Humour can be a minefield. Make sure you tread carefully.

I’m a big advocate of humour in copywriting. It shows that there’s a real person behind your business, that you don’t take yourself too seriously, and that you’re not afraid to let your guard down with your customer or prospect. Connecting through the written word is no different to being with somebody in a social situation: you send out signals about what type of person you are what it’s like to deal with you. But you do need to exercise your judgement when it comes to humour. It should be really obvious that it is humour – otherwise, it’s likely to be taken the wrong way. I was reminded of this recently by two things. The first was a sign I saw on the Paris metro : It tells passengers not to board when the closing signal has sounded – otherwise, they could get hurt. And in fact, I saw this very thing happen, when a middle-aged woman tried to win a race with the closing doors. She lost, and ended up on the flat of her back on the platform, surrounded by concerned onlookers. The important thing here is that the signals are clear. The cartoon rabbit sets the tone, and the use of the familiar French tu (instead of the more formal vous) shows that they’re taking a less-than-serious approach to a very serious question. They’ve used the rabbit for years on the Paris metro. I remember another sign saying the same thing, warning that you could get your pattes (paws) caught in the door. Funny, charming – and effective.

Some you win…

The second example of humour was mine. Except in this case, it had less success than our bobtail friend. I sent an email to a business acquaintance – not a friend, exactly, but not a stranger either. I’d met him in a social setting, and I thought we were on the same wavelength humour-wise. But when it comes to humour, you can never be entirely sure. Which is why it’s always wise to err on the side of caution. In this case, I should probably have put an emoticon to make it absolutely obvious that I was trying to be funny. But I didn’t, as I have innate reaction against unnecessary punctuation. If the words can’t tell the story and convey the tone, I say to myself, then you need to find other ones. Except sometimes, you don’t. And perfectionism – the search for the perfect word, phrase or tone of voice – is a failing like any other. Sometimes, you just need to bite the bullet and put in that exclamation mark or smiley. The belt-and-braces approach makes sure that your message comes out the other end as you intended it at your end. And in my case, it didn’t. It took quite a lot of back-pedalling and borderline grovelling to rescue the situation. And all because I’m a stickler for grammar and the written word. As a former English teacher used to say to me, ‘when you know the rules, you can break them’. I do, but I didn’t. My bad, as they say.

Handle with care

So what are the rules when it comes to humour? The bottom line is that there are none. Humour is entirely subjective, and what makes one person laugh can make another cringe – or worse. The safest rule of thumb is to laugh at your own expense. Don’t make fun of your clients, prospects or competition –  especially not the competition, counter-intuitive as it sounds. That makes you appear defensive and insecure. So laugh at yourself, and don’t spare your blushes. Keep it clean, make it obvious and don’t lay it on too thick. As with all things, moderation is the key. And, unlike me, remember that rules are made to be broken. But do take the time to learn them first.