Experts often hail humor as a positive in business. It's common advice, for example, to open a public speaking event with some kind of joke or funny story. But as Art Markman notes in Psychology Today, researchers Bradford Bitterly, Alison Brooks and Maurice Schweitzer have found that jokes can be a double-edged sword and need to be yielded with finesse.

Studies in a nutshell

Bitterly and his colleagues conducted multiple studies to get a grasp on whether jokes in the workplace actually could make a person more successful. In the first study, participants rated individuals who used jokes during company testimonials as having higher status, confidence and competence. In a second study, participants rated interviewees as having higher status and confidence when the interviewees used a joke to answer a question, even when the joke was unsuccessful and the participants hadn't laughed. Lastly, in a third study, participants rated individuals who used jokes as being more confident than those who didn't use jokes, even when the jokes were unsuccessful or inappropriate. But participants rated individuals who used inappropriate jokes as having lower competence, also rating individuals as having lower status when the inappropriate joke was unsuccessful.

Making the research work for you

The above studies suggest that humor will help you win confidence points, regardless of whether your joke is successful or clean. But if you want others to see you as competent, sticking to appropriate content is essential. The best results come when you can use a joke that consistently elicits a positive response (that is, it's been proven to be funny) and stays out of the gutter. With this in mind, to improve your odds of success,

  • Test out jokes on others if you can before putting them into real play. If you feel uncomfortable testing them out on your kids or grandma, that's a good sign you probably need to find something else to use.
  • Even as you acknowledge quirks audience members might have as a distinct community, go for a joke with some universal appeal to it. You'll have a greater chance of your audience getting the joke this way, and you'll run less risk of unwittingly offending listeners because of cultural issues.

Additionally, based on insights from Janice Wood and Shane Snow regarding what makes a joke funny,

  • Stick to no-fuss, simple jokes. Research shows that the more complex a joke is, the less likely it is to get laughs.
  • Build on a set of expectations. Then use a punchline that updates what the listener knows in an unexpected way.
  • Take advantage of the Benign Violation Theory--find a joke that seems wrong or unsettling in some way but is actually harmless.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution. The wrong joke only will set you back overall, but leaving humor out of the picture never hurts you.