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3 ways to be funnier at work – and why you need to be

·4-min read
Colleagues looking at cheerful businesswoman holding laptop in meeting at creative office
Here's how to use humour at work to your advantage. (Source: Getty)

When 17- to 20-year-olds were asked if they smiled or laughed a lot yesterday, 85 per cent say yes. This figure drops to 60 per cent when we hit out mid-twenties, right when most of us enter the workforce.

We are taught the work is serious – and serious things don’t mix with humour or levity. But in fact, research suggests that bringing humour into the office will significantly improve our work.

Humour helps us get what we want. In a study conducted by researchers Karen O’Quin and Joel Aronoff, participants were able to get buyers to pay an 18 per cent higher price when they used humour in their negotiation.

In addition, buyers reported feeling more positively towards the seller when humour was used – and this is despite the fact that they parted with more money.

Humour helps us remember things. In research published in the Journal of Experimental Education, students who were taught material where the teacher used humour remembered more of what they learnt compared to a group where the teacher did not make any jokes.

This led to the humour group scoring 11 per cent higher in their final exams.

Humour helps us think more creatively. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored the impact of humour on problem solving.

Half the participants were asked to watch an emotionally neutral video before undertaking a creative problem solving task, while the other group watched a funny video.

Those who watched the funny video were twice as likely to solve the puzzle. Laughing helped overcome functional fixedness (where we get stuck in the same pattern of thinking) and helped people make new connections and associations.

So there is a lot to be said for the importance of humour at work. Which begs the question: how do we become funnier?

Naomi Bagdonas, who teaches a class in humour to Stanford Business School students and is the co-author of Humor Seriously, shared several strategies with me on the How I Work podcast.

1. Apply the rule of three

The rule of three involves making a simple list where the first two elements lead people in one direction, and then the third reveals something unexpected. Bagdonas gives an example.

“So, I might say I miss so many things about in-person office life. I miss the supportive eye contact, I miss spontaneous lunches with colleagues, and I miss wearing pants.”

“This might seem like a really simple hack, but once you start noticing the frameworks like the rule of three, you'll start seeing them everywhere in comedy. And then they'll start coming more naturally to you as you're trying to turn your humour into something that feels funny.”

2. Use call backs

Call backs are a technique in comedy where you make a reference to a moment that already got a laugh. "When I'm on a call, especially if it's with a new client, I will look for moments when we organically laugh together,” Bagdonas told me.

“So we're going to probably have a laugh at some point and I'll jot down that moment when they laughed and then I'll bring it back in an email.”

For example, Bagdonas was recently on the phone with someone she was trying to invite to come speak in her course at Stanford. He joked that he was superstitious. “I wrote in the email back to him: We're so hoping that you can come. We've pencilled you in while crossing our fingers, stroking rabbit foot key chains and throwing a thousand pennies into wishing wells that you can join."

Call backs can be an effective strategy to apply within meetings and also emails to bring some levity to what can otherwise be places where humour is seriously lacking.

3. Never punch down

There’s a rule in comedy that you never want to punch down. Bagdonas explains, “This means you never want to make the target of your joke someone of lower status than you. So if you are the highest person on the totem pole, or if you’re in a position of authority, making fun of yourself is a really safe place to go.”

If you are not the highest status person in the room, it can be okay to “punch up” and make someone higher status than you the target of a joke. Doing so can actually help you gain status and influence.

By deliberating injecting more humour and levity into your work, not only will it become more enjoyable, but you will reap practical benefits such as enhanced creativity and greater cut-through in your communication. As John Sherman once said, if people are laughing, it means they are paying attention.

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading behavioural science consultancy and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators.

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