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.