Appropriate humor used effectively can bolster any business’s communication plan. That’s the assertion of David C. Winfield, professional stand-up comedian and CEO/Founder of Commonwealth Commercial Comedic Communications. David offers his services to myriad businesses, helping craft jokes that complement their communications plans. On behalf of the Richmond PRSA on Wednesday 6/28, David gave a keynote speech on how the hard-learned lessons of comedy he internalized after years on the stand-up circuit can be related to public relations.
David made it clear from the beginning that humor can be used in almost any professional setting because it exists on a spectrum. The key to implementing comedy into a communications plan is to determine what type of humor is appropriate given your business or client. Jokes don’t have to be offensive or vulgar, although offensive jokes shouldn’t be discounted outright. “Appropriate” does not always equal “clean.” Know your audience, know your brand, and then determine if people will respond well to more vulgar jokes, or sillier jokes, industry-specific jokes, etc. Humor is not inherently unprofessional, as some may believe. In fact, David believes employees perceived as funny by their peers are also viewed as more competent and confident.
So, which situations are optimized for humor? David points to three categories:
- Announcements, especially those that contain lists
- Speeches, pitches, and presentations
- Social media
Utilizing comedy helps to both gain and maintain an audience’s attention. That’s why David recommends using humor when giving a speech, or even in pitches to the media. Never allow your jokes to overshadow your core messaging, but punching up your pitch to that New York Times reporter may just set you apart from countless other pitches they receive each day. Jokes are the “sizzle” to your messaging’s “steak.”
The greatest opportunity for a business to optimize humor is on social media, because it is relatively new and, thus, less bound by tradition. For example, Wendy’s Twitter account has been lauded for its brutal responses to online critics, with Business Insider calling the tweets “hilarious.”
So now that we know it is possible to inject humor into public relations and communications, the question becomes, “How can I be funny?” In his speech, David pointed to three core elements of humor: Truth, Surprise, and Hostility.
Laughter is often a response to relating to a shared experience. That’s why many jokes are rooted in truth and then embellished with hyperbolic details. We’ve all waited in line at a bank or been on hold with customer service. Know the shared experiences of your target audience, and then introduce the second element of humor, the element of surprise. Start your joke with relatability, and then pull the rug out with an unexpected twist. For example, this great Steven Wright joke: “I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time,’ so I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.” Also, “A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I’m afraid of widths.” The surprise of the joke then informs the joke’s hostility, which David defines as a “disturbance of the norm.” Nothing’s ever funny when everything happens exactly as expected.
My biggest takeaway from David’s speech was that, in the world of PR, we shouldn’t feel restrained by tradition or convention. Jokes and comedy are symbolic of a break from many of PR’s long held beliefs. However, breaking from convention should not be done without reason, without planning, or without an expert understanding of your messaging and your audience.
Trust your business, your team, and yourself to implement comedy effectively into your communications plan. And if at first your jokes don’t land, persevere. After all, dying’s easy. But comedy? Comedy is hard.