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The light touch ... how to use humor for business success.

The Light Touch

I sometimes begin a speech with these lines: "Six years ago I practiced law with an international corporate law firm in San Francisco. Today I'm a humor consultant. Now whether or not you think the world needs a humor consultant, I'm sure you'll agree we can use one less attorney." Most people do agree. I can tell by their applause and laughter. The reason they work so well is simple--I'm making fun of myself.

Self-effacing humor is a leadership trait. It reflects strength and confidence. It shows that you're secure enough to laugh at yourself. It also creates rapport, boosts morale and makes you more likeable.

Perhaps that's why it's frequently used by Miller Communications senior vice president Fred Hoar. A veteran Silicon Valley advertising and public relations executive, Hoar knows that his name has an unfortunate connotation--particularly when linked with his profession. In order to counter the negative meaning and show his sense of humor, he makes fun of the situation. He begins his presentations by saying, "My name is Fred Hoar. That's spelled F, R, E, D." His audience is instantly won over.

Walter Keichel III, an editor of Fortune maganzine, terms the self-deprecating jest "the most admirable form of executive humor." His conclusion is based on research about communication between high and low status individuals. According to Keichel, researchers have learned that joking is usually begun by the higher-status person. Therefore, when executives poke fun at themselves, they momentarily eliminate the status difference that separates them from subordinates. This creates an opportunity for meaningful communication. The self-effacing humor acts as a bridge across the status gap.

This theory is confirmed by common experience. For example, employees of ASK Computer Systems Inc. could easily be intimidated by Sandra Kurtzig, the company's multimillionaire founder and chairman--just by virtue of her status. But she eliminates such fears with large doses of self-effacing humor. Her descriptions of how she built the US $200 million company from scratch are typical:

"I'd like to tell you I started in a garage, but I didn't have a garage."

"When I started this company, my long-range planning consisted of figuring out where I'd go to lunch."

"When I told people I was in software, they thought that meant women's lingerie."

Such lines dispel nervousness in subordinates and make Kurtzig very approachable.

Another top executive who pokes fun at himself is Ronald Cape, Ph.D., chairman of Cetus Corporation and a past president of the Industrial Biotechnology Association. One of his major missions is to improve the public image of biotechnology. "Within the biotechnology field, there is a general feeling that we are terribly misunderstood," he explains. "Both scientists and industry people believe that the public would be more supportive of our work if only they were better educated, if only they had all the facts."

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as it seems. "The people who are trying to educate the public are scientists," states Cape. "They don't realize that the majority of the public has a blind that goes down as soon as they see science coming at them." To solve this problem, Cape has been trying to get biotechnology people to put their message into more human, non-scientific terms. And to make his point, Cape tells a story that pokes fun at his own communication abilities.

"A few years ago, I was having a lot of trouble explaining biotechnology to my mother," he says. "So in a talk in my hometown, I brought my mother along and directed the talk to her even though the audience was 500 engineers. I chose my language very carefully hoping there wouldn't be a single word or phrase that she wouldn't understand. Afterwards, I was driving her home, confident that I had achieved my goal. So I said, 'Well, mon, how did you like the talk?" And she said, 'Oh, it was wonderful. I understood everything except the science.'"

Self-effacing humor is also an excellent device for acknowledging tough questions. In fact, Gary Ames, president of U.S. West Communications--one of the "baby Bell" telephone companies created by the breakup of AT&T--has developed an all-purpose humorous acknowledgement. He uses it when fielding awkward questions from anyone--customers, legislators, employees, reporters, the general public.

After receiving a tough question, Ames replies, "That's a great question. While I generalize for the next 30 seconds, Larry Pence seated in the back of the room will be thinking about what the answer really is. When I stop talking, Larry is going to say something very specific because I don't have the slightest idea what the answer is."

Ames notes that his approach works well as long as: (1) you have someone else in the room who can answer the question, and (2) the question does get answered. In addition, his response is valuable because it shows that he doesn't have all the answers. "My humorous admission of ignorance encourages people to ask questions," Ames explains. "This is particularly important with lower-level employees. I want to know what's on their minds. And they might not otherwise ask a potentially embarrassing question to a senior executive. Humor is by far the best technique to generate honest dialogue between two people."

The power of self-effacing humor isn't limited to top executives. No matter where you sit on the corporate ladder, you can probably benefit by aiming an occasional zinger in your own direction. After all, as legendary actress Ethel Barrymore once said, "You grow up the day you have your first real laugh--at yourself."
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Kushner, Malcolm
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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