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Comedy vs. Credibility: Using Humor Professionally with More Serious Groups

By: Paul Osincup, Speaker/Consultant & AATH Past President

Recently I was asked to facilitate a 3 hour workshop as a kick-off to a year-long corporate mentorship program. There would be 20 participants - all video game industry executives with the 10 mentees being new to their roles and the 10 mentors were senior executives. I was told that despite working in the video game industry, this was a group that took their work (and themselves) pretty seriously.

My role was to help them establish their mentor/mentee relationship and set goals and expectations. Having never been a corporate executive, never worked in gaming, and being terrible at video games, I questioned whether I would have the credibility and content to deliver what this group needed. To be honest I was intimidated, nervous, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. Of course, being someone with an improv background... I said yes.

Here are two key things I learned from this experience about using humor to build a positive relationship with a group.

1. Balance Humor with Credibility

I'm 5'4" tall, So I have to take advantage of standing while others sit ;)

As a humor professional when we’re first being introduced or introducing ourselves in a professional setting, it’s natural to want people to know both how funny/fun we are as well as how professionally accomplished and knowledgeable we are. Most of us tend to default more to one or the other depending on the situation, our nerves, and our pride. As a

speaker or trainer, our relationship often begins with an entire group at once and they make immediate judgements about whether we’re credible and likable. The key is to convey the right balance of humor and professional competence for the group to respect and connect. The balance of silly vs. serious varies with each group and setting, and it’s important to consistently gauge that. For example, it was clear to me that this group valued having an experienced professional facilitating, so I knew I needed to play my “credibility cards” more often toward the beginning and ease in to humor and play. There are a lot of ways to try to balance comedy and credibility. Here are a few examples:

When you Need More Credibility:

  • Tell a story from a past group you’ve worked with. “I was doing this activity with a group of surgeons in North Carolina and...” (that shows that I’ve done this activity before, worked with other highly educated professionals, and I work all over the country).

  • If you quote someone in AATH, connect yourself to them: “One of my humor association colleagues, Dr. Berk at Johns Hopkins University, has some incredible research that shows...”

  • When asked about something you don’t know... just make crap up. Kidding of course! I wanted to see if you’re still reading. 😜 Don't do that.

  • Practice what you preach. If I’m teaching a new communication strategy or asking people to improvise, there’s nothing that builds credibility better than showing that I’m willing and able to do it first.

When you Need to add More Humor:

It’s important to note that humor can be used simply to entertain, but for me in a professional setting that is a secondary effect. When working in professional settings I use humor to build rapport, influence, highlight a point, decrease stress, or keep people engaged.

  • Add Humor to your Highlights. Your bio is supposed to be braggy and make you sound great, but add a little humor to your bio to take the edge off. For example: “Paul’s work has been highlighted in The New York Times, Forbes, and on his mom’s refrigerator.”

  • Think Fails and Firsts. Rather than always giving examples of how to do some thing well, incorporate funny stories of when you’ve failed or got it wrong.

  • Begin with humor that you know is a slam dunk. I use jokes, pictures, or stories that I’ve used before and that have made diverse groups of people laugh. It gives me confidence that I’ll start strong and it sets the tone for the group that it’s ok to laugh and there will be humor mixed in. If I want to try out some new humor, I usually save that for later after things are already rolling smoothly.

  • Use self-deprecating humor appropriately. Self-deprecating humor is a great tool that puts others at ease, but it only works with self-confidence. If you’re poking fun of yourself about something in which you’re very self-conscious, it will show and make the group uncomfortable. Another thing to avoid is making fun of skills you have that are important to the task at hand: “I’m just power-point challenged” isn’t a comment that will make a group feel confident in you.

The balance of silly vs. serious varies with each group and setting, and it's important to consistently gauge that.

2. Meet Them Where They’re At

AATHers are certified in silly and leaders of levity, but most people aren’t ready to jump head first into fun. Here are a couple of ways to gently guide the guarded and serious into fun and humor:

Move from low–high risk silliness.

For example, begin by giving them what they’re used to, and add a small twist. “Go around the room and say your name and role” is a safe and comfortable (and very boring) introductory activity for people, and I think this group also really wanted the chance to share their fancy titles with one another. Allowing for this familiar activity creates a feeling of comfort, but I added just one

more question that added a low-risk element of fun – “If you had a superpower in your role, what would it be?”

Speak their language. I may not call my activities “ice-breakers,” “team- builders,” or even “activities.” If I’m with a group of doctors, I might say “Let’s do an experiment,” “Let’s test the hypothesis,” or “Let’s engage in some research.”

Explain WHY.

After you tell funny stories or engage people in silly activities, it’s crucial to tell them why – even if it’s very brief, because even if they enjoyed it there’s something in the back of their mind wondering “What does this have to do with anything?” With this group, I engaged them in a “Newlywed Game” style activity to get to know their mentorship partner and afterward I provided them data showing how much personal connections between people improves work performance.

Trust Champagne Pour: One person in each group can speak & see but not move & the others can move but not speak or see. They have to open a bottle of champagne and pour a glass for their group members!

By the end of the day the participants were laughing as they competed to win the “Newlywed Game” and we even ended with a blindfolded “Trust Champagne Pour.” Building professional relationships with groups can be challenging and what I’ve learned is that humor can be an effective tool or an off-putting distraction depending on how it’s used. If there’s no strategy or substance behind the humor, it won’t have the impact we’re hoping for.

About the Author:

Paul Osincup is an International Speaker and workplace culture consultant who helps organizations create happier, healthier, and more connected places to work. A conflict resolution specialist, former university administrator, and comedian, Paul’s global mission for workplace happiness has provided him the opportunity to work with thousands of individuals, hundreds of companies, and his TEDx Talk, "Leading with Laughter: The Power of Humor in Leadership" has been viewed more than 400,000 times. Along with serving as the President of AATH, he is also a content creator for Happify, an app that provides evidence-based solutions for emotional health and well-being. Paul’s work has been highlighted in The New York Times, Forbes Magazine, and on his mom’s refrigerator.

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