Making Safety Fun: The Role of Humor in The Workplace

Humor in Safety MessagingCategory: Q&A

Marlin Q&A with Jan McInnis

Marlin workplace digital signage content often utilizes humor to engage employees on a wide range of issues—even workplace safety. The concept of pairing humor with just about any messaging is nothing new. There’s a ton of research that shows this technique works well to enhance all kinds of communication. Not only can it help grab attention, it can also defuse situations, boost employee engagement and increase message retention. So, when we heard about author, comedian, and keynote speaker Jan McInnis and her solutions for offering humor in the workplace, we simply had to discover more. We recently caught up with Jan for a deeper dive into this topic.

1. Jan, why is humor so important to workplace messaging?

I think two of the best benefits to using humor are that it opens up lines of communication and it changes the energy. Don’t you just feel like you can talk with someone who is using humor? It gives you an instant connection with coworkers, staff, employees, and clients when you both have that “aha” moment over some shared humor. And that’s what we’re looking for – ways to open and keep open lines of communication.

You can go from being stressed to relaxed with just a little bit of well-placed humor. If you don’t find a way to change tense energy, then you have to work through it, and that’s HARD. Instead, toss out a little humor, and change the energy instantly.

2. Is injecting humor into workplace communication more important now than ever before? Why?

Certainly in times of a pandemic, humor is needed (see tips in question 9 for appropriate humor). But that aside, I think we’ve always needed humor in business, and I think we just have more opportunities to use it these days than we did in past generations. Back in at least my dad’s day, you had certain rules to follow—suit and tie to work, and a protocol for everything. I’m guessing they needed humor as much as we need it or more today, but protocol said they couldn’t do it! Today, we’re just in a more relaxed environment, so it’s more acceptable. We have so many ways to communicate – text, email, social media… why not toss in some humor?

3. Safety is a very serious topic. Lives are at risk. Aren’t managers concerned about sending the wrong message by introducing humor?

Yes, safety IS a very serious topic, and by encouraging people to use humor in the workplace I’m NOT suggesting they make fun of safety! What I am suggesting is that they use some humor around, and during, their safety message so that it grabs people’s attention, and makes them want to listen.

I’ve been brought in to speak at safety conferences because the conference committee is tired of hearing the same old message in the same old way. This tends to make people tune the message out. Many late-night TV shows give us the news in an entertaining way. They use humor, but you can still glean from their humor what the news story is about. There is safety information that you need to give out, without jokes. But there is other information around your safety message where you can inject some humor.

4. Safety managers are often dealing with language barriers, differences in cultural understandings and idioms that may complicate the use of humor in the workplace. What’s the best way to handle this?

I would approach it as I do when I go to speak in an industry or to a company that I’m not familiar with… I learn a little bit about them first. You could certainly run your humor past someone who does speak the language or know the culture… just to get a feel for it. But also do some research. I’m not talking hours of researching, but there’s so much at our fingertips for researching a subject quickly. I always have a call ahead of time with clients, especially if I haven’t had much of a connection to that industry – so do the same with your employees and coworkers. And finally, visual humor, such as cartoons, may be a way to cross that boundary.

5. You’re a member of VPPPA (Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association) and have presented to other members of this organization. What do you find is really important to this audience?

First off, the safety audiences I’ve been in front of really “get it” when it comes to humor. They really enjoy it, and I think they do walk away with an understanding that humor is important to include in their message. In fact, I had a nice compliment from an attendee at lunch after my keynote. He said, “I have to be honest, when I heard there was a comedian I thought, ‘What does that have to do with safety?’ Then I saw her speak, and I ‘got it.’ She was great!”

What people have told me with safety audiences is that they want people to listen and retain their safety message, and they are always looking for new ways to get this message out and connect with their audience. They are open to looking outside their industry for ideas, which is where humor comes in. I like to call this “cross pollinating” between other industries. We need to look at other industries, such as comedy, to find ideas that we can use in our industry, otherwise we get stale and keep pushing the same message in the same way. People tune it out.

6. You often speak about the need to bring energy back into a room, and humor is one way to do it. Is this something anyone can learn to do?

I’ve been touring theatres with my clean comedy show, and one comment I hear a LOT of people say about themselves after the show is, “I can’t do humor, I’m not naturally funny!” And to that I say many comedians aren’t naturally funny either! Most of us just know where to look to find humor, and we’ve been doing it so long that now the humor just automatically pops out and it’s much easier.

Humor is like a muscle memory. You need to practice until it “comes naturally.” You can learn a few humor techniques, and places to look for humor, and then start practicing and looking for it every day. Soon it’s a habit, and you will start finding the funny in situations more automatically. You may never be ready for the comedy circuit, and that’s okay. Keep your day job and make that funnier and more fun. And so to answer your question in a nutshell… yes. You can learn to do it in business.

And to my other point about being naturally funny… please stop waiting for someone to give you “permission” to use humor. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that you should use humor. Just go out and have fun.

7. Safety is still a male-dominated field. So is comedy, despite the growth of standouts ranging from Ellen DeGeneres to Nikki Glaser. And yet, you’re in front of a room of safety professionals delivering laughs on a regular basis. What advice do you have for women in the workplace who want to use your techniques?

I say to them, be yourself. Don’t try to be “one of the guys,” if that’s not you. Instead use the humor that resonates with you and you’ll sell it when you say it, and you’ll also enjoy saying it. I haven’t met a safety audience that thinks, “Oh, no, here’s a woman. I won’t relate.” Instead, they’ve loved the humor sprinkled throughout my tips. Remember, appropriate humor usually makes MORE of a connection with others, so it’s a great way to bring men and woman together with that shared “aha” moment when you get the joke.

I have had shows in comedy clubs where people came up to me afterwards to apologize because when they saw a woman on the show, they thought it was going to stink – and they were wrong. But in business, it’s different. People aren’t usually thinking, “Oh, it’s a woman speaker instead of a male speaker. Yuck.” I’ve been hired by the CEO of Pep Boys to do shows throughout the country for his mostly male managers, and I think the audiences forgot that I was a woman about two seconds into my show because the jokes strike a chord with them immediately. Don’t focus on being a woman or a man doing humor. Just focus on having fun with it.

8. I see from your website www.TheWorkLady.com that you also produce humorous visuals. Can you tell me more about the role that visual communication plays in humor?

I think most humor paints a picture in people’s heads, which translates to great visuals if you want to make one on paper. All of my jokes are jokes that are in my keynote and comedy act where I say them. I have made many of them into visuals such as this one here, but the jokes work with or without the visual. You can check out my website to see how well these work when I’m saying them. In fact, I tell young comedians to write jokes where people make the connection in their head and get that “aha” moment. Some comedians do “act out” the joke so you see it… but many of us don’t move around much at all. But the audience can still “see” our jokes.

9. Are there any topics that are off limit when it comes to humor in the workplace?

In comedy clubs the only rule is to be funny. Anything goes, but NOT in a company setting. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll—and probably politics—should be off limits! I tell people to use their common sense on the subjects. And yes, during this pandemic, you can use humor as long as it’s NOT about the virus but rather it focuses on things around the virus. This can be everything from self-deprecating humor about gaining weight to new definitions, such as the “haves” and the “have nots” now pointing to a person’s stock of toilet paper. A couple of other quick rules about humor in the office:

  • Watch the cheap shots or the easy jokes ABOUT someone or something, so you don’t make someone feel bad. I once did a show for 4,400 people, and they ran out of dinners for 1,500 people! And it was their employee appreciation night. As a comedian, I wanted to get on stage, pull back the curtain and say, “Hey, I found ’em!” It would have gotten a huge laugh, but the meeting planner was backstage crying. I did not want to add to her misery. So, pay attention to sensitive subjects either at the event or that are in your particular company.
  • Don’t make jokes about a group that you are not a member of. For example, if you’re bald, sure, you can make a self-deprecating bald joke. But if you’re not bald, then don’t.

A few things that you CAN joke about easily at work include…

  • The environment and what’s happening in the room. Again, as long as it’s nice. I once had to follow Keith Ferrazzi on stage, and his talk about networking was titled, “Never Eat Lunch Alone.” I got on stage and pointed out that right after him on the agenda it listed, “Lunch, On Your Own.” Also, have fun with common things that the group has been dealing with. If a piece of equipment is always broken, for example, or if the room is cold. Check out this joke I did about an awards banquet.
  • Rules and regulations are open for having a little bit of fun with. See my cartoon here about the education system’s rule No Child Left Behind.
  • Industry jargon. Change the definition of acronyms or make up a new definition.
  • The Competition. I once had to speak to salespeople at a bus manufacturing company, and the day before I had hurt myself where I had a bandage on my face. I was able to joke about riding the competitor’s bus.

10. We at Marlin often recommend that a portion of the content our customers display on their workplace digital signage is related to something other than work. We actually recommend that 35% should be about anything else. It’s about engaging the “whole worker.” When it comes to using humor in workplace messaging, can you offer a similar guideline? How often and to what degree does it make sense to incorporate humor?

There’s no real hard and fast rule, such as in comedy clubs where I would try to get 3-4 laughs per minute. For a business program, I’d say try to begin with some humor if you want to get people’s attention, especially if there’s something that you can obviously have fun with… like the room is freezing. And also, try to end your program with a little humor so that you leave them in a great mood. Then just sprinkle some humor throughout your presentation where it seems to fit. You may find a ton of places to use it, but don’t go overboard. Just a few well-placed jokes can do the trick. Maybe look for places where you HAVE to give them some dry information. At least end that segment using a little humor to wake them up.

11. Is it much different writing material for a safety audience than it would be for HR, etc.?

People are people are people. There are many universal topics that EVERYONE can relate to, and so I think most general humor works across the board with all sorts of industries. When I speak to groups, I do a little research to find out about them so that I can tailor some material to that specific audience. Typically, general topics like work, family, kids, dieting, and relationships make all people, including safety people, laugh.

12. In some of your presentations, you discuss “addressing the elephant in the room… talking about what’s going on so people can get over it.” Can you provide an example of how humor can help you accomplish this?

Sure. For example, if you sit down to a meeting on a certain topic, but you’ve just had a big event happen in the office (budget cuts, CEO turnover, no more free coffee – pick one), that’s not on that topic. If you avoid the subject, and don’t talk about it, people may be angry and feel like you don’t understand what’s going on at the company. But if you do jump into a discussion on it, then you may open up a heated debate and get off track from what your original meeting was about. INSTEAD, you can address what’s happened (the big elephant in the room) quickly by using a little bit of humor. What I tell people is to put yourself in the audience’s shoes and say what their sarcastic voice is thinking. Bring it up with humor and people will be happy you acknowledged it, and it will clear the air. Comedians do this all the time. If we’re really tall, or really overweight, or we look like a famous person, then when we take to the stage, we need to address it. We acknowledge what everyone is thinking so that they don’t spend their whole time staring at us and wondering if we know that we look like Tom Hanks. We don’t have to have a whole comedy show on the fact that we look like Tom Hanks… just one joke to clear the air. (And by the way, I DON’T look like Tom Hanks – but I do like him!)

13. What do you say to people who are still hesitant to bring humor to the workplace?

I would say that you need to take the pressure off of yourself to be “comedy club funny.” First of all, in business, no one gets mad if your humor doesn’t hit BIG. They’re usually appreciative that you’re trying to lighten the situation. They get mad if you’re a comedian in a comedy club and aren’t funny, but not so much in business. Plus, the goal in workplace humor ISN’T to be the next Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld, so your humor doesn’t have to be belly laugh, killer funny. You’re just trying to change the energy, get everyone to take a breath, wake them up, and/or keep them engaged.

And secondly, stop worrying about bombing! After many of my comedy shows, there’s always someone who says to me, “You know, I’m really funny. I should be a comedian.” I’m pretty sure they don’t do it because they’re afraid of bombing. Stop worrying about it! If you keep thinking about not doing well, then you won’t do well. That works for humor, or pretty much anything in life, by the way. Instead, focus on having fun with it, and enjoying it… then, as I’ve said, you’ll sell it when you say it. Do the humor that you think is funny and you’ll enjoy doing it.

And finally, as I mentioned, please stop waiting for someone to give you “permission” to use humor. You don’t have to have someone tell you, “Hey, you’re funny.” I think people want validation before they dip their toe into comedy… And you’ll never do any humor if you wait for others to tell you it’s ok.

BIO

For over 26+ years, Jan McInnis traveled country as a keynote speaker and comedian sharing her unique and practical tips on how to use humor in business (yes, it’s a business skill!). She has shared her customized humor keynotes with thousands of corporations and associations, and she is the author of two books: “Finding the Funny Fast” and “Convention Comedian”. She was also featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post.

In addition, she’s an established comedy writer who has sold material to everyone including Jay Leno’s Tonight Show monologue as well as many other people, places and groups – radio, TV, syndicated cartoon strips, and even guests on the Jerry Springer show (her parents are proud). Jan can be reached at https://www.TheWorkLady.com or Jan@TheWorkLady.com

Sean Donnelly
April 13, 2020

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