Your brand is crisp. Your message is clear. Now if you could only add a bit of funny into the mix. You already tried throwing a joke or two into your blogs. And random one-liners on social. Yet you’re still waiting for someone to laugh.
While you should be getting giggles, all you’re getting is an occasional groan. Perhaps it’s time to give up. Maybe your brand is just not meant to be funny.
Here’s the thing:
No brand is automatically born funny. Humor is a skill that has to be learned. The truth is, if other brands can do it with success, then you can do it, too. Even if your previous stabs at comedy were about as sharp as a plastic butter knife, you can indeed learn to effectively incorporate humor into your content.
Based on a WriterAccess Academy webinar, this article is a great place to start. Here you’ll find fabulous tips from Andrew “Drew” Tarvin, the world’s first humor engineer who doubles as one of our Content Strategy Certification instructors.
Here you get a rundown on the function and benefits of comedy in content marketing, along with explanations and hands-on exercises to start making funny work for you.
Why Humor Is Needed
Whether you’re sending a personal email to a pal or writing the monthly newsletter for your brand, humor can perk up even the most mundane content. It brings tremendous value, with the power to transform a bored, distracted, or half-asleep audience into a wide-awake and engaged one.
That’s right. Humor creates engagement—that highly sought-after thing in the land of content marketing.
Engagement is a blissful place where you’re truly connecting with your audience. If you want to get technical about it, you can break it down into three components:
- Attention: Are audience members noticing what you’re doing or presenting?
- Emotion: How do they feel about what they’re seeing?
- Participation: Are they commenting, laughing, sharing, throwing tomatoes, or otherwise reacting?
If your audience is paying attention, experiencing some type of emotion, and participating, you’ve hit the engagement bullseye.
To hit the humor bullseye, it’s helpful to know what you’re aiming for:
- Humor: A comic, absurd, or incongruous quality causing amusement (Random House Dictionary).
- Comedy: Similar to humor, but often a bit sillier (random thought).
- Humor that works: A strategic tool for getting better business results while having fun (Andrew Tarvin).
What Humor Means for Brands
The humor you use sitting around the dinner table is going to be a lot different than the humor your brand uses in its blog. While individuals are pretty much free to say anything they want, brands need to be a bit more careful if they’re concerned with public perception.
And if a brand is out to make a profit, you can be assured they’re concerned with public perception. It’s important to take a good look at the style of humor you’re aiming to create. Comedy comes in four different flavors:
- Affiliative humor: Positive, inclusive humor. Think Mr. Rogers or wholesome memes.
- Self-enhancing humor: Positive, laughing at own foibles in a good-natured way, finding humor in life’s hardships. Think Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show,” who says things like, “I’m not the brightest guy.”
- Self-defeating: Poking fun at self. Think Rodney Dangerfield and his fate of never getting any respect.
- Aggressive: Making fun of and insulting other people. Think Joan Rivers and Don Rickles.
For obvious reasons, aggressive humor is typically not the go-to humor for brands. Unless, of course, their intent is to stir up trouble and controversy instead of business.
This doesn’t mean brands can’t be edgy, snarky, irreverent, or even absurd. They just need to make sure the humor they employ aligns with their target audience and brand personality.
In fact, humor can be an ideal tool for weeding out those you don’t want in your audience. If certain people are offended by what you say or do, you’ll easily know they’re not the customers for you.
Cards Against Humanity, which bills itself as “a party game for horrible people,” is a perfect example of an irreverent brand.
- It refers to the FAQs on its website as “Your Dumb Questions.”
- Marketing copy reads “Cards Against Humanity is as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.”
- While everyone else was busy running sales, this brand actually raised its prices on Black Friday.
Not all brand humor has to be so blatant. Brands like Southwest, Zappos, and Oreo manage to mingle fun into their marketing without irreverence or insult. And even highly conservative brands may use humor when they feel the time and place is right.
Social media serves as a splendid arena for humor. People head to social to be amused and entertained. You may find brands that keep their web copy and other brand assets fairly straightforward can tend to let loose a bit on social media.
The Skill of Humor and How to Make Funny
As already mentioned, humor is a skill. And like anything from playing the piano to welding a giant crow sculpture, that skill has to be learned. While some people may seem as if they were born funny, they may have simply picked up the skill much more quickly or naturally than others.
The skill of humor starts by having a sense of humor, or a unique perspective.
- How do you see the world?
- What do you find interesting?
What you see is defined by what you’re looking for. If you look around the room for something orange, you’re going to find it—even if you had not noticed anything orange in the room before. Looking for different input changes the way you see the world.
“It’s not that funny things happen to funny people. It’s that funny people see the things that happen to them in a funny way.”Andrew Tarvin
So, Tarvin suggests people stop looking for stress and things they don’t like—and instead look for things that make them happy or amused.
Changing your perspective ever so slightly could help you become one of those funny people.
While brand humor and individual humor may produce different output, the inspiration is frequently the same. A great source of material for both is daily life, or the world happening around you.
Sources of Material
|Habits||Passions||Family and friends|
Humor Exercise 1
Create a Humor Notebook
Start paying attention to humorous things—and write them down in your humor notebook.
Whether you use an actual notebook or create a file on your phone or computer, this is your humor repository where you capture funny things throughout the day.
It’s also your go-to place when you want to create something funny.
Let’s start filling it up right away.
Create Your First Entry
To get the creative juices flowing, start by filling in the blanks for the four sentence starters below. Feel free to write as much as you wish, allowing the ideas to flow as desired.
- I hate:
- I love:
- I’m annoyed by:
- The best is when:
Don’t overthink it. Just write, write, write.
How Funny Are You?
In addition to paying attention to the funny things in the world around you, pay attention to your own funniness number. This number is gauged on a scale of 1 to 10, and it can be determined by ranking:
- How funny you are.
- How much you laugh.
- How much you make other people laugh.
Take note and keep track. Then try to increase it by adding more funniness into your life with a fresh perspective and playing in your humor notebook.
Ability to Humor
Your skillfulness at using humor relies on three main factors:
- Content: How the humor is arranged or crafted.
- Structure: How the humor is received.
- Execution: How you deliver the humor.
Certain tactics work particularly well for creating humor. You can put two to work immediately. They are:
- Extension of logic.
Extension of logic: If this is true, then what else is true?
An example from Tarvin comes from rapper Tramar Lacel Dillard, better known by his stage name Flo Rida. As one might guess, Flo Rida is originally from—you guessed it—Florida.
If it’s true that Flo Rida is from Florida, what else may be true about other names? Do they, too, hold secrets as to where a person or company is from?
Tarvin decided to find out, going through all 50 states to see what kind of names could be made out of the letters in a fashion similar to Flo Rida.
He found one.
De La Ware—a Hispanic travel agency located in Delaware, of course.
Conjunctions are the humorist’s friend, with three in particular making the top of the comic list:
- For instance.
Because: Allows you to give a reason for something.
Tarvin says he doesn’t like mint chocolate ice cream because he never eats chocolate and then suddenly craves toothpaste.
For instance: Lets you give an example.
This conjunction can work well if you start off with something absurd, and then provide an example of what you’re talking about. Like the comic who asked the audience if they ever wished they were just a little bit disabled. For instance, during the holiday shopping crunch so they could park in all the open handicapped parking spaces.
Therefore: Points back the aforementioned extension of logic.
Flo Rida is both the rapper’s name and his home state. Therefore, other names must also be a reflection of their location.
Structure is how the humor is received, and it’s your job to help the audience receive it in a way that ensures they get it.
The setup and punchline is the most common structure. And it has to be crafted with the right amount of oomph to ensure the joke is funny.
You can think of it as a cliff.
You need to help the audience jump off the cliff and over a gap to land on a nearby mountaintop.
- If you have too much oomph, the jump is too easy. It’s not a joke. It’s a statement. And not funny.
- If you have too little oomph, the jump is too difficult. No one gets it. It falls to its death in the gap. And again, it’s not funny.
You can also think of the structure using logic.
- If A —> B
- If B —> C
- If A —> C
The setup is your A.
The punchline is your C.
If the audience can infer B, they will laugh.
- The setup creates some type of expectation in the audience.
- The punchline BREAKS that expectation in an unexpected way.
Your content and your structure could both fall flat if you don’t have the right execution. This is where the all-important element of timing comes in.
You want to get your timing right, pausing in the right places. You need to pause long enough for people to absorb what you’re saying and have time to laugh. But not so long that the silence becomes awkward.
- [Pause] to ensure you have everyone’s attention.
- [Pause] to let them laugh.
The punchline should be the last thing you say in a sentence. You want to make the funny stand out with the biggest impact, which is exactly what happens when you put it at the end.
Humor Exercise 2
Create a Top 10 List
Write 10 reasons why quarantine isn’t as awful as you may have initially thought it would be.
Complete the thought:
Staying indoors hasn’t been all bad:
- [First reason]
- [Second reason]
- [Third reason]
- [Fourth reason]
- [Fifth reason]
- [Sixth reason]
- [Seventh reason]
- [Eighth reason]
- [Ninth reason]
- [Tenth reason]
Don’t think any of the entries need to be funny right off the bat. All you’re doing at this point is collecting thoughts and ideas.
You’re also engaging in the Rule of 90.
90% of what you write will be, um, crap.
That means if you write down 10 things, one of them will be good.
Keep this in mind for all comedy writing going forward.
“When you’re sharing experiences everyone has been through, you’re getting to the humanness of the brand—which is what the audience can relate to.”Andrew Tarvin
Use It Now
You can use the top 10 exercise to create copy for your brand, with a piece such as:
10 Things We Learned During Quarantine
When you’re sharing experiences everyone has been through, you’re getting to the humanness of the brand—which is what the audience can relate to.
“There’s truth in comedy. The reason we all connect with humor is because we all see the truth in it.”
Comedy Techniques You Need to Know
Your ability to create humor can be greatly enhanced by a number of comedy techniques. These include:
Incongruity refers to something unexpected among normal circumstances. Examples include nicknames, interesting apparel, or a unique language.
It’s also a very effective element to use in comedy writing for content marketing. Brands can easily use incongruity with a technique called the comic triple.
Comic Triple: A list of three items in which the first two items are normal, or expected. The third is out of the ordinary, incongruous, out of place.
- [Item to start list]
- [Item to establish pattern]
- [Item to break pattern]
An example of the comic triple used in stand-up comes from actress, comedian, and writer Laura Kightlinger.
QUOTE w/ headshot Kightlinger:
“I can’t think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not being able to remember their name, or how you met, or why they’re dead.”Laura Kightlinger
Humor Exercise 3
Use the Comic Triple
Write a comic triple about:
- Your family.
- Your job.
- Your appearance or personality.
Association is the connecting of two ideas together in a unique way. Examples here include metaphors, analogies, and mnemonics.
As a refresher, mnemonics are related to memory. They’re learning techniques that help you remember or recall things. Like remembering the names of the five Great Lakes by recalling their first letters spell HOMES:
Or that a man’s name is John because the bald spot in the middle of his round haircut reminds you of a toilet seat.
Associations are terrific because they:
- Are a great way to explain things.
- Help people remember things.
- Help people remember your brand.
Humor Exercise 4
Play around with Associations
Compile two lists, side by side.
- On one side, write 10 things related to your brand.
- On the other side, write 10 things you’re passionate about (that need not have anything to do with your brand).
Now play around with associations, seeing if you can make any items from the first list connect to items from the second list. Or draw lines to randomly connect items together to see what happens.
Let loose. Have fun. Amend results as needed.
If you can relate your brand to a passion, you’re going to be more easily remembered, related to, and even adored.
An observation is simply making a reference to something that everyone is aware of. Perhaps you’re pointing out something that just happened, recapping an event, or referencing something that was previously said.
You can transform those observations into something humorous by using what’s called the observation structure:
The goal here is to determine what emotion you felt from the observation, along with your justification of that emotion. The final step is to deliver the content in a way that’s funny.
We can again use the example of Tarvin’s dislike for mint chocolate ice cream.
- Observation: He doesn’t like mint chocolate ice cream.
- Emotion: Dislike, yuck.
- Justification: Mint flavor reminds him of toothpaste.
- Delivery: He doesn’t like mint chocolate ice cream because he never eats chocolate and then suddenly craves toothpaste.
Humor Exercise 5
Try out the Observation Structure
Write five observations about working from home:
- [Item 1]
- [Item 2]
- [Item 3]
- [Item 4]
- [Item 5]
Now plug each one into the observation structure:
- Write down the observation.
- What is your EMOTION related to the observation?
- What is your JUSTIFICATION of the emotion?
- Deliver the content in a way that’s funny.
Humor is only going to work if you have confidence.
- The confidence to take it to completion. Never stop halfway through, even if you think you’re about to bomb. Go all the way, all the time.
- The confidence to let the joke stand on its own. Don’t explain things, use a bunch of filler words, or otherwise water down the end product. Use strong language and let the joke do its thing. It either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, no amount of fluff surrounding it is going to make it any better.
Agency with Humor
Agency with humor refers to your ability to use humor to achieve a specific result. You can do this by using the Humor Process, which is akin to a five-step problem-solving process.
Steps in the Humor Process:
The first step is to define the situation using your humor MAP. A humor MAP outlines three core elements:
- Medium: HOW you’ll present the material.
- Audience: WHO will be on the receiving end of the material.
- Purpose: WHY you’re presenting the material; what you want it to achieve.
You have three ways to develop your comedy writing:
From scratch: The hardest way to develop comedic content, this involves sitting down and writing something funny.
From funny stuff that already exists: This makes you the curator instead of the creator, pulling together funny material written or created by others. As long as you give credit to the source, you can use all types of different content. Ideas can include:
- Funny things from your life.
- Funny quotes.
- Funny memes or social posts.
- Funny input from your audience.
From unfunny material: Write the first draft of your material without trying to be funny. Simply say what you’re going to say. Then go back through your content, finding opportunities to make it funny.
You can use different tactics to add funniness to different types of existing copy.
- Teaching a concept: Association.
- Unexpected event: Observation.
- Boring sentence: Incongruity.
- List: Comic triple.
- Boring paragraph: Joke.
- Introducing new topic: Story.
- Making a new point: Visual.
- Creating an emotion: Sound.
- Dialogue: Act out.
- Teaching a skill: Activity.
Decide what type of humor you’re going to use. Keeping the Rule of 90 in mind, you probably want to create more material than you’re going to use.
You also want to test things out before you go big and bold with new material. Perhaps shoot out a few tweets or other quick posts to gauge audience reaction to smaller tidbits of your content.
- Making sure the content fits your humor MAP: Medium, Audience, Purpose.
- Following the newspaper rule.
- Following “The Onion” rule.
- Determining how you feel about the content.
The newspaper rule asks if your brand would be OK if the humorous material were to go viral. If the answer is yes, move forward. If no, revise until it is.
“The Onion” rule checks if your humorous material is too far-fetched, or absurd enough to be found in “The Onion.” If the answer is no, move forward. If yes, revise until it is.
Determining how you feel about the material can be done by simply asking: Does it make me smile? If yes, move forward (with glee).
Delivering the material involves three steps:
- Set the stage (or not).
- Commit to execution, and deliver with confidence.
- Connect to purpose.
Debriefing gives you a quick review of the material so you can continue to hone your skills. Ask yourself three questions:
- Did you have fun?
- What worked well?
- What could be improved?
Humor Style Guide
If your brand is serious about adding humor into the mix on a consistent basis, a humor style guide is an invaluable tool. You can create a stand-alone humor guide or incorporate a humor section into your existing brand guide. Either way, you’ll have an informative rundown on how humor is to be used with your brand.
Your humor style guide needs to include sections such as:
- Humor persona.
- Humor tone, voice.
- Humor style.
- Humor frequency.
How to Move Forward with Funny
If you’re really, really serious about adding humor to the mix, start right now. Your first order of business is to establish a humor style guide to keep your brand’s humor consistent across the board.
Your next is to create the space for humor. Treat it as you would any new skill you want to bring to your company. Don’t simply try to cram half-thought-out jokes into content on the fly and hope for the best. Give comedy the time and attention it deserves to become an integral part of your brand.
Your final step is to actually create humor. Practice, practice, practice. You already have your humor notebook filled with several entries. Keep up the momentum. As with any skill, the more you use it, the better it gets. So be confident. Stand strong. And keep moving forward with glee.
For even more glee, earn your Content Strategy Certification from WriterAccess Academy. Enroll for free today.