“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”
When considering the question of “How do I improve my business communications?”, humor may be the answer. The decision should be based on what type of communications you seek. There are several roles humor can take … to grab attention, to make a lasting impression or to build a longer term relationship with your readers. Alternatively, a more serious and “professional” sounding message may be better suited to a more formal communications, in which case humor may not be appropriate.
Let me explain. It might not be the best idea to use humor when talking about a financial institution’s lending practices, or the way that a customer’s money is managed.
When we write or speak to an audience, often we are really trying to build a relationship with our audience in order to convey a thought, a message or a suggestion to purchase a product r service. As part of establishing that message and gaining credibility, it can be quite effective if you are communicating more as a friend or advisor. In that case, humor can definitely play a role in helping to build the relationship, earn trust and communicate on a more personal level.
South West Airlines (SWA) is an excellent example. They have effectively used humor in their verbal communications. Each flight attendant was clearly encouraged by their peers and supervisors to include humor as part of their pre-take off, FAA required announcements at the beginning of every flight.
In today’s YouTube age, there is another incentive: to become the next big hit. Watch this video for an example of a video that has gone viral, with nearly 1 million hits so far. Interestingly, SWA’s practice began before the age of the Internet. Now these videos are actually a form of advertising, helping to increase brand awareness – and might even generate a ticket sale or two. Clearly, humor can lend itself to social networking marketing quite nicely.
While SWA’s topic is serious, the message has been effectively conveyed in a joyful, playful manner, with short one-liner jokes intermingled with information on what to do in an evacuation, and how the seat cushions also works as a life vest. In the end, passengers felt more relaxed and at ease, trusting that SWA had things under control in the passenger’s best interest while helping to pass the time during the boring announcements that business travelers all know by heart.
TD Ameritrade is an example of when a more serious communications was best. Their selection of Sam Waterston as a spokesperson conveys a serious message that TD Ameritrade is a secure institution you can trust, based on our associating him as being a District Attorney for Law and Order, even though it is just a character he plays on a television show. But don’t expect Sam to crack a joke during his endorsement during the ad.
Similarly, if you are writing a business plan to demonstrate intimate knowledge of your industry or market opportunity, it is trust that you are trying to build. As you might not have the opportunity to build a relationship over time with multiple interactions of your readers and prospective investors, you might only have one chance to make a first impression. In this case, your tone should probably be authoritative and professional, demonstrating you are serious about your business plan and the investment funds you are requesting. Probably not a good place for humor in your communications.
Each of these examples offers best-in-class leveraging of humor – or a lack of it – to accentuate and exemplify business communications. Deciding whether or not to use humor, however, is harder and riskier. Your message must indeed BE funny, or else the opposite effect will occur, possibly even alienating you from your target audience, and clearly hurting your communications objectives. As it is more riskier to use humor, the choice is often to simply avoid it.
Next time you ask yourself whether humor might be appropriate in your next business communications, the answer won’t come from a computer. It should be based on your subjective decision, half-based on theory and half-based on a gut feel if it really is appropriate.
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.