Funny like I’m a clown?

Photo by Mi PHAM on Unsplash

“I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.”
— Audrey Hepburn

We’ve all read that laughing is good for your health. It lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, triggers endorphins, improves your immune system, and more. But who knew how good it could be for your career too?

There are three areas where you can apply humor to positively impact your career:

  1. To improve your public speaking
  2. To connect more deeply with colleagues in the workplace
  3. To enhance your leadership capabilities

Public speaking

Yes, I know you are probably tired of hearing me extol the virtues of public speaking. But, I just can’t stop. Can’t stop won’t stop. I’ll keep talking about it until I see all of you on stage one day.

Public speaking is great for your career development, and humor is a great tool to judiciously use in your speaking techniques. Humor makes you more memorable, aids in storytelling, and helps you convey challenging messages.

Consider one of the most popular TED Talks of all time by Sir Ken Robinson. He sprinkles humor throughout his talk and the audience laughs almost every minute. He even opens with a self-deprecating comment to break the ice.

There is an art to using humor in your talks. The usual advice of “open with a joke” has derailed many a speaker. I personally don’t find an obvious joke to be very compelling.

Self-deprecating comments, the use of irony, surprising twists in stories, building and breaking tension (more on this later), and masterful comedic exaggeration are much more powerful techniques. But, they do require extensive planning and lots of practice for great timing and delivery, which I recommend for all of your talks anyway. Of course, it is easier to blend much more casual humor into your everyday work experiences.

The workplace

A Robert Half International survey found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement. A surprising 84% believe that people who have a good sense of humor are actually better at their job. I don’t think all of my past bosses believed that, by the way.

In another survey, CFOs (some of the world’s most humorous people) were asked, “How important is an employee’s sense of humor in him or her fitting into your company’s corporate culture?” Their responses indicated that 79% of them found it to be important:

  • Very important 22%
  • Somewhat important 57%
  • Not at all important 20%
  • Don’t know/no answer 1%

So, why does humor have this impact in the workplace? It might be due to an increase in social bonding. Laughter induces the release of oxytocin and endorphins, helps “undo” prior negative emotions (e.g, anger), and stimulates new positive emotions that strengthen bonds between coworkers.

Humor can also make you more persuasive, especially when irony is used (more on this in final section of the article). This can obviously come in handy when interviewing, negotiating an offer, or asking for a raise or promotion. But, boy oh boy, you had better be really good at striking the right balance.

Research has found that humor:

  • Can build rapport and result in increased likability
  • May make people want to listen more
  • Relaxes them, thus making them more receptive to your message
  • Makes the listener feel good (those endorphins again)
  • Makes your message more memorable
  • May distract the person from thinking about counter-arguments (yeah, good luck with that)

Leadership development

Leaders who use humor as part of their management style are perceived as more effective. Their employees report greater satisfaction at work, and retention is improved on teams where humor has a place.

You can leverage humor to improve the performance of your teams. When used effectively and positively (i.e., and not used to put people down), humor can put people at ease, relieve stress, boost morale, and increase productivity.

Believe it or not, 55% of employees would actually take less pay to have more fun at work (Humor in the Workplace: Anecdotal Evidence Suggests Connection to Employee Performance by Lauren Breeze, Adrienne Dawson, and Susanna Khazhinsky. Perspectives in Business, St Edwards University, 2004).

But, I strongly discourage replacing a percentage of your employees’ salaries with a big bucket of weekly jokes. Don’t try it. Really.

Of course, your job as a leader isn’t to be the office clown. You do need to command respect, but you don’t need to elicit fear. Humane leaders are actually more effective than ruthless ones.

Humor can simply be one tool in your toolbox that makes you more human, approachable, and a “nice boss.” Contrary to the popular wisdom that nice guys finish last, the research does show that nice bosses get better overall results than tough bosses.

How can you be funny?

Thankfully, the good news is that you don’t have to be a clown. This is a tremendous relief for me in particular, since I can’t even stand to be in the same room as a clown (shudder).

Dr. Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, has an interesting explanation of why we find things humorous. He calls it the “Benign Violation Theory.”

He proposes that humor only occurs when all three of these conditions are satisfied:

  1. You consider a situation to be a violation (e.g., a threat to cultural or social norms, your emotional or psychological wellbeing, or your physical safety).
  2. Yet, you somehow also perceive that the situation is actually benign.
  3. Finally, most importantly, both perceptions occur simultaneously.
Benign Violation Theory

It is a delicate balance of being right in the middle of feeling simultaneously threatened, yet somehow safe (i.e., a benign violation). It explains why irony can be effective in both humor and persuasion. This also partly explains why babies laugh (e.g., when being tickled). The ambiguity of a safe caregiver who is suddenly doing something that is interpreted as threatening (e.g., the surprise of the sudden peekaboo), creates stress that is released through an explosion of laughter.

A great deal of careful practice is required for you to find this exact balance, especially if you want to use humor in a work setting. Professional comedians rehearse for hours per minute of their routines. In the video below, Nerdwriter1 explains in intricate detail how carefully Louis CK constructs a joke using only 207 words.

Take special note of the benign violation in the joke, which is probably why people find it funny. The violation is that he is crushing his young daughter in the game. He isn’t going to let her win. The benign component that makes it feel safe is that it is only a game. So, that uncomfortable tension of a parent destroying his own child in a game results in a release of our stress through laughter.

So, how can you create a benign violation in a professional setting? One of the easiest ways to get a laugh as a leader is to use self-deprecating humor. There is inherent tension between respect for the leader (and let’s be honest, sometimes fear) and the benign aspect that it is the leader making a joke at his or her own expense.

You can also tap into a tragedy to create a benign violation. You may have heard a comedian tell a joke about a recent terrible event and then say, “Too soon?” However, this tension can be used, if a tragedy isn’t too serious and enough time has passed since it occurred to take off the edge.

In a work setting, this can be a:

  • Product flop (e.g., “So, I was checking my calendar on my Newton today…”)
  • Bad business decision (e.g., “I put all of my money in, but at least I still have the cool hand puppet.”)
  • Leadership misstep (e.g., “I was recently in a leadership workshop taught by Travis Kalanick…”.

Too soon?

If you enjoyed this article, I would be grateful if you would recommend it by clicking the little heart at the bottom 💚 so that someone else will find it. Follow me if you’d like to see more of what I write. Thank you!


Work and life lessons from redefining my own career to regain my freedom and reclaim my life almost 9 years ago. I’m a leadership coach and career advisor who helps frustrated people create an Invincible Career® so that they get to call the shots in their work and life.

Larry Cornett, Ph.D.

Written by

I help people forge an Invincible Career® to call the shots in their work & life | Fast Company


Work and life lessons from redefining my own career to regain my freedom and reclaim my life almost 9 years ago. I’m a leadership coach and career advisor who helps frustrated people create an Invincible Career® so that they get to call the shots in their work and life.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade