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How to be funny online — without getting fired

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This post is by Erik Deckers, owner of Professional Blog Service and co-author of “Branding Yourself” (Pearson 2010) and “No Bullshit Social Media.” He has also been a newspaper humor columnist for 17 years, as well as a playwright, for stage and radio theater.

Humor is one of the toughest skills to do well consistently, let alone master. Humor can add life to a blog post or a status update, but not only do you have to know the best way to tell a joke or deliver a one-liner — you have to do it in a way that doesn’t make people mad and get you fired. If you’re blogging or posting to social networks for your company, how can you use the power of humor to add zest to your work without getting into trouble?

Whether you’re delivering a presentation at work or a conference, writing a blog post or online article, or even sending out a funny tweet or short Tumblr post, humor can either score big or completely misfire, if (or unless) you follow some of these basic steps.

Tell your own jokes

Being funny isn’t just a matter of repeating jokes you heard somewhere else. After a while that just gets predictable, and people mutter “oh crap, not again” whenever they see your updates. The best humor comes from within.

(Note: When I say joke, I’m not referring to the “a horse walks into a bar” traditional joke. Rather, I’m using “joke” in the comedy-writing sense, where anything with a punchline — and sometimes only a punchline — that gets a laugh is a joke (also called a “gag”). I’m not advocating you fill your blog with safe-for-work jokes about horses walking into bars. There’s only one funny one of those, which means your blog will suck.)

It’s important to understand that there’s a method to being funny. It’s not just having a Nicholas Fehn “skewed view” of the world, or saying “that’s what she said” at the right moment. It’s knowing what to say in a way that strikes people as funny.

Understanding how jokes work

Jokes usually work when we do one of three things:

  1. Surprise people. Most good jokes surprise us. We were expecting one thing, and heard another. The surprise makes us laugh. The best example is Henny Youngman’s “take my wife, please.” When Youngman first used the joke (and no one had ever heard it) as he said the first three words, everyone was expecting “for example” to come afterward. Instead, he turned the joke into a plea, which was surprising, and he got the laugh. Most good punchlines contain surprises. Our minds were going down one track, expecting the person to say one thing, but instead they say something completely different. That’s the surprise, and that’s where the laugh comes from. If you say, write or tweet something unexpected, when you were taking people down a different path, you’ll score the laugh.
  2. Let them make the connection. If you explain a joke, you kill it. If you add too much detail or make the connection for the other person, you kill it (i.e. there’s no surprise). If people make their own connection and have their own A-HA! moment, the joke wins. A couple of years ago, I heard “did you hear the guy who wrote the ‘Hokey Pokey’ died? It took two weeks to put him in his coffin.” I laughed because I made my own connection with the punchline. A few months ago, someone posted that joke on Facebook, and then added “You know, because of the song. They put his left leg in, he put his left leg out. Get it?” It completely ruined the joke, because the reader couldn’t make their own connection. (Note: if you have to ask “get it?” after you tell a joke, it sucked. They got it, it just wasn’t funny.)
  3. Skewer someone else, especially someone in power. Tell a joke about your boss, and you’ll score a laugh. We always like to hear people in power getting zinged. Not only is it unexpected, but it’s also daring, almost like when we heard a dirty word when we were kids, or see it on book titles about social media … (There’s surprise again.) Just don’t make fun of your boss on a regular basis. One light zinger once a year is enough to keep you and your job safe. Any more than that, and you’re on your own. But tell a joke about someone “below you” in status, and you’ll come off as a bully. People don’t like it when you tell a joke about someone who doesn’t have any power. The CEO who makes a joke about the PR coordinator having to work a second job because she doesn’t earn enough will lose all respect from his employees.The best joke to tell is the one about yourself. Self-deprecating humor is always safe, especially during a speech, because as the speaker, you’re “in power.” Since you’re in power, even if it’s a temporary thing, you can safely make fun of yourself, and get some good laughs. Audiences like it when you make fun of yourself, not them.

And it goes without saying …

Don’t ever tell jokes about another race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. You’d think I wouldn’t have to say this in the 21st century, but well, I do. Even if you think they’re mild or not offensive, don’t risk it, because so many people in this country feel it is their God-given mission to be righteously outraged by anything and everything that is slightly askew.

Similarly, don’t make jokes about your own race, ethnicity, etc. While you may feel OK with it, someone else in the same group may get offended. (See Outraged, God-Given Mission above.)

There are actually more of these little formulas to humor writing and joke telling. The three mentioned above are some of the biggest ones, and the ones used most often. If you want to be able to use humor safely while representing your company online, start paying attention to standup comics, humor writers and even the funny people at work. See if they follow any of these guidelines, and see how you can incorporate these principle into your own work.

How are you incorporating humor into your social media presence?

Image credit: AdShooter, via iStockphoto