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Humor in Business Writing – Does It Belong?

Today someone sent me an evaluation of an online business writing course he had taken with me. This was his final comment:

I liked the online format. It was like being in an actual classroom, but without sitting next to the person who had a garlic and onion chilidog for lunch. Oh, sorry, that was me.

I got a huge laugh from this comment, first because the reference to a chilidog surprised me in a class evaluation, especially of a virtual class. Then his naming himself as the chilidog eater gave me another quick treat.

The surprising humor in a normally dry document brightened my morning at my desk. Humor in small, unexpected doses works well on the job.

Humor in business messages fails when it is piled on like a performance.

A few months ago I taught a business writing workshop in which someone had submitted a writing sample of meeting minutes that were filled with witty side comments. The first one or two comments were entertaining. But after that, I wondered how anyone could get through the meeting notes to review what had happened at the meeting.

When I arrived to teach the class, I learned that the man who had written the notes would not be able to attend. I started to think about how I would bring up the topic of humor in business writing with him, since we would not have the chance to meet face to face.

It turned out I did not need to talk with him. People in the class told me they had a team member who was overdoing humor. They said they had let him know gently that they would prefer he get to the point in his writing without piling on the fun and puns. As readers, they had handled it themselves.

Humor fails when it gets in the way of the message.

In writing classes, I often ask participants what they need from the documents they read at work. Only about 1 in 20 participants mentions "Make it interesting." No one mentions humor. No one.

Based on my experience with hundreds of people in classes, I can confidently say that your readers at work do not need or expect humor from you. However, I will guess that if you throw in an occasional unexpected bit of whimsy, they will love it.

What do you think about humor in business writing? Not in essays or blog posts, but in regular business messages such as email, reports, and meeting notes. Please share your insights.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

11 comments on “Humor in Business Writing – Does It Belong?”

  • Humor is like fashion, don’t overdo it or you will have people smiling for the wrong reason. 🙂

  • As one who enjoys humor in practically all situations, I have to check my writing to ensure that I do not overdo the humor. I try to save my witticisms (which always entertain me, by the way) for circumstances in which they enhance the message. Those situations arise occasionally and I try to capitalize on them.

    I don’t think sarcasm is ever good in a business message because it’s hard to pull people together (or persuade them, or whatever the purpose of your writing) with a message that can be perceived as hurtful to some. This is unfortunate because sarcasm is my native tongue.

    Also, as has been discussed in this forum previously, one’s messages will live on long after the context is forgotten. What’s witty today might look pathetic or harmful in a couple months.

    Summary: if your writing makes you chuckle, be very, very careful.

  • Hi, Randy. Thanks for your always thoughtful remarks. I love “sarcasm is my native tongue.”

    I notice that while your writing is always engaging in these comments, you have restrained your humor. Excellent self-control!


  • I love a little humor, and it always helps break the ice or reduce tension – as long as it’s not offensive or overused. However, meeting minutes are usually considered an official record, and I think that is the wrong place to add subjective comments.

    As for sarcasm, unfortunately for Randy and me, it must be used judiciously until you’re familiar with someone’s attitudes, especially in the workplace.

  • Hi, Val. Thanks for the good point about meeting notes. I have seen a drop of humor work well in informal notes. But in official minutes, humor is out of line, as you mention.

    Researchers have found that readers can’t tell the difference between sarcasm and serious writing, at least statistically speaking, even when the correspondents know one another. Odd, isn’t it?


  • Suze, thanks for the link to your article. I like the points you made in it about when humor works and doesn’t work, especially concerning who or what is the butt of the joke.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  • I think a little humor will bring a little lightness and life to the conversation.. However, as mentioned by Val S., reports and minutes of meeting should be straightforward and taken seriously because this are being recorded and will serve a future reference.

  • Humor in business writing seems inappropriate, especially in documents to readers outside the organisation.

    For example, if you were submitting a report or proposal to a client, humor would not be appropriate. But if you were giving a presentation about the report, a little humor might be work if it is relevant and inoffensive.

    The best rule for using humor in business writing is: If in doubt, leave it out.

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