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Humor in technical communication

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. Humour in technical communication. Connections March:4, 7.

Last March, Carolyn Watt and Mark Hannigan (incoming STC president) hosted our annual West Island meeting, where they presented a tag-team lecture on the use of humor in technical communication. The presentation covered considerable ground:

Humor is the quality of what makes something funny, and often comes in the form of the “perception of an appropriate incongruity”. Even where the situation requires a measure of seriousness, humor may still be appropriate. As John Cleese, famed member of Monty Python, has observed, "serious doesn’t inevitably mean solemn". Humor can release stress, make both the audience and the author feel better, and generate beneficial health effects (hence the phrase “laughter is the best medicine”). Moreover, as Carolyn and Mark pointed out, we spend far too much time at work not to enjoy ourselves.

Because relaxed people learn better, it’s tempting to consider using humor in our technical communication efforts. After all, many of our readers approach our documentation in a state of stress, and anything we can do to reduce that stress will lower that particular barrier to communication. Indeed, humor bridges communications gaps when both parties understand the joke, and that’s particularly true if the humor is self-deprecating. Sharing the joke builds empathy between the communicator and the audience, which is why just about every speech or presentation begins with a joke.

The problem? As I noted, many of our readers are busy, stressed, scared, confused, resentful, or otherwise not in the mood for fooling around: they have a deadline to meet, a boss nagging them, or a sudden software crisis that could ruin their whole day. So before you attempt to incorporate humor in your communication, put yourself firmly in your audience’s shoes and try to understand their emotional and other contexts; an inappropriate joke could increase, not decrease someone’s stress level, or could simply irritate someone who’s looking for facts, not a chuckle. Worse yet, with the exception of informal situations, failing to conform with the audience’s expectations for formality by using humor can decrease your credibility.

It can be really difficult to tell what constitutes “inappropriate” humor. Carolyn and Mark claimed that the most appropriate audiences for humor are diverse and informal, but I suspect they may have been referring more to speeches and other presentations than to most technical communication; although informal situations are certainly appropriate for humor because the “stakes” are lower, telling a joke to a diverse audience greatly increases the risk of offending someone in that audience.

Bill Horton, STC Fellow and author of many widely read books on technical communication, once observed that humanity has come full circle from our original efforts at visual communication (cave paintings) to more modern icons. Yet our ability to create and understand visual information remains fairly primitive, and visuals are highly contextual and audience-specific. As Montrealers, we well know how easily things get lost in translation, and visual humor is no exception. Just like in so much of the rest of technical communication, understanding whether to use humor comes down to knowing your audience’s needs and expectations. In the scientific community, Gary Larson (artist–author of The Far Side) is probably the best-known artist in the world; indeed, you can always spot the animal science and entomology departments in any research institute simply by looking for the Larson cartoons festooning office doors. But many non-scientists find Larson incomprehensible and disturbing. Similarly, cubicle workers around the world look upon Scott Adams’ Dilbert as something of a patron saint, but people in other lines of work often fail to appreciate the humor.

Mark and Carolyn encouraged us to consider using humor more often in our communication. While I don’t disagree, I feel that humor works best for an audience of peers who are not having the humor forced upon them and who are not expecting (or requiring) formality. Humor is just one of many means of communication, and like any other tool, it’s not appropriate for all situations. Moreover, using a tool requires practice and sometimes a measure of native ability. So know your limits—not everyone is good at humor, and you’ll have to do a bit of usability testing to find out how well your attempts succeed. The goal of humor, as Joel Goldman has said, is to convert ha-ha to a-ha!, and if you can’t reliably do that, stick to safer techniques.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved