To undertake a post on humor is to tempt Fate. Or, as Tina Fey might have it, it’s waving baked goods under Fate’s nose when she’s trying to write.

Everyone gets tickled in a slightly different place on their funnybone.

Does humor have a place in professional writing – be it internal memos, magazine articles, executive speeches, or press releases? It definitely can, but a few guidelines can help.

  1. Know Your Audience: Isn’t this the case for all good writing and communications? You bet. Never more so than when using humor because humor is dependent on individual taste, background, and cultural, ethnic and religious norms.
  2. Have Something to Say: Humor is no substitute for delivering information that your readers or listeners can use. No matter how hard they laugh, if your audience is left with a lingering sense that they didn’t get something useful from your communication, they’ll ultimately feel they’re wasting their time.

Most pros advise going for puns rather than belly laughs. One key reason for this is that editors and avid readers are consumers of words and have a natural appreciation for word play. Do it with flair, and you may get column inches out of your press release.

Remember word play that relies on a visual interpretation of text will be far more difficult for an audience listening to a speech, however, verbal punning is perfect in these instances.

Likewise, while I have laughed till I developed a stitch in my side over the antics of Autocorrect and the LOL cats, if you’re trying to explain in writing what one of the “kittehs” at I Can Has Cheezeburger is doing, the joke will probably go down like a hairball.

Then, there’s being too clever: One company found this out the hard way when it used what it thought was a humorous soundbite to start off a video explaining why the company was downsizing. “I came to this meeting because I heard they were serving food,” chortled an exec on the video. Loss of job, loss of life, loss of lunch – these are not moments for levity unless you inhabit Quentin Tarantino’s world.

Your audience – employees, gentle readers, shareholders, the editor of a network news show – is made up of human beings. They respond to humor like we do, but it’s important to be respectful. And substantive. Humor won’t hide a lack of real news or information in your content. You don’t want to insult your audience or their intelligence.

What tickles your funnybone? Do have examples of written humor that works or fails?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“I think no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed; and that a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation.”
James Boswell