Sunday, October 7, 2012

Using Humour for Persuasion in Business

The ability to introduce humour appropriately into a business conversation is a vastly underrated skill. There are two main reasons for this:
  1. People confuse 'comedy' with 'humour'; so they believe adding humour to a business interaction requires them to act like a comedian. And, they think if they get it wrong they'll look like a clown.
  2. People under-estimate the power of intelligently used humour; and, so, are less willing to commit the effort to apply it. They believe it is inappropriate or, worse still, disrespectful to try to be funny in a business conversation.
Using humour does not mean doing a poor impersonation of your favourite comedian... for your client's sake - please don't do it! Humour (especially business humour) and comedy serve completely different purposes. Comedy exists to make people laugh - sometimes drunk people. If they don't laugh it fails. Humour in business is used as you might use soy sauce or chilli - it's the seasoning, not the meal.
In a business setting humour can serve many purposes:
  1. To lighten the moment - giving a difficult message with a soft touch
  2. To focus the interaction on your personal (rather than business) connection
  3. To make the communication more interesting
  4. To draw attention to a particular point
  5. To gauge a client's feelings about a particular point
  6. To make a client more open to new concepts
This might seem like an ambitious list, but appropriately applied humour can achieve all of these.
The last two are probably the most powerful. Comedian John Cleese is also a great observer of human behaviour. He said, "If I can make you laugh, you like me better, which means you are more open to my ideas. If I can get you to laugh at a particular point that I make, by laughing at it, you acknowledge its truth." For example, your product is the most reliable - and expensive - in the market. To gauge how well this reliability is perceived by the client, you might say, "The one disadvantage of the product is that it won't generate the same number of service calls as some of the other brands!" Follow with a smile and eye contact and watch for their reaction. It will probably be a wry smile, perhaps a nod of agreement. Your aim is not to get a belly-laugh. In business humour a chuckle, grin or nod is all you need to know it has served its purpose.
This works in business because at the core of all humour is truth and what you are doing is reinforcing an accepted fact in an enjoyable, memorable way. Even if they don't laugh, it's still done its job because it's telling you that this point is not a high priority for the client. Note the message and move on. Don't apologise or try to excuse your 'failed' humour - the client probably hasn't even noticed.
The last point above is the most interesting. Put simply, humour messes around with our brain's judgement system making it more easily persuaded. A lot of humour is based on a 'twist'. The first part of the joke - the 'set-up'- sets you up to expect a certain outcome. The second part - the 'twist' or punch-line gives you a different outcome. This leap in logic triggers laughter which releases endorphins; so the brain is rewarded for accepting the unexpected outcome. It has been shown that a person is more likely to be persuaded by new ideas following laughter. For this reason Harvard Business Review nominated humour as the most powerful persuasive tool of all.
Many of us have had our confidence in using humour diminished because at some time we have tried to repeat humour and it's bombed. Here's the scenario: somebody says something at a social gathering and you think it's so funny you make appoint of remembering it. Later, at another social gathering you try to repeat the humour - and it fails miserably. The message we take away from this is that we're simply not funny.
Of course, this is wrong. For everyone there are two styles of humour:
  1. The style of humour that makes us laugh
  2. The style of humour that we use to make others laugh
In the earlier scenario, you have obviously chosen a style of humour that is of the first type - but not the second. Every day, we all do something to make someone else laugh. Take note of what you do spontaneously - it might be word play, exaggeration, characterisation, satire, joke-telling, story-telling or something else - but you will notice one style emerges as your dominant one. When you try to actively introduce humour, use your natural style to give yourself the best chance of success.

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