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Using Humor in Business Communications

By March 19, 2012Article

As a humor consultant, the question I’m most frequently asked is can humor provide any strategic advantage in business? The simple answer is yes. Humor can command attention, create rapport, defuse conflict and motivate people. Whether you’re talking to one person or one thousand, using humor can make your point, build goodwill and get an audience on your side.
The second most frequently asked question is what if I can’t tell a joke? The simple answer is don’t tell any. (Unfortunately, many people who can’t tell jokes don’t heed this advice. Then they lose credibility and their audience.)
The third most frequently asked question is if I can’t tell a joke, how can I use humor successfully? Here’s the answer. There are several simple types of non-joke humor that anyone can use effectively. They don’t require any special comedic skill or delivery. My favorite one is the quotation.
A rule to remember
Funny quotes provide a simple, easy and proven way for injecting humor into any presentation or conversation. And there’s only one rule to remember. No matter what you quote, make sure it illustrates a point you’re making. Analogize it.
For example, let’s say you’ve proposed a budget for upgrading essential IT services for your company. But your board suggests a cheaper solution. You can say that you feel like astronaut Neil Armstrong when he was asked if he was nervous before he went to the moon. He said, “Of course, who wouldn’t be? There I was sitting on top of 9,999 parts and bits – each of which had been made by the lowest bidder.”
Arguing about contracts? Remind your audience of the words of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen: “The big print giveth and the fine print taketh away.”
Does someone want to know if you read a long, boring report recently issued about your industry? “That report is an instant classic,” you might observe. “Of course, as Mark Twain once said, ‘a classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.’” Or just quote Samuel Goldwyn: “I read part of it all the way through.”
You can also paraphrase a quote by changing it slightly to fit your situation. For example, W. Somerset Maugham once said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” You can paraphrase him by saying there are three rules for writing a budget, memo – or whatever you’re working on.
Adding lines like these to your daily communications makes people look forward to working with you. And your ability to analogize funny quotes to your points is limited only by your imagination.
Whose joke is it?
But there is another issue that’s important to consider. Who do you quote? A recent study conducted in England has important implications for answering this question. Two psychologists from Coventry University set out to determine whether a joke is perceived as funnier if people think it was told by a famous comedian. In other words, is the audience influenced by whether they expect the joke teller to be funny?
They took 430 student volunteers and split them into two groups. Each group received a set of identical jokes and was asked to rate them on a scale of 1-100. (The jokes were written on paper so that timing and delivery wouldn’t affect the outcome.) One group was told that the jokes came from well-known British comedians such as Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr. The second group was told that the jokes came from non-funny British celebrities such as David Cameron and Jamie Oliver. In another experiment, each group received identical jokes but the name of the comedian or celebrity who told the joke was blacked out.
The results showed that the perceived funniness of a joke depends on the teller’s reputation more than the quality of the material. Participants rated identical jokes almost 50 percent funnier when they thought they came from a well-known comedian rather than a non-funny celebrity. But when they didn’t know who told the jokes, there was no difference in funniness ratings. Similarly, there was no difference in perceived funniness between jokes attributed to an unnamed comedian and jokes attributed to an unnamed celebrity.
According to the researchers, the name of the person responsible for the joke is critical. “We argue that using the name of someone who people consider funny generates an expectancy of humor when hearing a joke,” said researcher Andy Johnson on the Coventry University website. “This predisposes people to find the joke funnier than if they heard it from a non-comedic source.”
This finding has three major implications for speakers using funny quotes:

  • It suggests that you should identify the author of the quote. Saying “as an old philosopher once said” or “as a famous writer once said” or even “as a well-known comedian once said” will weaken the perceived funniness of the quote.
  • You should make sure that your audience thinks the author of the quote is funny. As George Bernard Shaw once said. As Oscar Wilde once said. As Jerry Seinfeld once said. We know these people are funny and we expect their quotes to be funny.
  • And that raises the third implication: is it ethical to attribute a funny quote to a famous funny person even if he or she didn’t say it? And what if you write your own funny one-liner – is it ethical to attribute that to a famous comedian? According to the study, doing so would increase the perceived funniness.

So what should you do? That’s a matter for your own individual conscience. But let me say this. Many years ago when I taught freshman speech at a major university, I attributed every word I said to Aristotle. And to this day, the football team thinks it received a classical education. You can quote me on it.
Malcolm Kushner, “America’s Favorite Humor Consultant,” is the author of the award-winning “The Little Book of Humorous Quotes” and “Presentations For Dummies,” which has sold over 100,000 copies. An internationally acclaimed expert on humor and communication, he co-created a humor exhibit appearing at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Kushner has been profiled in TIME magazine, USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post. His television and radio appearances include CNN, National Public Radio, CNBC, “Voice of America” and “The Larry King Show.” The Wall Street Journal has called him “irrepressible.” A popular speaker at corporate and association meetings, Kushner has spoken everywhere from the Smithsonian Institution to the Inc. 500 Conference. For more information, visit or or contact him at

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