Guidance for adding humor into corporate writing

Cracking jokes online can bring the house down, but just one tone-deaf gag can pancake your credibility. Follow this advice to walk the comedic tightrope in today’s touchy times.

The funny thing about corporate humor is that it’s typically not funny.

Whether it’s too forced, provocative, puerile, offensive, alienating or just plain unfunny, there’s so much that can go spectacularly wrong. KFC scored brilliantly in response to its recent supply crisis—and there’s an elite group of flame-throwing social media auteurs who’ve successfully established a cheeky persona—but brand managers who wield humor as a marketing weapon walk dangerous ground.

Using levity can be a tempting play for companies eager to reach new audiences and cut through the messaging clutter. Trouble is, it’s extremely difficult to do so effectively. Many have tried and failed. Many more have lobbed out lame gags or edgy ads, only to be roundly roasted in return. Some have lost everything due to an errant tweet.

Whether you’re looking to add humor into external or internal communication, there are risks aplenty. Either way, your corporate credibility is at stake. Here’s guidance from a handful of communication pros on how to incorporate levity without getting into trouble:

Marketing manager Mike Beck recommends:

The most important thing to remember when you’re trying to incorporate humor into your corporate communications is to avoid any polarizing topics—especially regarding politics.

What does that leave exactly? Self-deprecation is usually pretty safe.

Sports humor is generally acceptable as well. There’s a limit, of course, but you don’t need to worry too much about making fun of a team that perennially misses the playoffs.

Author and “motivational humorist” Allen Klein chimes in:

Never start your writing with a joke, or include a joke, in any corporate communication unless you are illustrating or making a specific point with it. And, if you do find a joke that illustrates your point, make sure it is inoffensive, doesn’t put anyone down and, it would really be helpful if it was truly funny.

If you want to include some humor in your writing, it is much better if you use an amusing story from either your own life or something that happened in the office. Readers will more rapidly identify with it than a joke because they either know you or the company culture.

Amy Kilvington, content marketing manager at Blinds Direct, offers a reminder that humor should be conducive to the audience and setting. She says:

First, you need to know your audience. When you integrate humor into your communications, you need to make sure that it’s relevant, relatable and that the joke won’t be lost on them. By having a strong sense of your reader personas, you can also make sure you won’t offend anyone. It goes without saying that you should avoid topics like gender, religion and race.

It’s important to stay true to your brand values when using humor, and to also be aware of how far you can push the boundaries. You should never compromise the reputation of your business for the sake of a joke.

Also, you should also focus on quality and not quantity. Include one or two intelligent, well-executed jokes, rather than dozens of average gags. Remember, there is a time and a place for humor, especially when it comes to corporate communications. Use it with care!

Josh Brown, content manager for Fieldbloom, advises:

When incorporating humor into corporate writing, it’s important to know your audience and understand the goal you’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to boost company morale because of poor sales numbers, keep the reader’s attention to an otherwise boring but important memo, be more persuasive in negotiations or defuse conflicts?

Tailor your message and incorporate humor so that you achieve your goal, as opposed to trying to just get a laugh for the sake of getting a laugh (which has the potential to turn people off or cause you to lose credibility).

Regardless of the situation … it’s best to be authentic and avoid making fun of others.

Longtime CSR executive and employee engagement expert Peter Dudley suggests:

Humor in corporate writing is about voice, timing and the unexpected twist. As with all aspects of internal comms, any humor must first serve the goals of the piece; gratuitous humor will distract from the message.

For internal comms especially, you can use both formal and unspoken conventions your audience expects, by twisting that expectation. For example, if your company culture allows a lax dress code, or you have a company obsessed with punctually, you can poke fun at those things (in context).

Satire and sarcasm rarely work unless they drift so far into absurdity that they can’t be misunderstood. Absurdity is a danger zone, though, unless your corporate culture and voice naturally trend that way much of the time.

For humor to work in a corporate communication, it has to fit within the authentic voice. A convenient way to do this is to quote an authority figure in the company who can twist a phrase to make a self-deprecating remark that illustrates the point by contrast. This mostly works in a humblebrag kind of situation. Like the CEO saying: “Our commitment to our customers is the strongest in the industry. Sometimes I call our customer service after I’ve spent dinner time with my teenage kids, just to talk to a friendly person.”

Writer Whitney Meers offers a reminder than humor can be persuasive, too. She notes:

When used properly, humor can be incredibly persuasive.

However, people often have a mistaken notion that using humor in corporate contexts makes them appear unprofessional. This is simply not true—it just requires intelligent execution.

The tips I would give are:

1. Stay away from divisive topics, even if you’re 100 percent sure everyone else agrees with you. First of all, even if it’s a strictly internal piece, you absolutely do not want to share something that could backfire if leaked to the press. You also don’t want to alienate anyone in your company. There are so many things to joke about that are entirely clean and sensitive to all backgrounds. Focus on those instead. Never, ever insult specific people.

2. Do your research. This is great for brainstorming funny topics and approaches. Also, there’s often more context than you know surrounding some seemingly innocuous topics. (Here’s a good example of that.)

3. If you’re second-guessing something, it probably should be cut. In any case, you should always have someone you trust review your work.

4. Stay on brand. Don’t try to rewrite your company’s brand guidelines if the corporate leaders have decided that its voice is not conducive to humor. If you don’t know, ask your communications team what’s within the parameters of acceptability.

5. Depending on what you’re writing, creating a funny image can also be a great way to incorporate humor.

John Nesler from Post Modern Marketing suggests following the “Pixar” metric:

Humor is incredibly valuable, even in a corporate context. It helps to raise morale and build chemistry among co-workers. However, upsetting even one person is serious cause for concern.

You can take one of two approaches. Ask yourself the question: “Is this a joke that would be OK in a Pixar film?”

Alternatively, you can cater specifically to your audience—and draw the line accordingly—which may grant you a little more leeway. However, you’re still playing with fire if someone outside the circle of trust lays eyes on an email, or if an email chain gets leaked.

Better to follow the “Pixar-safe” metric.

Finally, Jason Perkins of San Diego SEO Firm advises keeping it clean. He says:

Don’t try too hard; don’t force yourself to sound funny.

Not everyone will find a sarcastic joke funny. Come up with wholesome humor.

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