The Funny Thing About Humor in Sales

BY Tim Londergan
Featured image for “The Funny Thing About Humor in Sales”

Lonny was a well-​liked pharmaceutical sales rep who I met years ago. He always had a funny story and was quick to coax a smile from even his toughest clients. We met well before direct-​to-​consumer advertising changed the dynamic of the drug business. In that era, a drug rep’s primary challenge was to get face time with the busy and well-​defended prescribing physician. Using his charm and confidence fronted by humor, Lonny was able to disarm the steadfast receptionist or office manager to secure his target. From him, I learned that humor in sales can be an effective offense in moving closer to your objective.

The pitfalls of using humor in sales

The practice of sales is an evolutionary process. Technology, and the trends that come with it, means we can no longer expect similar outcomes from prior actions. In a virtual world, humor in sales is much more difficult to master. One key distinction between face-​to-​face and remote connection is the lack of contextual clues. This is according to research by psychology professors Frank LoSchavio and Mark Shatz. Facial expressions, gestures, posture, pitch, speed, and rhythm are contextual clues critical to communicating humor. Obviously, many of these pointers are missed in a virtual environment.

Aside from missing clues, the feedback loop that guides humor selection and delivery is often compromised. Technical gremlins, tiny screens and poor audio quality all contribute to a garbled and confused conveyance of what may otherwise be a memorable story. What’s more, humor is social. Hearing someone laugh can be contagious. Attendees who are muted or not visible on-​screen make this impossible. Finally, distractions are deadly to humor in sales. Interruptions are unpredictable and occur frequently in even the most disciplined environments.

What makes something funny?

Ben Healy, former managing editor for The Atlantic, dissected the subject and isolated numerous theories ranging from superiority to incongruity to relief of repressive psychic energy. Consequently, comic potential exists in many situations, and these can be effective tools if they are not threatening or rude. Regardless, as computer scientists attempt to advance artificial intelligence, they will continue to deconstruct humor for future applications.

Before you go for the laugh

Sparklight Business offers a helpful set of guidelines that offers perspective on when and how to use humor in sales. Foremost is consideration for your brand and the image you want to portray. For instance, humor may not be appropriate in discussions of a confidential matter or where establishing your credibility is vital. Second, an acute sense of timing is critical in both business and comedy. Avoid punchlines and quips that can be misinterpreted as offensive or “too soon” after a recent tragic event. Importantly, testing your material is smart. Professional comedians do this routinely. Practice by changing up your tone or rhythm and don’t be afraid to record your performance to refine your delivery.

Stop me if you’ve heard this…

My friend Lonny used humor in sales specifically to break down barriers, become memorable and to build relationships. His strategy was right for his time and his outsized personality. Today, well-​intentioned humor can still be effective. However, Spiro​.ai presents several cautionary notes for your review. Here are the top three:

  1. Don’t make jokes at anyone’s expense besides your own.
  2. Keep the jokes clean and without offensive language.
  3. Avoid anything related to politics, religion or protected classes.

Humor is never one-​size-​fits-​all. More art than science, humor must respond to an ever-​changing set of circumstances and personalities, which is the user’s primary challenge. Keep your focus on where you want the interaction to go.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio