difference.
  • Using humor as a spotlight can work to draw attention to, or away from, Some people use humor in an attempt to attract attention to themselves or to engender the affection of the group. Humor can also be used to deflect or distract attention from someone else or from a topic that you or the group may not want to deal with at the time. For example, if a conversation becomes tense, as a facilitator, we might suddenly change the conversation to the weather (“Can you believe all this snow?”) or the fortunes of our local sports team (“What about those Red Sox?”) in an obvious (and perhaps desperate) attempt to change the subject, anticipating laughter as a result, which has a way of lessening tension. Consider your intended outcome if using humor in this way to determine if it’s likely to achieve the desired results.
  • Using humor as a weapon works only in rare circumstances. For most of us, putting someone down for the sake of a quick laugh rarely endears us to our audience. You may get a nervous laugh from some people, but many will be offended, seeing your attempt at humor as a quick way to gain power or status. Some people use this negative form of humor, in which one diminishes another and fosters a winner-loser mentality, to manage their own fears or mask their nervousness. Using humor to denigrate others can sometimes work when you poke fun of people with a higher perceived status than you or your audience, such as a politician or celebrity, but it rarely works in the other direction, when the target of your joke has less power or status.
  • The best humor is structured like a good story. Start with a set-up of some kind to provide context, explain the problem, and reveal the “solution” or outcome (a.k.a. punchline). A quick example from comedian Henny Youngman: “One time I bet on a horse (context) that was so slow (problem) that the jockey kept a diary of the trip (punchline).” Regardless of the type of humor or the method conveyed (whether telling a joke, staging a physical pratfall, showing a video clip, etc.), it’s the element of surprise or shift of perspective that makes something funny. Responding to humor is similar to what our brains experience during the creative process. We experience something unexpected that our brains recognize as an “a-ha” moment, something positive. We “get” it, and that makes us feel good.
  • Choose your subjects and topics carefully. Rather than simply avoiding the use of humor with audiences from other cultures, whether national, regional or even organizational, research your audience to discover where people are likely to see humor, and in what form. Unless you’ve grown up in a particular culture, it will be almost impossible for you to understand all of the nuances and underlying assumptions that other cultures might find funny. Stick with topics that are fairly universal (e.g., technology, aging, parenting, or certain elements of popular culture like music or films). If you’re working with a fairly homogenous group, find out what experiences or challenges they share. Stay away from topics best avoided, like politics, religion, or other hot button items. Check with colleagues or friends in advance to validate your assumptions.
  • Timing is everything. Some people start off with a joke to break the ice and create a positive rapport with their audience. But, depending on the audience, the goals of this gathering, the mood in the room and other factors, starting off with a joke can be a risky proposition, putting your audience off-balance at the outset, especially if your attempt at humor falls flat. It’s best to mentally review the agenda to determine when (and whether) the insertion of humor will create positive energy. For example, you might want to add some levity at a particular juncture to defuse a stressful discussion. Seed the environment with humor by having a relevant quote on the screen or chart. A George Carlin quote Izzy uses for creativity sessions: “What was the best thing before sliced bread?”
  • Tap into different ways to express humor. Not all humor takes the form of a quip or a joke. You can also use quotes, puzzles, music, emojis, comics, images, video clips, ads, etc., to work the room. If you’re working in a virtual room, you can post these in a virtual conference area. Some people may take longer to catch on than others, especially if the humor is nuanced or subtle. This lag time, which often happens when people come from different cultures or perspectives, can make something even funnier. If people are filing into a room, or hopping onto a call, try using images, puzzles or a “pop quiz” question to lighten the mood at the outset.
  • People can learn to be funny. Not everyone is a natural-born comedian. Humor is a cognitive skill that people can cultivate and hone. A practice that professional comedians and humorists use is to consciously note inconsistencies, paradoxes and incongruities that occur in everyday life. The more you pay attention to them, the more intuitive your humor will be. When you write down these momentary flashes of humor, you’ll start creating a wealth of material. You can capture these thoughts in a journal or use pictures or videos. Don’t edit as you go. Capture everything. Then be on the lookout for ways to weave some of these ideas into a presentation, training session, or conversation. Bounce your ideas off colleagues and friends if you’re in doubt. Practice can help refine your delivery, but too muchpractice can make you appear overly glib or stilted. Strike the balance that makes you feel most comfortable.
  • Sarcasm can be a razor’s edge. Use it with caution, and deliver it with care. Some cultures (and people) see sarcastic wit as a sign of a well-developed intellect. Others are confused or put off by sarcasm, especially when it’s delivered with a deadpan expression. Most people don’t enjoy being put off-balance, unsure whether to laugh or take offense. If you tend toward a sardonic delivery, keep it in check, unless you and your audience know each other well. This is especially true when communicating virtually, when people can’t read your facial expressions. (And no, telling people that “you’re just kidding” doesn’t let you off the hook if you offend someone with your sarcasm.)

Even though the use of humor can feel risky at times, the paybacks can be enormous. Humor can be a great way to make meaningful connections with, and among, other people. It can also help shift difficult dynamics and inject new life into a tired group. For some people, being funny seems to come naturally, while others need to work at it. The first step: Raise your awareness about what things make you laugh, and capture them. And then consider how you can share these moments, through stories, images or another way that will spark joy in others.


Tips from Izzy  – How to retell a great joke – download PDF tip sheet

Check out Izzy’s website

Brainstorming Across Borders – downloadable PDF tip sheet from Guided Insights

Facilitating Cross-Cultural Conversations workshops from Guided Insights

Past Communiques:

Head off problems before cultural differences can get in the way

11 Expert Tips for Crossing the Cultural Chasm


The Neuroscience of Humor Investigated in Medical News today

The Neuroscience of Jokes in Brainworld Magazine

This is your brain on humor  in LiveHappy.com

How to Organize a Workshop: 7 Tips for Multi-Day Training – blog from ezCater

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