Advanced Business Writing
Style and Sophistication

Humor

Do not write jokes at work. ("A giraffe ducks into a bar ...") Just don't do it. It is so embarrassing to explain to your attorney what you really meant and why you put it in writing.

Do write funny things at work, once in a while. But, you ask, what is funny, safe, and not too difficult to create? See below. What might be funny but can go terribly wrong? Sarcasm, irony, and self-deprecation. Those you can say out loud, but be careful when writing them down.

What you can safely do:

Use absurd comparisons.

That is highly unlikely.
[formal]

That's about as likely as an anorexic Sumo wrestler.
[funny]

Note: This can sometimes be misinterpreted as sarcasm, so use with caution.

Use the levity trifecta:

surprise • exaggerate • personify

Surprise: include overly-specific details.

My path was blocked.
[factual]

My path was blocked by a beady-eyed little squirrel.
[funny]

Exaggerate: overstate to a ridiculous degree.

My path was blocked by 15 beady-eyed little squirrels.
[funnier]

Personify: describe an object or animal as if it were human.

My path was blocked by 15 beady-eyed little squirrels with anger issues.
[funniest]

What's the purpose of using humor in your writing at work? It makes your reader smile, which means she is paying attention and probably eager to keep reading. That's a good thing.

Avoid using too much humor in your writing at work. True, it can help emphasize things in creative ways. But if you use it too much, your readers may wonder if you're practicing on them because you're planning to quit and start a new career as a stand-up comic. That would be a bad thing.

There is another reason for using humor sparingly. If your humor distracts readers from the point you are trying to make, you need to dial back on the funny stuff.

Here are a few levity gerunds that might safely get a laugh:

Emoting

Imagine you have requested inputs from all your colleagues so that you can prepare the Biweekly Management Report for your division. Not everyone is keen to share. One in particular is always late. What do you do? You send the following email:


Looking forward to including your input!

This humorously hints at your actual emotion while pleasantly restating your request.

Apologizing

You have a good friend at work named Lars. He scheduled a Zoom meeting. He told you it was really important and he really wanted you to attend.

And you forgot.

What do you do? You send the following email:

Lars,
 
[Genuine apology for forgetting]
 
Sheepishly,
 
me
 
PS. my brain is really sorry

Like a punchline, the levity comes at the end: an emotionally honest signoff and a silly postscript.

Complaining

When you need to complain about something (not a person) and you really feel like using the word damn, use the word stupid instead:

I can't believe we haven't replaced that damn copier.
[potty mouth]

I can't believe we haven't replaced that stupid copier.
[jokester]

This simple habit will make you sound a little bit funny instead of a little bit foul.

Also: To learn more about humor on the job, read Humor, Seriously by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. It's the basis of a course they teach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Lesson: Humor
Module: Style and Sophistication
Course: Advanced Business Writing