Leveraging levity: three strategies for using humour as a competitive advantage

Publication date: 19 February 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

Used appropriately, humour is highly valued in a business environment. Paul Osincup explains how humour can be used as a practical tool to engage colleagues and employees..

Leveraging levityCountless business and self-development articles encourage leaders to ‘use more humour’ at work, or to learn how to laugh at themselves. Both are great pieces of advice. In reality, this is common sense but rarely common practice; using humour to positive effect is easier said than done and nobody tells us how to do it. 

When am I supposed to laugh at myself? When I lock my keys in the boot of my rental car on the way to a job interview? This is not realistic. Perhaps you will laugh about it later, but your initial reaction is more likely to be worry, fear or panic. 

‘Don't be afraid to find the ‘funny’ in how you make your money’

We do know, however, that use of humour reduces stress, builds resilience and improves our productivity and that a sense of humour is a highly desired leadership trait. According to a study in 2012 by consulting firm the Bell Leadership Institute, a sense of humour and a positive work ethic were the two characteristics most desired in leaders by employees. In the research, they were mentioned twice as often as any other characteristic. 

Here, rather than simply advising leaders to use humour more often at work or to laugh at themselves more, I have identified three techniques for using humour strategically.

Write it down

A 2018 study by the University of Zurich found that people who write down three funny things that happen each day for a week increase their overall happiness and decrease depressive symptoms for up to six months. Along with the mood boost, you’ll end up with 21 funny anecdotes to use in conversations, meetings, or presentations.

What’s more, there will eventually be a moment where something negative happens during your working day that would typically upset you, but instead you think: ‘I’ll be writing that one down tonight.’ That’s when you know you’ve begun to train your brain to see more humour in real time, rather than in retrospect.

Use ‘the rule of three’

One of the most simple formulas comedy writers use to add humour is the rule of three: you say two serious things followed by something surprising or different. This works well in elevator pitches as you can use two bullet points to say what you do and the third to show your sense of humour or that you don't take yourself too seriously. For example, a person could ask me, ‘what do you do?’ and I would reply: ‘I'm a speaker, a positive workplace strategist – and obviously an inventor of job-titles.’

‘Use of humour reduces stress, builds resilience and improves our productivity and a sense of humour is a highly desired leadership trait’

The rule of three is also a great way to highlight accomplishments with a little humour. I use it in my bio: ‘His work has been highlighted in Forbes, Success Magazine, and on his mum’s refrigerator.’ It works with any profession. A business continuity and disaster recovery executive client with whom I worked now uses the formula and tells people: ‘I help companies to think about all the potential disasters that could disrupt their business, then I prepare a plan in case that happens. I guess you could say I'm a professional worrier.’ He said he's gained a lot of mileage out of this as it breaks the ice and prevents the awkward silence that used to follow a description of his job. The rule of three is also great for livening up dull parts of presentations or long lists of statistics.

Think ‘fun’ over ‘funny’

Of course, trying too hard to be funny can often lead to more groans and eye rolls than laughs. If you want to get people laughing, just get them to have fun. Fun and humour are not the same thing but they often show up in the same places.

According to Business Insider magazine, 88% of millennials want to work in a fun and social environment. Typically, when you get people in groups having fun, the naturally funny people will say and do funny things. According to Robert Provine, Professor of Neurobiology and Psychology at the University of Maryland, people are 30 times more likely to laugh in groups than by themselves. The key is to engage people in activities where they can play and interact with one another, such as making a meal together, conducting a service project, attending trivia nights, talent shows, or participating in events.

While none of these strategies will help you get those keys out of the boot of the rental car for your vital job interview, they will help you develop your sense of humour. A survey of 737 CEOs by talent management and consulting firm Hodge-Cronin and Associates, showed that 98% of CEOs prefer job candidates with a sense of humour.

Ultimately, you're not a comedian, you're an MBA– but that doesn't mean the 'B' has to stand for boring. Don't be afraid to find the ‘funny’ in how you make your money and take advantage of opportunities to use humour as a strategic business tool. 

‘Trying too hard to be funny can often lead to more groans and eye rolls than laughs’

Paul Osincup is an International Speaker and Positive Workplace Strategist