Humor flexes its muscles

I’ve just returned from The Arthur W. Page Society‘s superb annual conference in San Diego. And, while the conference theme was, “Search for community in a (dis) connected world,” there were a surprising number of speakers who addressed the power of humor in business.

Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, said his use of humor, authenticity and doubling down on the airline’s “purpose” were key to his ability to weather the widespread outrage after the “incident” on flight 3411.

Rich Jernstedt, former CEO of GolinHarris (now Golin), erstwhile chair of the Council of PR Firms and current head of his own consulting firm, shared a priceless “Page Moment” that occurred long ago and far away, AND demonstrated the legendary Al Golin’s use of humor in an intense situation.

The Golin team had just entered the massive boardroom of a large prospect they were pitching. As everyone pulled up a chair, Mr. Golin flipped backwards and, chair and all, fell on the ground. Instantly, he said, “And, now, for my next act…”

There was no response from the stone-faced prospects (probably out of politeness—not just sure how to react) but, later, after Golin had been awarded the business, the client contact said Mr. Golin’s use of humor and ability to take the incident in stride was a decisive factor in their selection. While their non-verbals may have indicated otherwise, the prospect team was in search of an agency that could not only do the job but, critically be a FUN partner.

I experienced a similar occurrence when we pitched Yahoo’s business. Right smack in the middle of the presentation, we were explaining how we would roll out a local market campaign.  To illustrate it, one of our San Francisco employees selected a last-second slide to pinpoint the various markets we’d be targeting.

The lead prospect took one look at the slide and said, “You do know you’re using Google Earth in that slide, correct?”

I immediately spoke up and said, “John, we purposely inserted that slide to make sure you were paying attention.” The entire room broke out in a hearty laugh. My comment not only saved the day, but created an instant bond with the Yahooligans by sharing an “inside joke.” We were awarded the business a few days later.

Afterword: In his remarks at the Page conference, Rich shared research conducted by The Hay Group that showed “executives who were ranked as outstanding used humor twice as often as those ranked average.” The same survey showed that humor used skillfully:

  • Reduces hostility
  • Deflects criticism
  • Relieves tension (See: Al Golin/Steve Cody examples above)
  • Improves morale
  • Helps communicate difficult messages.

Embrace humor as part of your executive persona and you’ll find yourself laughing all the way to the bank.

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