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No Joke: Humor as a Powerful Engagement Tool

IMAG3576What if you could add just one item to your meeting tool kit and…boost learning, attention, trust, energy, adaptability, memory, collaboration, optimism, circulation, and lifespan; lessen fear, stress and resistance to change; and help build safer, more inclusive communities? You’d hold in your hot little hands the Swiss army knife of meeting tools, wouldn’t you?

But what could possibly do all that? Humor, my friend. Humor.

Think I’m joking? Ask the researchers. Ask successful meeting planners who make a habit of incorporating humor into their events. Or just read on.

“Humor” in this context refers to thoughtful, strategic content that engages audiences on an emotional level and makes them laugh because it surprises and delights—in relevant, contextual ways. It’s not on par with comedic joke-telling, which is pure entertainment with no take-away value.

Indeed, the capacity of well-placed humor to improve meetings is no laughing matter.

For starters, “Emotion drives attention and attention drives learning,” found Robert Sylwester, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. Further, according to the nonprofit Information Age Education (IAE), humor increases memory and long-term retrieval, and can capture the attention of people who are easily bored and inattentive. It helps us be more creative, take more risks and forge ideal spaces for learning, trust building and collaboration.

As a partner in countless meetings over my career, I consider humor the Holy Grail of engagement tools, because it alerts our minds as it lowers our defenses. (How often have you laughed with your arms crossed?!) And when participants’ brains are open, they can naturally put more in them. We know meetings can be heavy, laborious, and yes, boring. Pulling off a superb meeting is seriously hard work. Yet problem-solving is a bigger problem when our bodies and brains are under stress.

Inject levity, and you add critical mental breaks, catalyze creativity and generate fresh thinking. Humor also lowers stress in part because it releases “feel-good” dopamine and sends more oxygen to blood vessels.

According to Scott Christopher, co-author of The Levity Effect, “It’s not a stretch to suggest that if laughter increases vasodilation—facilitating more oxygen to the brain—people will not only be in better moods, they’ll also be sharper cognitively. For example, a brainstorm session that begins with humor or some other mechanism to get people laughing stands a far greater chance of producing more and better ideas than an environment that is high-pressure or negative. In simple terms, a well-ventilated noodle out-produces one stifled by stress.”

Humorist,  speaker and author of Do It Well, Make It Fun, Ron Culberson uses humor throughout his programs, because his funny stories anchor content in the brain. He also watches his participants as they laugh— and sees them turning to one another to share in a collective, memorable experience.

Let’s also look at the use of humor on the meeting supply side. Used strategically, humor underscores authenticity, verve and memorability. When you carefully craft your message to align with your brand and sales goals, and use wit–not at the expense of getting the contract, but as a vehicle for it–you gain a competitive advantage. You’re different in a positive way.

When groups decide to hold humorless meetings, it’s often with the belief that levity has no place in their businesses. But you’d be hard pressed to find an industry more serious than death and dying.

As vice president of professional development for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, Barbara Bouton views humor as crucial to caring for her audiences of hospice palliative care professionals. End-of-life care, by nature, is very emotionally challenging. Burnout and compassion fatigue are common.

Bouton explains how they intentionally insert humorous content into programming, especially to close. “People have been listening to heavy sessions all week. Ending on lighter, funnier notes ensures they return home inspired and encouraged. Humor engages their heads and hearts, and leaves them feeling buoyant.” Humorists’ segments, adds Bouton with a smile, are the highest-rated segments of her conferences.

Lacey Hein, CMP and MPI member in Washington State, says adding humor to her meetings is a conscious decision, a choice to intentionally engage audiences during energy lulls and amidst unavoidably dry content. She and her team have staged A Minute to Win It-type games and custom songs, for example. She’s also given her subject matter experts professional presentation-skills coaching so they know how to do less “data dumping” and more delivering from an attendee point of view. That way, explains Hein, their message-driven humor drives engagement and improves participation.

Moving beyond the meeting room to another location meeting professionals often find ourselves: airplanes. As frequent fliers, we may pay little attention to airline safety videos. Delta Airlines’ current safety series, though, just begs you to watch. I think I have baggage, and then realize I’ve got nothing on the quirky Delta Airlines actors posing as passengers in the video. For starters, they’ve boarded with all manner of carry-on “baggage”—typewriters, blenders, an entire pizza. Looking around the cabin, I see eyes on a safety message, watch people engagingly point to the screens and hear laughter in the aisles. If humor can engage us in a traditionally dull, predictable, memorized message, remember what it can do for your meeting goers.

So when doesn’t humor work? Think relevancy. If a laugh line isn’t germane to the topic at hand—if it doesn’t further your goals and messaging—then don’t use it. Or when your intent is poignancy or pathos, steer clear of humor.

Krista Fleming, CMM, began her meeting career staging learning events for one of the toughest crowds of all: elementary school children. President of KF Events, she and her team are committed to maximizing the attendee experience. Fleming views humor as crucial in creating positive meeting memories, shifting perspectives and building empowerment for participants. “We all want to be a part of a positive, affirming event—it helps us feel we are doing something worthwhile, and know that what we do makes an important difference in the world.”

No kidding!

(image courtesy of MPI)