Leadership & Management

Make ’Em Laugh: How Humor Can Be the Secret Weapon in Your Communication

In this podcast episode, we dissect how to use humor to build bonds in business and in life.

June 22, 2020

| by Matt Abrahams

Humor does more than just make people laugh. It allows you to connect with your audience, diffuse tension, elevate status, foster trust, and compel others to your point of view. Humor can also help you and your message stand out, yet most of us hesitate to use humor, especially in our professional lives.

Matt Abrahams speaks with Stanford GSB Professor Jennifer Aaker and Lecturer Naomi Bagdonas about when and how humor operates in the workplace. “Many believe that humor simply has no place amidst serious work,” Aaker says. “Yet showing your sense of humor can make your peers and your friends attribute more perceptions of confidence and status to us while also cultivating a sense of trust.”


Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business and hosted by Lecturer Matt Abrahams. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication.


Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Hello. I’m Matt Abrahams. And I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.

Humor is like a Swiss army knife. It allows you to connect with your audience, it can diffuse tension, elevate status, compel others to your point of view, and that’s not all. Humor can help you and your message stand out, yet most of us hesitate to use humor, especially in our professional lives.

To learn more about the power of humor and how to better use this tool, I am thrilled to be joined by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, who together have just written the book, Humor, Seriously. Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life. And they also teach the wildly popular and funny GSB class, Humor, Serious Business.

Jennifer is the General Atlantic Professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and is a leading expert on how purpose shapes individuals’ choices and how technology can positively impact human wellbeing.

Naomi is a lecturer at Stanford and runs a strategy and media consulting company facilitating innovative workshops for executives and coaching CEOs and celebrities on how to appear best in front of the media on shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Today Show. She trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade and teaches courses about humor at the GSB and the San Francisco County Jail.

Thank you, Jennifer and Naomi, for being here.

Jennifer Aaker: Thank you for having us.

Naomi Bagdonas: Yeah, we’re thrilled to be here.

Matt Abrahams: Awesome. So first off, congrats on your book. I really enjoyed reading it, and I learned a lot. And I have never laughed out loud while reading a business book before, so thanks for that.

I’m curious. What got you both interested in studying humor in the first place?

Naomi Bagdonas: For me, it started as a personal passion. So I’ve always loved comedy and found humor in improv in particular to be a really important part of my life. But it wasn’t until my early 20’s that I had this aha moment at work, and it was not a good one.

So I was working at a large consulting firm, and I had a client named Bonnie who I had been working with for a while now, and she knew me pretty well. It was a Friday afternoon, and we were getting off the phone as she said to me, “Naomi, I bet I know exactly what you do on Friday nights.” A weird thing for a client.

Matt Abrahams: Certainly, yeah.

Naomi Bagdonas: But I went a long with it. And I said, “Great, Bonnie. What do I do?” And she said, “I bet that you watch History Channel documentaries while re-ironing your blouses for next week.”

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]

Naomi Bagdonas: Re-ironing, and she was serious. And she went on to describe this drab apartment with gray landscapes paintings and a cat, which she guessed was named, “Cat.”

Matt Abrahams: Oh no.

Naomi Bagdonas: Yes, oh yes. And it was this realization for me that I had been leading a double life. But by night and weekend, I was in comedy clubs in L.A., and I had so much joy and personality, frankly. And it worked. My persona was really serious, really polished. I was good at my job, but I had no semblance of joy or personality.

So what happened for me then was I made it a point to bring more humor into work. And as I did, I found that it could actually be a powerful tool. So not only could I have more joy in the office and feel more authentic, but it could actually be a powerful asset for me in the professional world just like it was for me personally.

Matt Abrahams: Wow, that’s quite an epiphany, and it begs one question. Do you have a cat named Cat?

Naomi Bagdonas: I do not have a cat named Cat, although I have toyed with that being a pretty clever thing to name a cat, but then I decided that it would have a short shelf life. So I’ve come around to not liking Cat as a cat name, even though I don’t have a cat.

Matt Abrahams: I see, I see. And Jennifer, tell us how you got interested in humor?

Jennifer Aaker: So meanwhile, for me, humor was really never a focus. So yeah, I mean, I like to laugh, which is impossible to say without sounding like a sociopath, but I was always more interested in research and writing, getting shit done. Most all of my life has been really focused on falling in love and finding ideas, testing hypotheses, gathering large datasets to test those hypotheses, and over the course of time, publishing papers that would document these scientific findings.

There’s nothing really in that process that lends itself to humor or for me to understand that humor could be powerful toward my goals.

But everything really changed for me. In 2010, I wrote a book with my husband, Andy Smith, called The Dragonfly Effect. And it was about the power of story and networks to drive positive change in the world. And what ended up happening over the course of a year is we ended up working with families who needed to find matches in the bone marrow registry or find matches outside of the registry in order to hopefully save the life of a child or a parent or a friend.

And in that process of helping trying to get over 100,000 people in the bone marrow registry and putting the model to work, we were able to meet a person named Amit Gupta who had leukemia and had such irreverence and such humor and used such levity with his friends and his family that seeing him get people in the bone marrow registry and fighting this deadly disease and persisting and rallying and ultimately surviving it, I realized how much the power of humor and levity could play in things that were so serious in ways that I had never imagined before.

Matt Abrahams: Both of you coming to the same topic in very different ways I think is really curious and cool. And the result in your book and the ideas you have I think is fantastic. So thank you for sharing that.

You know, humor might be more important today than ever. What can business leaders and managers do in this current environment where everyone is stressed out, working remotely, interacting through screens, what can they do to implement or make it known that there is still a place for humor in the workplace?

Jennifer Aaker: Good question, Matt. You know, I think one of the things that we found is that there are these myths or misperceptions about humor. For example, with me, I really had this misperception that humor was not only not serious, not important, but it would actually serve to distract. And we find that again and again. When we ask people what holds them back from using humor at work, many believe that humor simply has no place amidst serious work. We’re worried about harming our credibility and not necessarily being taken seriously. And yet in large scale studies that we run and that others have run, the large majority of leaders really prefer employees with a sense of humor and believe that employees with a sense of humor do better work.

And not just that, but it affects the way people interact with you, showing your sense of humor can make our peers and our friends attribute even more perceptions of confidence, confidence and even status to us and vote us into leadership roles while also cultivating a sense of trust.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. Humor really does provide lots of benefits.

Jennifer Aaker: Yeah. And that last point about trust is more crucial now than ever we’re finding, the fact that humor is a powerful tool to build trust, especially when you consider two things. So first, Matt Abrahams, you mentioned this shift remote work, right?

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Jennifer Aaker: This living in a different world. And it’s simply harder to peel away some of those superficial layers and feel comfortable enough to share with each other authentically.

And then second, a growing body of research shows that our businesses are facing a crisis of trust. One 2019 HBR survey found that 58 % of employees trust a complete stranger more than their own boss.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, wow.

Jennifer Aaker: So we’re finding that the expectations of today’s leaders are shifting.

Naomi Bagdonas: That’s exactly right. Think about it. It used to be that leaders needed to be revered. And now they need to be understood. And all the while, humor is a particularly potent elixir for trust. And when we laugh with someone, be it in person or even over screens through Zoom, Naomi Connor and I are teaching a class right now. And it is remarkable how much we laugh with our students, even through screens.

What happens is our brains release the hormone oxytocin, and we’re essentially cued to form an emotional bond with that person. And oxytocin, but the way, is the same hormone that’s released during sex and childbirth, fun fact. Both moments when, from an evolutionary perspective, we benefit from feelings of closeness and trust.

Matt Abrahams: But also both moments you don’t want to be laughing.

Naomi Bagdonas: Right. Well, I don’t know.

Jennifer Aaker: We have data on that too. Naomi and I have data on everything.

Matt Abrahams: We’re going to save that for a different podcast.

Jennifer Aaker: That’s right.

Naomi Bagdonas: Right. The bottom line, Matt, is giving birth, having sex and laughing with colleagues in Zoom meetings actually have a lot in common. We’re building trust and no one’s wearing pants.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, there you go. Yes.

Naomi Bagdonas: No restraint.

Matt Abrahams: I’m laughing for the person who joins the podcast on that one line, Naomi. “What the heck am I listening to?” So on this podcast, we’ve spoken a lot about the importance of engaging others when we communicate. How can humor help us with that engagement? And do you have specific recommendations for when you should use humor and when you shouldn’t?

Naomi Bagdonas: Yeah. One of our favorite examples of this was back in 2011. So I remember watching President Obama’s State of the Union address. And about 40 minutes in to a 60-minutes speech, he makes this small joke. He’s talking about the layers of government bureaucracy. And he illustrates it by making this joke where the punchline is smoked salmon. And it’s totally not hilarious. But in that context, it was really funny. So the room erupts in laughter, and he pauses, and he moves on. And I remember at the time thinking, “Oh, that was clever,” but not really thinking much more than that.

Well, when NPR the next day surveyed its listeners, they asked which three words most stood out from the entire State of the Union, right? So an hour long, which three words do people remember? So can you guess, Matt, the single word most frequently mentioned?

Matt Abrahams: Salmon.

Naomi Bagdonas: Salmon, that is right.

Matt Abrahams: What do I win, Naomi? What do I win?

Naomi Bagdonas: You win

Jennifer Aaker: An extra book.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, excellent, good.

Naomi Bagdonas: A lifetime of salmon and a book.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you.

Naomi Bagdonas: And what was fascinating about this is this held true across political affiliation as well. So humor helps with engagement in part because laughter, when we laugh, the reward center of our brains is flooded with the neurotransmitter, dopamine. So this engenders deeper focus and better long-term retention. So in other words, using humor not only can make our content more engaging in the moment, but it also makes it more memorable after the fact. Or, of course, it could have been that listeners were hungry.

Matt Abrahams: I didn’t know I needed a degree in neuroscience to talk to you guys about humor. We’ve got all this chemical stuff going on. But it sounds fascinating that it helps not only in the moment, but in the long-term as well.

Naomi Bagdonas: Totally.

Matt Abrahams: Speaking of that long-term, Jennifer, you’ve spent a good portion of your career studying storytelling. Can you share two or three best practices for effective storytelling that also apply to humor?

Jennifer Aaker: You never really think about this, but a good story has a goal. There’s an aha at the end of it. And in a similar way, when you use humor or you try for a joke or you even just laugh in one context, oftentimes, either implicitly or explicitly, really effective humor, there’s a goal. And the goal might be to actually increase status. It could be to build bonds. It could be to diffuse tension in the room or it could even just be to spark joy and have fun. But what I found to be interesting in the story work is the degree to which you dive into the science of story. You start to understand there’s always an aha or a goal of the storyteller when sharing a story.

I think a second commonality is that good stories, they grab your attention. Neurologically, we’re wired to see things or pay attention to things that are differentiated. And in a really similar way, humor, something that makes you laugh, is oftentimes attention-grabbing. It defies your expectations. You think that the joke teller is going in one direction, and then that direction is subverted. So I think both had those two commonalities.

I would say two other things: one, when you share stories in compelling ways or even just kind of co-create stories with others, it oftentimes becomes really engaging. And done well, it’s done authentically. And the real magic comes with when the storyteller and the audience are so connected. Stories kind of let loose in between the storyteller as well as the audience.

In a similar way, good humor, humor that Naomi and I define as like lifting others up or moving something ahead is often also so engaging, but it really lives between the space of the joke teller and the audience.

And last but not least, I would say that this idea of creating some sort of impact on the audience, good stories leave the audience transformed, right? It’s not just the protagonist that’s transformed in a good story; it’s also the audience. And in a very similar way, what we’ve found is that humor, when done well and not inappropriately; we’ll talk about that later, really can transform the audience.

Matt Abrahams: So there’s an aha behind the haha is what you’re saying.

Jennifer Aaker: Oh god, you’re so good already.

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] Naomi, can you provide specific guidance on what we can do to create and demonstrate humor?

Naomi Bagdonas: First is simply recognizing that humor comes from truth. One of the most common misconceptions among our clients and our students is that humor involves inventing something from thin air. And when you think about it that way, it feels really hard. The reality is that it’s more often about simply noticing things that are true for you. So how you feel, what you uniquely think, what makes you unusually happy or unusually cranky, the sort of oddities or incongruities in your life. All of these things can be incredible fodder for humor. It’s about giving voice to these observations.

So I grew up watching Seinfeld. And if you think about Seinfeld

Matt Abrahams: Yeah?

Naomi Bagdonas: Okay, great. Did you watch Seinfeld?

Matt Abrahams: Every Thursday night.

Naomi Bagdonas: Perfect. Okay. So the show about nothing, right? The entire premise of each show is one of these observations, right? The low talker, the close talker, shrinkage, guys who paint their faces for sporting events. And we often laugh at these things from a recognition of truth. “I’ve done that. I’ve seen people do that. I’ve heard people talk about that.” And so step one is just recognizing that we’re not creating things from thin air. We’re just mining our lives for these truths.

So, what kind of truths are we looking for? The easiest one for people to access is generally finding areas of contrast or incongruities. This would be my second tip. So these are things like how your colleagues describe you versus your family or how you want to behave versus how you actually behave.

One of our students, for example, he’s getting an M.D. while he’s doing his MBA. So he was talking about how he needs to remember the intricacies of Krebs cycle for his boards, right? So he’s got all of these incredible memory tasks that he has to do. And yet, for the life of him, every time he walks to the fridge, he can’t remember what he came there for. So he says, “I open the fridge, I can’t remember, and then ultimately I get an ice cream Snickers bar.” But these are just little tiny observations.

And finally, specific. So the more specific you can get, the better. The fact that the Krebs cycle or it’s not just ice cream, but it’s a Snickers bar, these specifics when you’re mining your life for content, for little incongruities or oddities, are often where the comedy gold is.

Matt Abrahams: That’s really insightful and very specific. I think all of us can do an inventory of our lives, and we can come up with things that we can then try to be funny about.

Jennifer Aaker: Yeah. Actually, that is an exercise that I will challenge your listeners to do for a week. This is what our students do all quarter. Every week they have to write down 10 observations from their life. You can even do one a day. Write one observation of an incongruity, something odd, something that you noticed. And then at the end of the week, look at your seven observations and just try to turn one into comedy.

Matt Abrahams: Wow, ever the professor, assigning homework. I love that homework. I’m going to start right away. Thank you for that. All right. What advice do you have for the many of us who understand the power of humor and levity, but just don’t think we’re that funny?

Jennifer Aaker: Well, first, it’s really important to recognize that the bar in business is very low.

Naomi Bagdonas: It is so, so low.

Naomi Bagdonas: Absolutely, so low. So even in the beginning of our class, our students report a real lack of laughter in their lives. We have this direct quote from a student. “On Tuesday, I did not laugh once, not once.”

Matt Abrahams: [Laughs] Their laugh journal was empty on Tuesday.

Naomi Bagonas: Yeah, exactly.

Jennifer Aaker: The best part though, Matt, is the second part of this quote. So it goes, “On Tuesday, I did not laugh once. Not once. Who knew a class about humor could be so depressing?”

Matt Abrahams: Oh wow.

Jennifer Aaker: Day one.

Matt Abrahams: Well you could only go up from there.

Jennifer Aaker: Exactly. Set a low bar. Just like the humor bar in business.

Naomi Bagdonas: Yeah, so we build on that. And we say like, “It’s not even about being funny. It’s just being more generous with your laughter.” Dick Costolo, who is the former CEO of Twitter, he came to our class the other day. And as he puts it, he says, “You don’t have to be the quickest wit in the room. The easiest way to have more humor at work is not to try to be funny; instead, just look for moments to laugh.”

Matt Abrahams: Ooh, I like that.

Naomi Bagdonas: Yeah. It’s good. Over the course of the class, our students really experienced this remarkable shift though. So what began as a sobering realization about humorless Tuesdays and the students reporting significantly more joy in their life, and the shift is about so much more than becoming funny or funnier. They’ve become more generous with their laughter.

Jennifer Aaker: Right.

Matt Abrahams: I like how you pivoted that from being about myself worrying that I’m not funny to something that I can do, which is be more generous and laugh more. So it’s definitely something that gives me a sense of agency and feels like something very real that I can do.

Naomi Bagdonas: Right. Another thing our students find helpful is recognizing that it’s not about being funny; it’s about navigating the world in a slightly different way.

So in the class, we talk about the distinction between levity and humor, where levity is a mindset. So think of that as sort of an inherent state of receptiveness to and active seeking of joy, right? How do you go around the world? Are you walking around the world expecting to be delighted or expecting to be disappointed? And so what we work on more than anything is this mindset, noticing opportunities for humor that would otherwise pass us by. And it’s our point of view in the class that when you walk around on the precipice of a smile, you will be surprised by how many things you encounter that will push you over the edge.

Matt Abrahams: That notion of being receptive to what’s happening in humor around you I think is fantastic. I like the idea of being the precipice of a smile. I would love to live my life in that position.

Naomi Bagdonas: Mm-hmm.

Matt Abrahams: Before we end, we always ask the same three questions of all of my guests. And I am really excited to hear how you all answer these questions. So, Jennifer, I’m going to start with you. If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Jennifer Aaker: I would say know your content, audience and space in between. I think that’s right.

Matt Abrahams: Tell me more about the space in between. We’ve talked a lot on this podcast about knowing your audience. What do you mean by the space in between?

Jennifer Aaker: Well, it’s that magical moment when you have a point that you want to deliver or story that you’re sharing or a joke that you’re trying out. And there’s an audience, right? And so it’s what happens in between my story or my joke or my content and you. It’s that in-between space that I think is the most interesting and important.

Matt Abrahams: Right. And it’s the most alive too. That’s exciting. I think that’s a really good title for a slide and also really good advice. Naomi, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe? And I’m smiling as I ask that question because you just told us you’re not a good cook.

Naomi Bagdonas: I would say, number one, lean into your style. So we talk about this a lot in humor class. If you are shy and understated, lean into that. If you are naturally character-based, charismatic, if you use a lot of hand motions, whatever that is, lean into it and embrace it. We see folks trying to embrace different humor styles that don’t feel natural to them or just different communication styles. So whatever your natural style is, lean into it.

The second I got from a long-time mentor of mine, Chris Ertel, who wrote the book, Moments of Impact. And he talks about, “The last 20 minutes before you do anything, you should only be focused on your state.” So, forget your content, forget what you’re there to talk about, and just focus on your state, getting in a good mindset, getting in a positive mindset, recognizing who’s in the room. What are they probably feeling?

And then the third, talk like a human. We talk about this in class, but there’s so much jargon, especially in the way that we communicate over email. And if we can strip that out of the way we talk, especially as more of our communications are moving over email and over different forms of electronic communication, if it’s not something that you would say in a casual conversation, then don’t say it in an email.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. Whatever recipe those ingredients go into is going to be fantastic. People will be amazing communicators.

Naomi Bagdonas: There’s a lot of oregano. You know me.

Matt Abrahams: You’ve got to put oregano. That’s true, spice it up. For both of you, question number three, who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Naomi Bagdonas: Jennifer, you go first.

Jennifer Aaker: I think Leslie Blodgett. She is not only a dear friend of ours, she is the humor CEO Ambassador of our class. She was also the CEO and founder of Bare Minerals. But whenever she comes in, it’s authentic. And she uses humor as oxygen. She needs it. She prioritizes it in every single moment of her day, which includes leading teams really in very inspired ways.

Naomi Bagdonas: For me it’s Allison Kluger. So Allison teaches Strategic Communications.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm. She was on the podcast.

Naomi Bagdonas: Yeah. So Allison is a dear friend and mentor of mine. And she was a professor of mine when I was a student at the GSB. What I admire about Allison is the way that she is able to balance such a broad range of herself, so being powerful and approachable, kind, but unafraid to challenge, insightful and emotionally attuned, and she’s always, always caring about the needs and wellbeing of the people around her. And that come through in how she communicates and just in her presence.

Matt Abrahams: That’s a great tribute to Allison. And everybody listening can hear some of that if you listen to the podcast we did on reputation management. Both of those communicators exemplify some of the key concepts of what it takes to be not just a good communicator, but a good human being.

Thank you both so much. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning from you and laughing with you. I am going to try my best to put into practice the principles from your book. Having an approach that is seeking joy is just a wonderful way to live your life. Thank you both. Best of luck with the book. And let’s all have a good laugh when we’re all done. Thank you.

Naomi Bagdonas: Thank you so much for having us, Matt.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More