They All Laughed: Can Humor Be a Communications Asset?

It might surprise you that one of the career moments I’m most proud of didn’t involve handling a crisis or securing a talk show for a client. It was a brief event, lasting all of five minutes, when a conference room full of clients couldn’t stop laughing at me.

I promise this isn’t a painful-to-read story about learning from failure or an embarrassing tale that ends with me being remembered as “that woman who mooned Atlanta.”

Back when I worked for a large apparel company, I was assigned Logistics & Transportation as a client group. All I knew, at the start, was that our warehouses held three brands’ worth of men’s, women’s and children’s fashion.

The Logistics & Transportation guys (and they were mostly guys, in those days) knew their stuff. They knew their people, too – the ones who picked, packed and shipped product for hourly wages – and they understood how to talk to them. They had to. For a long time, Logistics was in the shadow of larger functions, without their own communications person.

So, my assignment wasn’t exactly greeted with a round of hearty cheers. Like most folks who work in remote locations, they had a healthy skepticism of “experts” from HQ – those pampered few with carpeted offices, who’d never walked the cement floors of a warehouse or had to make things work no matter how limited the resources out in the field.

Understandably, they were a bit aloof when we met, but in the politest manner possible. The one thing those tough exteriors never hid were the true gentlemen beneath.

I knew their work and lives were different from mine, and that I had a lot to learn about this key part of our business. I freely admitted it, studied hard, asked questions at every turn.

I’d like to say that hard work won the day. It might have in the long run – certainly, a strong work ethic is something they respected. But, the day I truly got my foot in the door went like this…

There was a pressing communications issue over the pay and bonus system at one of the warehouses. The facility leader knew it was a heated topic and decided, what the heck, give this supposed HQ expert a shot.

How we communicated the new pay and bonus design is a story for another post (which you can now find here). But, the employee team was gracious – and probably worried – enough to accept my help. Before the team could deliver communications to employees, though, the facility leadership team needed to review the design, approve it and give the go-ahead for an employee meeting.

You do the math, I’ll handle the words.

The Pay & Rewards team – all regular warehouse employees who’d received special training in pay design – brought deep knowledge of their subject matter; I provided messaging, organization and graphic design support. The one thing the team, with all their expertise, hadn’t been able to do by the time of the leadership meeting was explain one of the mathematical formulas so that I could convey it graphically in the presentation. It had been a bit like a game of telephone, with the team trying to help me understand, and me, via emails, conveying my impression to the graphic designer back at HQ.

Laughter the Best Medicine

The Pay & Rewards team, who’d never done public speaking before, overcame their nerves and gave an excellent presentation to leadership. When I advanced the PowerPoint to the slide with the math formula, though, it still wasn’t right. Before the leaders started asking, “What on Earth is this?,” I jumped in and said, “This one’s my fault. The team has worked valiantly to explain this to me, but I’m mathematically challenged.”

The tension in the room evaporated as everyone laughed.

They laughed a lot harder than that line deserved – laughter wiping away nerves over public speaking, concern about how the pay system would be received, doubts that an outsider would usurp the warehouse’s way of doing things.

Normally, when a room full of people laugh at you, it feels rotten, but I was over the moon and couldn’t help but join in. It was deliriously contagious.

This was the moment when it all changed, and it happened not because I played the fool – self-deprecation isn’t about being foolish – but because I didn’t insist on being the expert. And that can be a hard thing to let go of when our job is to provide communications counsel.

Once I’d demonstrated a willingness to learn from the people in Logistics & Transportation, no matter their position on the org chart or how much they were paid, my clients relaxed, welcomed me and gave me the chance to work with them and support their communications needs going forward.

When the conference room quieted, I quickly assured them I’d get it right so they could sign off on the communication. Then, I delivered on that promise and kept delivering. Because in the Logistics & Transportation world, delivering is what really matters.