Using Humor Wisely in Business Writing

It pains me to write this post because I consider myself a funny guy.1 I inherited a great sense of humor from my dad, and I have never passed up an opportunity to make a pun. I love to make people laugh. And If quoting the Simpsons were an Olympic sport, I would have won several gold medals by now.

So it hurts to tell you to dial back the humor when writing for business audiences. You don’t have to cut out the funniness entirely, but you need to be very careful and conscious about when, where, and how you use it. In many cases, the wisest option will be to forgo the joke.

This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, and I’d never recommend you ignore your funny side. Perhaps it’s best to take it as a guideline from someone with experience. Humor might be acceptable — even somewhat advantageous — in some contexts, and I’ll get to that later.

Here are a few questions to ask when you’re considering using humor.

What is Your Audience Looking For?

Business readers aren’t probably aren’t turning to you for entertainment. Who curls up at night with a lengthy research report or white paper? Always assume your readers want timely, useful, relevant, and actionable information that can help them improve their organizations, expand their skillsets, and prepare for new opportunities. Show that you respect their time by getting straight to the point.

Who Is the Joke For?

Humor is a great way to create an emotional connection with an audience. But when I’m tempted to use it, I have to ask myself if I’m just trying to show off how clever I am. The answer is usually yes. It’s rare that the joke benefits the readers, even if I get a kick out of it.

Is Your Humor a Distraction?

There are three ways that humor might work against your overall message.

First, humor isn’t universal. Something funny to you may be dull, trite, or even offensive to others. 

Second, you can never assume everyone will get the joke. Humor might stop some readers dead in their tracks as they try to figure out what’s so funny.

There seems to be no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor. It seems to worry them.

Robert Benchley, American humorist

Third, you need to show readers that you understand the gravity of what they’re experiencing. Making light of a situation doesn’t show much appreciation for professionals who might be dealing with a high-stakes situation.

Good News! Humor Can Also Be Your Friend. 

Don’t think of humor as something verboten in business writing. You just need to be smart about how you use it. There will be opportunities to use humor to make a point clearer, more memorable, or more impactful. 

Let’s look at two examples. If you’re writing a white paper about new accounting rules that will affect how your clients recognize revenue, a joke won’t help you or your readers. If you’re tempted to write “Don’t fall into the GAAP,” don’t do it.

But if you’re writing a blog post about your company’s new line of standing desks, humor can help you shine. Go ahead and write “Yes, we’re telling you it’s OK if your employees stand around all day!”

Consider the topic, tone, and type of content you’re writing. That will help you determine how much fun you can have.

A Final Thought

Cutting out the comedy should never lead to dry, dull, forgettable content. Your writing should always be lively, engaging, and relevant, no matter how serious the topic is. 

1 My family, friends, and coworkers probably disagree.