Humour in copywriting Does it pay to be funny? Sometimes. Humour is an ingredient – and like all ingredients, it should be used in the correct proportion, if it’s not to overwhelm the recipe. But how much is enough? A pinch or a cupful? Imagine meeting somebody at a dinner party. They make a joke. You laugh. What a witty person, you think. Then they make another joke. Very droll, you think. And they follow it up with another joke. And another. The onslaught is relentless. Soon, you’re wondering if you can change seats. And by the time dessert is served, you’re looking for a sharp knife to put one of you out of your misery. The key is moderation. Take the ‘Now you can make your own ham, cheese and tomato croissant’ bag from upmarket UK fast-food chain Pret. It opens by saying that making croissants from scratch is very labour-intensive. ‘Here,’ it continues, ‘we’ve given you two ways to end up with a freshly baked croissant. We’ve also given you the recipe for our delicious filling.’ Option 1 goes through the whole laborious process. It’s exhausting just reading it. Actually doing it is worse (I know – I’ve tried). Option 2 says ‘Pop out to Pret or your local bakers and…’ You get the picture. It’s gently humorous. You do actually get a complete recipe for croissants, and the filling, so it’s practical too. Like the ham, cheese and tomato, everything is finely balanced.

Just enough – but no more

Bill Bryson is a humorous writer, but look at any of his books closely and you’ll see that his humour is carefully measured out. Interviewed by Michael Shapiro in A Sense of Place, Bryson explains that humour can be a lot more effective when you surprise people with it. ‘It’s a mistake,’ he says, ‘to go at it as if you’re doing a stand-up routine. People just can’t handle that many jokes, so I try to be more selective with humour.’ So how much is enough? That’s the difficult bit. Reading copy out loud always helps – just hearing the words spoken will give you a good idea of whether you’ve overdone it. If the humour is too hard to swallow, adjust the ingredients and try again.