Master ClassHumor, Seriously
True or false: One of Stanford Business School’s most popular classes isn’t about business.
True. It’s actually about comedy. Humor, Serious Business, an interactive course taught by Stanford professor and author Jennifer Aaker and media consultant and lecturer Naomi Bagdones, focuses on learning one of the most important (and under-appreciated) characteristics in business and the workplace: humor. The class even brings in comedians like Seth Meyers to help students learn how to lead with laughter. “We wanted to help people understand how the world could be different if each of us navigated it through humor and smiles,” said Aaker, who, with Bagdones, published a book version to share their insights with everyone. In the best seller, Humor, Seriously, you can learn everything from how to find your own humor style to tips secrets on how to add laughter into mundane Zoom calls and emails. “When I went to work after college, I lost my sense of humor,” said Bagdones. “As a young woman in business, I thought it had to be that way. But I realized that this sense of humor that I had been hiding away could actually be the key to not only feeling more authentic, but also having more joy and energy at work.”
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JA: In terms of neurochemistry, when we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of hormones. We release endorphins, which give us something like a runner's high, and we lower our cortisol. We feel calmer and less stressed, like meditation. Then we release oxytocin, which is often called the trust or love hormone, which is released during childbirth or sex.
In essence, as far as our brains are concerned, laughter is like exercising, meditating and having sex at the same time. Very efficient and logistically, much easier. We often say that in business and in life that humor is an antidote to arrogance. When you throw in something as small as an innocuous laugh line, a bad innocuous laugh line into the end of a sales pitch like, "This is my final offer and I'll throw in my pet frog," what happens is not only are people more likely to pay an 18% higher price but they actually enjoy the negotiation more.
NB: Every adult falls off a humor cliff around the age 23. This is based on a study of 1.4 million people in 166 countries, where the observers asked a simple question: Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday? Around age 23, the answer more consistently becomes no. We don't start laughing again until around when we retire, which is a lot of far too serious years. At the same time, humor has an incredible impact on us as individuals. We know that humor is linked to trust, and that leaders who use humor in their interactions with employees are seen as 27% more motivating and admired. Their employees are more engaged. Teams are more likely to solve a creativity challenge. So there are all of these incredible benefits to it and yet, we have all stopped laughing.
1. Standups—bold, irreverent, natural entertainers, not afraid to ruffle a few feathers to get a laugh. Think Amy Schumer, Eddie Murphy, Sarah Cooper.
2. Sweethearts—honest, earnest, a little more understated. They lean on humor that lightens the mood versus humor that might tear someone down. Think Bowen Yang from Saturday Night Live or Jimmy Kimmel.
3. Snipers—edgy, sarcastic, nuanced. These people are masters of the unexpected dig because they'll sit back and they'll wait for that perfect moment to insert their perfectly crafted zinger. You can think about Michelle Wolf or Bill Burr for this style.
4. Magnets—expressive, charismatic, and easy to make laugh. They're not afraid to be silly sometimes. Think Jimmy Fallon or Ellen Degeneres.
JA: We have a quiz on humorseriously.com where you can actually find your own style.
NB: It's really powerful because not only did identifying our style help us use our humor more adeptly but it also helps us build empathy with other people and their styles.
How-To: Workplace Humor
JA: One example is you're a new leader or you have a new role in an organization in a remote work setting. Everyone's bored, everyone's depleted, and mental health is on the decline. It's hard to make a human connection, not to mention really bond people. What role could humor use in that context? One of our colleagues is the co-CEO of Merit America. He had just joined in a deep political divide, and wanted to approach the topics of systemic racism. But these are hard conversations and as a new leader he didn't know exactly how to tackle them. At the end of one of his talks to his employees he pretended to leave the meeting but he secretly kept his screen pinned to the call. He went to Google’s search page while everybody could see his screen, and Googled openly, "Things inspirational CEOs say during hard times." Then he came back to the meeting and followed up saying, "I just want you to know I really am here for all of you."
Naomi: Another tip that is especially important for entrepreneurs or sales people is using humor in your pitch. Sara Blakely, the founder and CEO of Spanx, was having a hard time getting her product in stores in the early days of her company. She had made hundreds of cold calls to buyers of different department stores and no one was returning her calls. Sara knew she had to do something different to get her foot in the door. Quite literally. What she did was she mailed a single shoe to the head buyer of all these different stores, including the head buyer of Neiman Marcus, with a handwritten note that said, "This is me just trying to get my foot in the door. Do you have five minutes to talk?"
Email Humor: Top 3 Tips
Do an audit, read your sent folder of your last 10 emails, and pick out just how much jargon you have or just how much of them could be written by robots. All you want to do is make sure that your email is coming across as you would when you talk to that person.
It's really easy and so automatic to sign-off your emails with best or kind regards. because that is so expected. But your sign-off is a great place to weave in some unexpected humor. For example, I saw one other day that someone signed off with, "Hope you're staying positive and testing negative."
A callback is where you just make reference to a joke or something that people already laughed about. This is such an easy and powerful way to get a laugh. Whenever we're on Zoom calls, especially with new people, you just listen for any moment where laughter occurs. Sometimes someone makes a joke, or other times the dog walks. Inevitably, there will be laughter because laughter is a fundamental melody of human conversation. Jot down that moment where there was laughter and then in your followup email or the next time you jump on a Zoom call with them, make reference to that moment. An example is we were emailing recently with someone to speak to our Stanford class the other day and he mentioned that he is really superstitious. He was laughing at himself about how superstitious he is. In the followup email, we said, "We've optimistically penciled you in for this date, while crossing our fingers, stroking rabbit foot keychains and throwing 1000 pennies into wishing wells."
A client paid me late for the work that they had done. I sent a number of follow-up emails like, "Hey, any updates on this?” A month and a half had gone by and so instead of sending another, "Hey, is there anything else you need from me?" I sent a cat meme that is a cat on the outside of a window that says, "Hello, from the other side. I must have meowed 1000 times." I got a response the very next day and was paid within the week.
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