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Strategic humor for leaders

Karyn Buxman, CSP, CPAE

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Buxman teaches you how to utilize the often overlooked leadership strategy of humor and levity. In fact, many of the world’s greatest leaders — from Winston Churchill to Abraham Lincoln to the Dalai Lama — understood the power of humor. When humor is combined with rhetoric, eloquence and knowledge, clients and prospects are moved to action. This is not just conjecture; the power of humor has been proven by neuroscientists, psychologists and business researchers worldwide. Buxman discusses how to gather humorous material and how to use humor as a leadership skill, even if you are not funny. She also covers four humor styles and when to use each of them.

I know what you're thinking . . . another "neurohumorist"!

I live at the intersection of humor and the brain. I'm a pioneer in my field. I began studying applied and therapeutic humor back in the late 1980s when few had heard of the field of psychoneuroimmunology, other than perhaps Norman Cousins. (In the 1970s, Cousins turned around his terminal illness by watching reels and reels of a funny show called Candid Camera. He later wrote a book about it called Anatomy of an Illness.)

I love studying humor. I love making people laugh. And I'm fascinated by brains. I'm fascinated by your brain. And I'm going to show you how you can harness your brain with humor.

We're now able to measure brain waves in ways that weren't possible until just recently. And because of this technology, we're able to see that humor is a whole brain activity. The prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of your brain, lights up, as well as both hemispheres of the brain. The limbic system, or the emotional part of your brain, is also stimulated. But the most recent news is that gamma waves are evident across the entire brain.

So what? Well, this is the kind of brain activity we see in people who practice deep meditation or serious mindfulness. It's related to heightened cognitive functioning (being able to think more clearly). It's related to increased creativity. It's associated with having an energized focus, being fully involved, and thoroughly enjoying an activity. Another phrase for this brain state is being "in flow" or being "in the zone."

What if you could increase the number of moments where you were more focused? More creative? More energized? More engaged? All while having more fun? Do you think you might improve the quality of your work? Do you think you could improve the quantity of your work? Do you think that if the quality and quantity of your work increased, it would affect your bottom line? Your overall happiness?

Great news! You can access these benefits throughout your day—over and over again. And you, and those you lead, will not only be more successful but will enjoy the process a whole lot more.

Humor is power!

Everyone knows it. But few take action on it.

It's been said that "knowledge is power." But knowledge is only potential power unless you apply that knowledge.

I was speaking at a large conference in Ohio, and my driver, John, was making pleasant conversation. He looked at me in his rearview mirror and said, "So you're the speaker. What do you speak about?" I told him that I was going to be sharing the power of humor for profitability and health. He beamed and said, in total sincerity, "Do you know how good humor is for you?" (No . . . really?!) And then he went on for another 10 minutes telling me about how he loved to laugh and how laughter was the best medicine.

I'm thinking, Yikes! This guy could probably give my speech! But then I realized the piece that was missing. He knew humor was good for him, even good for his business. But there was nothing he was doing to take advantage of that knowledge.

If I could show you how to:

  • Improve your likability
  • Strengthen your relationships
  • Diminish your stress
  • Build your resilience
  • Make your message more memorable
  • Get people more engaged

And you could do this:

  • Without breaking a sweat
  • Without breaking the bank
  • Without eating kale!

Would you be interested?

I know. I know. This probably sounds too good to be true for many of you. I give you my word. Humor is so valuable that, quite frankly, I'm surprised that Trump hasn't found a way to tax it.

You're all in positions of leadership. Some of you are leaders in your company. Some of you are leaders in this organization. Some of you are leaders in your community, or church, or family . . . unless you've got teenagers. You don't get to be the boss if you have teenagers!

Can you ever recall a time during your leadership where tension was high? When you were experiencing an extreme amount of stress? Or maybe there was a time when communications got screwed up and chaos resulted? Or maybe you tried to get people on board, tried to get their buy-in, tried to get them excited and enthused about your vision, only to see them with eyes glazed over or glancing at their phone for a respite? (Look, there's a Pokéman in the room!)

Benjamin Hooks, former director of the NAACP in the United States, once said, "If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk."

Much of the time, leading others can be a lot like herding cats.

How would you rate your leadership skills? If you're like most folks, you'd rate yourself pretty good or at least average. In a survey by Gallop, only 3 percent of more than 1,000 people surveyed rated themselves as below average! I'm not a math major, but that strikes me as funny. But however you rate your leadership skills, my bet is there's room for growth.

Global leader Winston Churchill once said, "You cannot deal with the most serious things in the world unless you understand the most amusing."

You have many serious things to deal with:

  • A client who is trusting you with his financial future
  • A family member who lost a loved one and is in crisis
  • A life of your own that is tipping out of balance

But to deal with the most serious things, it will help if you can embrace the most amusing.

So what's holding you back?

I frequently hear two concerns voiced when it comes to humor and leadership. One is that they won't be taken seriously. The other is that others won't find them funny.

Let's look at the first objection: "People won't take me seriously." You may be thinking, Humor: It's cute. It's entertaining. But it's just not professional.

A study by the Bell Leadership Institute found that of more than 2,000 businesspeople surveyed, a sense of humor and a strong work ethic were the two most desirable traits. Dr. Gerald Bell said, "Those who can combine a strong work ethic and sense of humor may have the leading edge in their organizations."

There's no question—you guys have the strong work ethic down pat. You work hard at prospecting. You work hard at selling. You work hard at creating reports and at analyzing the industry. You take your work very seriously, maybe a little too seriously, in fact. An MDRT leader shared, "We've lost the art of laughing at ourselves."

One of the leaders in this industry whom I interviewed was Sandro Forte. Everyone loves Sandro, especially his clients. He shared with me that many an aspiring financial advisor has asked the secret of his success: "The secret? I'm very good at developing relationships—at the ability to be liked. In my world there is nothing more powerful than creating a relationship. It's not about being bigger, stronger, or faster. How does that client choose you over someone else? They don't until they see you stand for something fundamentally different from everybody else."

He also said, "Every client wants maximum performance, minimum risk, and maximum fluidity. You have to beat the white noise. Southwest Airlines didn't become successful because they learned how to turn the plane around. They beat the white noise. What we do is the Southwest Model."

I remember one of my first Southwest flights. I boarded the plane, put my bag in the overhead luggage compartment, sat in my seat, and then shut my eyes to relax just a bit while the other passengers continued to come on board. Suddenly I heard someone begin to shout.

"All right everybody—listen up!" My eyes snapped open, and I scanned the plane to see who was making all the ruckus. It was the flight attendant. She announced, "There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are only eight ways to leave this plane." People began to look up and pay attention. She continued, "This is a nonsmoking flight—but if you just have to have a cigarette, you can go out to our smoking section located on the wing and watch today's feature, Gone with the Wind." Now every person who had ignored the safety instructions on their last 57 flights was riveted to her every word.

By the way, Southwest Airlines has 43 straight years of profits in an industry plagued with ailing revenues and bankruptcies. The flight attendants, and the company as a whole, understand how to differentiate themselves and beat the white noise.

Your clients aren't going to care about how much you know until they know how much you care. And humor, when used intentionally, is an amazing tool for showing how much you care. Don't confuse professionalism and being taken seriously with solemnness. Humor is power.

OK, what else is holding you back? Some leaders fear that they're not funny—that nobody will laugh.

Being funny is a skill. Some people have a knack for it and have refined it with practice. Take someone like MDRT Past President Brian Ashe. He's masterful at joke telling. His brain is a gold mine of material. He asked me if I'd heard about the merger between Prudential and State Farm. Its new slogan will be "Get a piece of your neighbor."

Or maybe someone like Past President Scotty Brennan, who is masterful at using gentle self-effacing humor. When describing his early years in the business, he said that he "took a vow of poverty" and couldn't qualify for the Million Dollar Round Table. He joked, "I don't think I could have qualified for an end table!"

I knew I was in good hands when I received my letter of acceptance for this Annual Meeting and a note from my Captain, Craig Lilley. He wrote, "I realize that you were originally assigned to a different Captain, however I really, really wanted a neurohumourist on my team. So I traded three first round draft picks and my Babe Ruth rookie card to have us aligned."

First-round draft pick?! Holy cow! How cool is that?! Especially since in grade school I was always the next-to-the-last one picked for kickball, barely beating out Sarah Smith who had a nervous habit of eating her crayons.

But seriously, Craig's funny response set me at ease and set the tone for an entire series of emails. In my industry, my planning committee members are my leaders. And I usually let them set the tone, and take the lead, in determining how much humor is appropriate to share—at least until we get to know one another better. Almost immediately, Craig set the tone and cracked me up, while, at the same time, setting high expectations.

That is the key to effective humor in leadership: Setting the tone for humor while at the same time setting high expectations. If you only set the tone for humor, but don't set expectations, then your followers may mistakenly take that as the go-ahead for a free-for-all. On the other hand, if you only set high expectations but no humor, then your followers may mistakenly hear, "Beatings will continue until morale improves."

Those of you who are funny recognize how people are drawn to you. I think every organization, every business, every department ought to have a designated funny person. Funny people offer relief from tension and can often say things that others cannot—a court jester, so to speak.

But while being funny and having a sense of humor can overlap, they are not the same thing.

Humor is seen as a desirable trait. Whether it's a leader of a country, or a soul mate, humor is one of the top traits we want in that person.

MDRT Past President Scotty Brennan said, "Not that I wouldn't trust a leader without a sense of humor, but I'd wonder how they got there."

The good news is you never have to be funny. To be successful at humor and leadership, you need only see funny. Relax! The pressure is off! Many of history's greatest leaders in business, politics, and even religion were not humor initiators but humor appreciators.

Another excuse I hear from leaders is that there's nothing funny happening where they work, that there's nothing funny happening in their lives. If that is your belief, that will be your experience. Ashleigh Brilliant once said, "I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed it."

Humor abounds. It's present throughout your day. But chances are you're missing much of it. When you're not in the moment, when your mind is on what's ahead, or reminiscing on what's already transpired, then you will miss that which is around you. But if you will be mindful, be present, raise your awareness, you will begin to see things, hear things, and experience things that most others do not.

So the first step is not to become an initiator of humor, but to become an appreciator of humor. See funny. You don't have to be funny unless you want to, unless it is authentic to your style.

If you really want to catapult your leadership and sales skills, you're going to need to take action. If all you do is listen to me talk and don't take any action, then you've missed the point of this program. This is about learning a new skill set and implementing a strategy for your leadership and sales success.

So, for starters, I'm challenging you to proactively search for the humor around you. And then I'm asking you to share it with others. It could be something you see, it could be something you hear, it might be something you experience.

As a leader, you want to practice humor "FUNdamentals":

  • Authenticity
  • Empowerment
  • Intentionality

One quick way to fail at humor is to try to be something or someone you're not. I recently had a conversation with Greg, a CEO of several successful corporations. He laughed and shook his head while he described how he had stood before an audience and used some lines from a well-known speaker, Charlie "Tremendous" Jones. But Charlie's heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s. He had a fantastic sense of humor and an outrageous style, but it doesn't necessarily translate to today's audiences. Long story short: The audience didn't buy it. They actually booed at Greg—in fun. But he got the message.

Are you familiar with the comedian Jack Dee? He's now one of Britain's most famous comedians. But many don't know that he struggled for some time when first joining the comedy circuit. He tried to find a unique and compelling persona, but his efforts at getting people to laugh were so fruitless that one evening he gave up. He got up on stage just as himself—miserable and straight-faced. And, for the first time ever, he had the audience in stitches. Being himself launched his career over-the-top.

Can you picture Scotty Brennan trying to emulate Robin Williams? Caroline Banks as Lucille Ball? Tony Gordon as John Cleese? When trying on another's material, be sure that it fits your style, that it fits who you are. Be authentic. As Sandro Forte said, "Be great at being you."

Another FUNdamental of leadership is empowerment. Humor can be a tool or a weapon. It can build up or tear down. It can be used to uplift and empower others. And it can oppress them. It can be used to establish your authority—or it can take it away.

One famous leader who is remembered decades after his death is Winston Churchill. His sharp tongue was known as both a tool and a weapon. One famous verbal duel was between the prime minister and the first woman of parliament, Lady Astor. Their dislike for each other was no secret. She commented to him, "If I were your wife I'd poison your coffee," to which Churchill replied, "And if I were your husband, madam, I would drink it."

Savvy leaders use humor to uplift followers. They practice humor that makes others feel included. They practice humor that fosters creativity. They avoid put-down humor that belittles and makes others feel small. When you think about it, humor can actually be a means of bullying.

Think about your intention. Is it to empower other people, to make them feel good about themselves? In that case, you'd want to go with an affiliative style of humor—we're all in the same boat—or a self-effacing style—poking fun at yourself. If it's to empower yourself, you'd choose an edgier humor—either confrontational or aggressive. These are varying degrees of put-down humor. They can range from gentle teasing to hostile comments or jokes.

Practice humor intentionally.

Humor in and of itself is entertainment. The real power of humor is in the intentional application. That's where the magic occurs. When you intentionally apply humor to business, you create profitability. When you apply it to health, you create wellness. When you apply it to education, you create knowledge. When you apply it to another person, you create intimacy. When you apply it to a group, you create community.

Humor, when it happens by chance, is entertaining and sometimes even beneficial. But if you really want to reap the rewards of humor in your leadership and sales, you create the opportunities for humor to happen. This is how you can catapult yourself from your competition. This is a way to beat the white noise. Remember: Practice humor not by chance but by choice.

Functions of Humor in Leadership

If you practice the FUNdamentals of humor, you will reap benefits in three key areas of your leadership. You'll be able to do the following:

  1. Build resilience
  2. Enhance communication
  3. Boost engagementcResilience

Great leaders understand the important role humor can play in resilience.

The time was one of the darkest in America's history—the Civil War. In a meeting with his Cabinet, President Abraham Lincoln began reading aloud from a book by one of his favorite authors, humorist Artemus Ward. At the end of the chapter, he laughed heartily, while his colleagues looked upon him stone-faced. He looked at them, put his book down, and said, "Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do." One of the greatest presidents in our nation's history, Lincoln, understood the power of humor to help build resilience.

Let's be real. You and I are not dealing with anything near the magnitude that Lincoln was dealing with. However, we're all faced with some degree of stress: cranky customers, stubborn employees, a sick family member, budgets, deadlines, phones, paperwork, a bad-hair day—a no-hair day—for many of us, a straightjacket may be nearer than we think!

Cumulative of Bad and Good

Stress isn't just about the negative things that happen in your life. Dr. Hans Selye defined stress as the body's non-specific response to any demand for change. That can mean changes for the good and the bad. And it's not about how big the change is. Stress is a cumulative effect, so numerous small changes can create as much stress as one big change.

Affects the Whole Person

Stress affects the whole person. Think back to Adler's philosophy that MDRT embraces. This includes relationships, health, education, career, service, financial, and spiritual. Stress can negatively impact any and all of these areas.

Stress insidiously causes all sorts of health problems that eat away at your checkbooks and steal from your bottom line. Did you know that Starbucks spends more on employee health-related issues than it does on coffee? And that GM spends more on its employee health-related issues than it does on steel? "Terminal professionalism" seems to be a sign of the times—but taking yourself too seriously can have some nasty side effects.

Stress robs you of your energy. It prevents you from thinking clearly. It creates tension in your relationships. It makes you sick. It silently steals from your bottom line. And it will cause you to die a little sooner.

What's your definition of stress? Too much to do? Saying yes when you wish you'd said no? When you could've delegated to another but decided it was just easier to do it yourself?

Maybe you can relate to the bumper sticker I saw, "Stress is the confusion caused when the mind overrides the body's natural desire to choke the living daylight out of some jerk who desperately deserves it."

Once when I was giving a presentation, I asked the women in the audience to tell me how they would define stress. One woman stood up and said, "Stress for women is saying yes when we really wish we would have said no." Then, a man in the audience stood up. He said, "Well, stress for men is when our wives say no when we really wish they would have said yes!" The audience roared with laughter. It's really a matter of perspective!

Technically, stress is the body's response to any demand or pressure. They can be large or small, fleeting or chronic, and get this: They don't have to be a negative thing. Vacations, holidays, weddings, the birth of a child—those are usually positive events, but they can still be considered stressors. It's not even just a result of big events. It has a cumulative effect. It builds up over time.

A lot of it comes from within us. Sometimes the stress we experience is caused by the messages we give ourselves, like, "If I only had more accounts," "If I only had a bigger staff," or "If I only were as handsome as Mark Hanna."

Much of the time, stress comes from our external environment. It might be the technology we're forced to deal with—like the computer that crashes when your report is due the next morning. Or it might be the people around us—like the woman who cuts you off in the grocery store express lane—with 27 cans of cat food!

When I travel around the world and ask people what they love about their jobs, the number one answer is "people." "I love the people I serve." "I love the people I work with." "I love the people."

Cool!

And then I ask these same folks, "So what keeps you awake at night? What makes you grind your teeth? What drives you nuts?" What do you think the number one answer is? People! The bottom line: It's our perspective!

As Shakespeare once said, nothing is either good or bad—it's thinking that makes it so. What may be great fun for one guy may be misery for another. When I'm in the Midwest and I say to school kids, "Six inches of snow," what kind of response do I get? "Woo hoo! Snow day! Let's play!" Then, in that same community, I can address the street workers, police officers, and firefighters and say, "Six inches of snow," and what kind of response will I get? "Oh, man, what a drag. What a mess. What a hassle." Remember: This was the same six inches of snow. Some folks were delighted and others got depressed.

The trick is learning to twist and turn and play with your pain so that you can move from the white-knuckle grip of your steering wheel to a shrug and a smile.

MDRT member Mike Morrow is a great role model for learning to play with pain. In the period of one year, Mike experienced a series of delayed and canceled flights that resulted in his being stranded, missing concerts, and losing luggage.

Mike dealt with the frustrations by writing a funny but informative editorial in which he concluded, "I'm not worried about Air Canada suing me since they can't even find me." To top it off, he even had funny T-shirts made up that read, "Air Canada lost my luggage for 9 days so I bought this t-shirt. [visual]

Scientists now recognize that when we're stressed, every single body system is affected. Think back to a time when you were pushing the envelope. How did your body let you know that you were overextending yourself? Sometimes we suppress or ignore these signals our body is trying to give us. Someone asks how you are, and you respond, "I'm fine. I'm fine! I'm FINE!"

I've coined the phrase "stress accommodation." Think of it this way. When you're first around someone wearing perfume, you notice the smell. But quickly you accommodate or get used to it, and soon you don't pick up the scent like you did when you were first exposed to it. (Years ago, when I was a nurse, this was a blessing, but I digress.)

I once had an assistant, Nancy, whose husband suddenly got transferred in his job to a location several states away. He moved immediately, and Nancy stayed behind trying to get things in order. One Saturday, I drove her the 100 miles to the airport so that she could join her husband in finding a home to buy. We hadn't gone but 15 miles when Nancy said, "Pull over at that next gas station—I need a bathroom, pronto!"

After a quick stop, we hadn't been back on the road 15 minutes when she said, "You better pull over at that next station. I've gotta go again!" We pulled over and then got back on the road.

You guessed it. About 15 minutes later, she said, "We need to stop again. I don't know what's wrong with me. These last few days my stomach has gone haywire!"

I said to her, "Don't worry about it. If I were in your situation and had the stress you have, my belly would be out of whack too."

She looked at me quizzically and said, "Stressed? I'm not stressed."

I laughed and said, "Your husband just got transferred halfway across the country!"

"Yeah," she responded, "but it's a great job opportunity. We're not stressed about that."

"OK," I said to her, "but now you have to move too. I thought you liked working for me!"

"You know I do! But you'll find someone who'll do a great job for you. And I'll find another job. I'm not stressed about that."

"Well, I know your two kids aren't too thrilled about getting pulled out of school. Especially your son—it's his last year of high school!"

"Yeah, but kids are resilient. They'll make friends fast and they'll adapt. We're not worried about them."

"Fine. But you haven't sold your place here, and now you're flying three states away to buy another place, and you're going to have two mortgages!"

She put her hand to her forehead and moaned, "Oh my gosh . . . I am soooooooo stressed!"

Think about this for a moment: What signs has your body been giving you?

Maybe you've noticed your heart beating fast. Sometimes it feels like it's going to come right out of your chest. Perhaps you've experienced high blood pressure. Stress causes blood vessels to constrict. This is why one of the quickest indicators of stress is cold hands.

When we get stressed, our breathing becomes fast but shallow. Sometimes we even hold our breath. An executive in one of my seminars told me that she keeps a sign on her computer that merely says, "Breathe, my dear."

From one end to the other, your gastrointestinal system is sure to get your attention. And there's nothing like numerous emergency trips to the bathroom to keep that cycle of stress building!

You've probably heard of the fight-or-flight response. Our bodies are still programmed to react in ways that served us well when we were cave dwellers—not so much, though, now that we're cubical dwellers. I'd be shocked if you told me that you've never experienced muscle tension, like tight shoulders, a tight neck or back, tension headaches, or even tight jaws.

A quick indicator of muscle tension is simply the position of your tongue. If it's relaxed in the bottom of your mouth, you're probably in a state of relaxation. If it's pressed against the roof of your mouth like there's a wad of peanut butter up there, then you're probably in a state of tension.

As the stress accumulates, so does the response from your immune system. Your company notifies you of a new deadline, moving your project up a week, and you notice a scratchy throat. Then, your teenager shows you the cost of the out-of-state tuition she wants you to pay next year when she goes to college, and now you have a little bronchitis. Your spouse tells you that there was a little fender bender and the car insurance will be going up—and now you've got walking pneumonia. And then you get a notice that you're being audited—and the next thing you know, you're in the hospital on a ventilator!

Maybe you notice mood swings and irritability: At the end of the day, you're so frustrated that you want to go home and kick the dog, and then you realize—you don't even have a dog.

It could be anxiety: When we become stressed, we become anxious. And this, in turn, can lead to things like being distracted and forgetful. Have you ever had a memory problem? A participant in one of my programs told me that she knew she was in trouble when she opened her refrigerator and saw the box of cereal. The next logical question was, "OK . . . where's the milk?!?!?"

Let's not forget crying. Crying is really very good for you. (There's not a big demand for speakers who make people cry.) It's just that if you're crying all the time at work, it starts to upset the folks around you. You probably don't want to let it all out while you're going over your client's portfolio with her. Really—it's about balance. There's a time to laugh and a time to cry.

There's a classic movie that I recommend to my clients called Steel Magnolias. If you have seen it, you can fast-forward to the graveyard scene. I am like one of Pavlov's dogs. Every time I see Sally Fields crying, I begin crying too. I can't imagine anything more painful than what she's going through. And when she begins beating her chest and yelling, "I feel so bad, I just want to hit someone and make them feel as bad as I do," and then Olympia Dukakis grabs Shirley MacLaine and yells, "Here! Hit her!," in a nanosecond, you go from crying to laughing. Moments later, Truvy says, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion."

You might notice a change in your eating patterns. When some folks get stressed, you may hear them say, "I'm so stressed that I just can't eat a thing." I think I experienced that—once. But like many folks, when I'm stressed, if it's not nailed down, and there's a fork in my hand, it's mine! And if you can dip it in sugar or salt (or both!) all the better. One of the strangest but best little gifts someone ever left in my hotel room was a bag of chocolate-covered potato chips. Sounds gross, but I can devour one of those bags in a heartbeat!

How about changes in sleeping patterns? Some people, when they're stressed, just want to sleep all the time. They get in bed, pull the covers over their head, and sleep for three months. Then, there are those of us who lie in bed and watch the clock throughout the night, eventually bargaining with God: "Look, if you'll just give me five hours, that would be great." Then soon, "OK, three hours is doable—just give me three hours." Then, "Ninety minutes. Pleeeeeeeeez. I've got to get some sleep!" and finally, "Thirty minutes. You've got to give me 30 minutes!" And then it never fails: Ten minutes before the alarm clock is due to go off—coma! And when the clock goes off—aaaaaaiiiiiieeeeeeeeeee! Sheer pain!

What have you noticed socially? When we're stressed out, we tend to isolate ourselves. We hang "do not disturb" signs on our office doors, our front doors, and on all the other doors in our lives, both physical and mental. Folks ask you to join them for a bite to eat, and you explain that you have to go comb the lint from your dryer screen. You'll make up any excuse to just be by yourself. "Sorry I can't join you for a beer tonight. I have to alphabetize the spices in my kitchen cabinet."

So now you recognize stress exists in your life. What are you going to do about it?

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He said, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness."

Stimulus-response, stimulus-response, stimulus-response. You get to choose what you put in that space. It could be exercise. It could be meditation. It could be breathing exercises. Or time management. Or it could be humor. Humor is power.

Some folks balk at the idea of using humor. They're afraid of looking silly. No one has ever died from looking silly. But people do die from the consequences of stress. And humor is a safe, a gentle, and an easy way to cope with the curves that life throws our way.

We know some people (not you, of course!) who deal with stress in ways that are unhealthy, like smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and overeating, just to name a few. But humor is recognized as a healthy coping mechanism, relieving tension and anxiety. It serves as an outlet for hostility and anger, it provides a healthy escape from reality, and it lightens heaviness related to stressors.

In 1993, I lived in the Midwest, and we experienced what was called a "500-year flood." In some places, the Mississippi River measured over 11 miles across! Communities along the entire river experienced flooding, destruction of property, loss of homes and jobs, and sometimes even death. Yet humor marked the will of the people to keep their spirits afloat, not to be oppressed and depressed by the Muddy Mississippi. They made jokes about the situation and played with their pain. One person posted a sign when his home was submerged that read, "For Sale—Waterfront Property!"

Eventually, I moved to California and experienced the 2007 fires in San Diego, where almost half a million people were temporarily displaced and thousands lost their homes. Once again, people used humor to deal with their stress, pain, and frustration. In front of one home, which had been reduced to ashes, the owner posted a sign that said, "Fire Sale! Everything Must Go!"

Let's talk about how humor can keep you healthier when you're stressed. While scientists have been able to prove for decades all the negative effects stress has on our bodies, they're finally demonstrating that humor and laughter have positive effects on almost every body system.

I want you to think back to the last time that you had a really good laugh. This doesn't have to be a real laugh, because, to tell the truth, your body doesn't know the difference between a real laugh and a fake laugh.

Let's look first at your cardiovascular system. Laughing is great exercise for your heart. When you laugh, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, but then they come back down below your normal baseline. And some studies indicate that the longer you laugh, the longer they remain below baseline. To a point, obviously!

According to my friend and colleague Dr. William Fry, who was a leading researcher in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, laughter provides an excellent cardiovascular workout. He discovered that two minutes of belly laughter was the equivalent of 10 minutes on a rowing machine.

So did you get up and work out on your rowing machine this morning? Maybe you ran or went swimming? Or maybe you're like many of us who are proud owners of expensive sweater hangers also known as stationary bicycles, treadmills, and elliptical machines.

Some folks are skeptical about two minutes of belly laughter producing such incredible results. Can you remember a time that you actually belly laughed for two minutes? Wasn't it just the most cathartic experience? If you haven't done it in a while, I recommend that you start slowly and work your way up!

As for your respiratory system, while you're laughing, you're actually increasing your respiratory exchange. Maybe when you laugh, you even begin to cough a bit. Whether you're a smoker, or you have a slight cold or respiratory ailment, or you're so stressed that you just haven't had a deep breath in a really long time, now you're pulling air deep into your lungs and forcing it out at what's been clocked at up to 70 miles an hour!

OK—now your gastrointestinal system: When we laugh, we contract our abdominal muscles. Norman Cousins, the guy who wrote Anatomy of an Illness, called this "internal jogging." Sluggish intestines can cause problems with digestion and constipation. Wake those intestines up with a good laugh!

As for your immune system, scientists are making some exciting discoveries regarding humor and the immune system. For example, studies reveal that there's an increase in something called immunoglobulin A. This is something that fights respiratory infections. Also, there's an increase in the number and activity of natural killer cells. These cells attack viral infected cells and some types of cancer cells and tumors. There's also an increase in activated T cells (a type of white blood cell) as well as an increase in gamma interferon and an increase in immunoglobulin G and complement C.

What that means is that humor and laughter seem to be producing some very positive effects on our immune systems. While they're not replacements for traditional medicine, they can be considered a positive complement to traditional medical treatment.

I'll let you in on a secret. During cold and flu season, I'll go into the garage and hide in my car. Then, I laugh for two to three minutes. All by myself. I look like a nutcase. But I haven't had a serious cold in over 10 years.

And remember a while ago when I mentioned that humor affects your brain? When we laugh, we get an increase in something called catecholamines. This results in improved levels of alertness and memory as well as enhanced learning and creativity. And in these times when we're being asked to do more and more with less and less, who couldn't benefit from some increased creativity? (Have you ever worked with people who wouldn't recognize a creative idea if it got up and wiggled in their face?) Humor lends itself to creative thinking.

I remember a woman who told me a story about her daughter who was in second grade:

My little girl is so smart—she is gifted. But we come from a small, rural community that doesn't have special programs for gifted kids. So she gets bored—and gets in trouble—a lot. She's always bringing home notes from the teacher. The other day I happened to see that her teacher had taken a red pen and circled one of the problems on her math homework sheet and put a big question mark next to it. The math problem went like this: "There are 32 students in the classroom. 17 of them are boys. How many of them are girls?" Her answer: "The rest of them!"

Too bad her daughter didn't get extra credit for her creative response! And it's too bad that most of us have lost the creativity we had as kids, but humor is a great way to recapture and enhance our creativity. Note: When dealing with the IRS (audits?), use creativity with discernment!

OK, last let's look at our skeletal-muscle system. When we laugh, our skeletal muscles go into a state of contraction, and then they go into a state of relaxation. While you're experiencing true mirthful laughter, your muscles relax! Have you ever seen a little kid rolling back and forth on the floor in a fit of giggles—too weak to stand up? Or seen a student laugh so hard that he fell out of his chair? Or maybe someone told you a joke, and you laughed so hard, you had to lean over and hang onto your desk because your stomach muscles went weak with laughter. In truth, this weakness is happening to some degree all over your body. And if the laughter (and weakness) become extreme, it can become detrimental. Have you ever laughed so hard that it became detrimental?

My favorite evaluation in my 20-plus years of speaking came from a woman in the Pacific Northwest. She wrote, "You made me laugh so hard, tears ran down my leg!" Wow! Now that's relaxed!

Humor affects positively all areas that stress affects negatively. My friend and colleague, Dr. Lee Berk, one of the leading psychoneuroimmunologists in the world, said, "If we took what we now know about laughter and bottled it, it would require FDA approval."

But to get the benefits of humor, to not just cope with your stress but to build resilience, you need to practice humor on a regular basis. You need to create a humor habit. Think of it this way. If you were going to run a marathon, you wouldn't decide the night before that you ought to begin training and search for a treadmill. It's the same with humor. Don't wait for a crisis to arise. Begin building your bandwidth with regular doses of humor every day.

Take an action step. Seek at least 15 minutes of humor daily. Work your way up to 30 minutes. Whether it's something funny on your TV or your computer or your phone, it doesn't matter. It could be another person who makes you laugh. It could be a comedy club. The source doesn't matter. Get creative and find something that will work with your schedule and your humor style.

Communication

The earliest of human communications is smiling and laughing.

Do you have little babies? Have you been around someone else's baby? How many of you ever were a baby? If you look at this photo, you can see that the earliest form of communication is happening. [visual]

We do everything we can, including making idiots of ourselves, to get babies to smile and laugh. And when they do, we make even bigger idiots out of ourselves. The baby realizes, even preverbal, When I do this [smile/laugh], she does that.

This is stored in the most primitive part of our brain. So it is the first thing we learn. And it is the last thing we forget. Smiling, laughter, humor—these are crucial tools in your communication toolbox. If you intentionally use these, you can transform relationships. And if you can transform relationships, how could that affect your business? Your bottom line? Your life?

I love the quote by Robert McCloskey. He said, "I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."

It was a cold winter afternoon in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1960. My best friend in preschool, Jill, sat quietly in her small wooden chair while the rest of us pulled on our coats, mittens, and boots, preparing to go home.

"What's wrong, Jill?" said Mrs. Sealy, our loving but firm preschool teacher. "I can't get these boots on," said Jill, looking up at the teacher with her big doe eyes.

Mrs. Sealy knelt on the floor and began pushing rubber snow boots over Jill's shoes. She huffed and puffed and puffed and huffed, her face getting redder as she struggled to get the boots to go on.

Reluctantly, the first boot finally went on. Finally, with one last shove, she got the second boot on and with a sigh said, "Boy, your boots barely fit you."

Jill looked up at her and simply said, "These aren't my boots."

Mrs. Sealy's mouth dropped open and then, rather brusquely, pulled the boots off her feet. She held the boots in the air looking at the rest of us. "Whose boots are these?" she asked, her frustration showing.

Jill looked up at her and simply said, "They're my brother's."

Mrs. Sealy's face went from red to white as the realization struck her as to what had just happened.

Mrs. Sealy plopped back on the floor and with new determination, pushed and shoved and huffed and puffed, and then, when the first and finally the second boot acquiesced, she said triumphantly, "There! Now, young lady—where are your mittens?"

Jill looked up at her and simply said, "They're in the boots."

George Bernard Shaw once said, "The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

When you use humor purposefully and mindfully in your communication, you can capture your listener's attention. Going back to the brain discussion earlier, humor and laughter trigger neurochemicals that increase levels of alertness and improve memory.

The primary ways that humor plays a role in leadership include these:

  • Negotiation
  • Conveying information
  • Persuading/influencing
  • Diffusing tension

Let's take a quick look at each of these.

First, let's look at negotiation. You are negotiating on a daily basis. It might be with a client, a colleague, an employee, a boss, even a family member. Whether you're trying to influence a client to make an important investment, get a vendor to give you a better price, or convince your 5-year-old that it really is bedtime, you are constantly negotiating with others to reach a (mutually beneficial) agreement. Studies have shown that when two parties are negotiating, the party that injects humor is more likely to get what he or she is negotiating for.

Humor can put negotiators at ease, it can introduce a difficult issue, it can foster togetherness and team spirit, it can help a negotiator save face, and it can be a way of being cooperative in spite of disagreement.

Once when I was negotiating with a potential client over the phone, it became obvious that the budget was a delicate topic. I could feel the tension rising, and when he posed the question, "How much is this going to cost me?," I wanted to reduce the tension.

I paused and said, "Are you sitting down?" He laughed, and from that point, the conversation about money went smoothly.

Those four little words, spoken in just the right tone of voice, have helped me close dozens of deals over the years.

How can humor help convey information? Have you ever had a time when someone didn't read your email, or your memo, or listen to your presentation? When you are trying to share information with people, humor is a great way to get their attention, hold their attention, and help them to remember.

There are tons of ways to inject humor into your communications to drive people to your content.

You can insert humor into your emails. I keep a document of quotes handy and have them tagged for appropriate occasions. For example, when someone makes a request and needed it yesterday, I insert the quote from Douglas Adams that says, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." I also keep a file of memes in Dropbox to add to an email. You can find memes on lots of websites, and you can even create your own.

When I'm working with sales professionals, we explore ways to take a boring, standard email and create something that will catch people's eyes and bring a smile to their lips.

You can insert humor into your memos. Cartoons and illustrations increase the likelihood that someone will at least look at your memo. And, if you can, weave in a funny example, a Top 10 list, a quote, a joke, song lyrics—you get the idea. Turn the learning experience into a game. One group I consulted with created a Quiz Bowl to get its staff to learn new protocols. The group enjoyed it so much that it became an annual event. Another group created a game show with prizes of unspeakable value. When it's humorous and fun, people are more likely to read and to retain.

A word of caution: When you use humor in written communications, avoid sarcasm unless the reader knows you very well. When people can't hear your tone of voice, humor can be misconstrued.

You can put humor into your presentations, whether it's one-on-one or one to ten thousand. You can do this with funny stories. Stories are my personal favorite form of communicating with humor. As I've presented at MDRT in other countries, I've found that stories transcend borders and languages. What's most personal is most universal. Start keeping some kind of file or journal of stories as they come to you, stories about your childhood, your kids, your parents, growing up, your first job, your most embarrassing moments. These stories will strengthen your connection with others, and stronger relationships will enhance your leadership experience, boost your sales, and build your business.

When sharing your message, you can use images and visuals. You can use props. You can use facial expressions and gestures, and even your voice.

So often it's not what you say but how you say it.

For example, "I see you haven't introduced me to anyone in a couple of years. What's going on?" When you read that statement on paper, it's not funny. But when you hear Sandro Forte playfully ask a client for a referral, he's asking tongue in cheek, and it's humorous in the way it comes across.

I want you to think about how you can create a humor habit. What will transform your leadership and sales is taking action. So review the various ways that you communicate with others. How could you intentionally put more humor into those communications?

Now let's talk about persuading and influencing with humor. Humor increases likability, increases trust, and builds rapport, which makes it a great means of influencing and persuading. Don't believe me? Take a look at how many of the leaders in the United States work diligently to appear on late night television, such as the Leno, Letterman, and Jimmy Fallon shows, and Saturday Night Live (Trump, Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and many more). In a recent discussion on CNN regarding politicians, Judy Gold, comedian/writer/producer, said that "The biggest honor is to be made fun of on Saturday Night Live. You've arrived." Those who appear on the show are seen to have more political influence that those who don't.

A leader who uses humor conveys confidence. A leader who uses humor conveys a sense of trust. A leader who uses humor creates likability. Your clients and your potential clients are wondering, Do I associate with this person? Do I trust this person? Are they like me? Using humor purposefully, mindfully, and strategically can be one of your greatest means of influencing and persuading others.

I'll never forget meeting Jennifer Murphy, the CFO and COO of the National Association of Health Underwriters. When she handed me her card, I saw that an additional title was "CHO: Chief Humor Officer"! How cool is that? When I asked what advice she would give for aspiring humor leaders, she said, "It takes confidence and a willingness to be a little bit vulnerable. Work on it. Hone it. Be deliberate."

It's that little bit of vulnerability you show when you use humor that evokes trust. People feel safer with a person who shows some vulnerability (to a point, obviously!), and they're more likely to share their own vulnerabilities as well. That's part of building trust. All too often, leaders and sales professionals believe that they should only project this perfect image that is unemotional, impersonal. Somewhere along the line, and I wish I knew where and when, people began confusing professionalism with solemnness.

Last, there's diffusing tension. One of my favorite uses of humor is to diffuse conflict to deal with difficult people.

When dealing with antagonistic people, you have four basic choices: You can respond seriously, refuse to respond, pretend to respond, or diffuse with humor.

The object is not to get people laughing so hard that they don't notice your escape. Instead, reframe the situation and eventually meet the other person's needs.

Attorney and author Malcolm Kushner identifies something he calls the "Hostile Question." It's when people throw out an aggressive question, not because they want an answer but because they want others to know they're upset.

You've all experienced them. Questions like "Who died and made you boss?" or "Whose budget is this coming out of?" You can respond in one of the four ways I just mentioned. But let's take a look at how you could diffuse with humor.

Think about what hostile questions you may have heard. Here's your action item: Create a list of potential humorous answers, at least 10. The first several will be absolutely hysterical, but they may get you fired . . . or arrested!

I'm not trying to get you into a power struggle. Keep pushing yourself to come up with one more until you find one that will diffuse, not further incite.

Here's a tip—this works well as a group exercise. You can have fun and creative by doing this with a small group.

One of the managers at a retreat I facilitated said that when he would present his requests for supplies and such at the quarterly meetings, his boss would always chastise him with "and whose budget do you think this is coming out of?"

He worked on this for a bit and came up with a humorous response: "Who's not here?" (This is best pulled off with an exaggerated glance around the room.)

One time, one of my participants was a police officer who always got chastised when he wrote someone a ticket. The hostile question fired at him was "What? You have to fill a quota today?"

After playing with a list of responses—and he had quite a list—the audience's favorite was, "Yep. One more ticket and I get a box of donuts!"

Don't underestimate how powerful humor can be in defusing conflict.

October 1962—The world held its breath as America and the Soviet Union went to the brink, with nuclear weapons at the ready. The Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the Florida coast. The 13-day crisis played out in real time on TV around the world.

As American and Soviet delegates came together to negotiate, tensions were high, and they soon became deadlocked. And then, a Russian delegate told a joke: "What is the difference between capitalism and communism? In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it is the other way around."

Delegates on both sides laughed and this created a bond among all of them. (Hey, ya gotta start somewhere!) With the tension eased for the moment, talks resumed, and eventually a deal was struck that avoided blowing up the planet—no small feat!

Humor is power.

Like any investment, humor carries with it a calculated risk. However, I have four techniques that I've honed over the years that can truly prevent 99 percent of potential land mines of humor blowing up in your face. The other 1 percent you can't control however careful you are, because some people are just—well—crazy! And no matter how careful you are or what you say, they're going to apply their own filter and find a way to be offended. So here you go.

Think of them as B.E.S.T. practices. OK, this acronym works in English. The rest of you may have to develop your own pneumonic. Whatever you have to do, get these four techniques engrained in your head:

B  is for Bond.

E  is for Environment.

S  is for Safety.

T  is for Time.

Bond

Let's take a look at bond—also known as relationship and rapport.

The stronger your relationship and rapport are with the recipient of your humor, the more successful you'll be. How well do you know one another? Is there a mutual perception of the connection between the two of you? This is the most common land mine, because the biggest misassumption we make is that others think and believe similarly to the way we do waaaaaaay more than is the case. And when we misjudge, we increase the likelihood of offending the other person.

If someone knows you well, an offensive piece of humor will most likely be forgiven. But if it's someone you don't know well, don't take unnecessary risks.

I learned this painful lesson early on in my speaking career. I attended the company mixer the night before my speech so that I could get to know my audience better. As I mingled, I asked the attendees for examples of humor in their office. One gentleman pointed over to one of the VPs and said, "Dick Branson has a great sense of humor. He's always poking fun at himself, especially his big nose. If you can work that into part of your routine, he'll love it."

I never got around to actually chatting with Mr. Branson that evening (can you see this train wreck coming down the pike?), but the next morning, I specifically worked in a piece about clown noses and asked Mr. Branson to come up and do a little exercise with me. I handed him a red sponge nose and asked him to put it on. He complied but when he got back to his seat, his body language was screaming, "Houston, we have a problem!"

After the program was over, Mr. Branson came up to me and asked if he could speak to me alone. Trying to do some damage control, I began by saying, "I sure appreciate what a great sense of humor you have."

"I don't really," he replied, shaking his head. "Especially about my nose—that's a very sensitive subject for me." He did let me off the hook just a bit by adding, "I know you've been set up, and I know who set you up. I'll take care of it." And then he walked off leaving me to wallow in my shame and misery. Oooouuuuch!

How strong is your relationship with that other person? Don't assume! When in doubt, leave it out. Or go to self-effacing humor—poke fun at yourself. As your relationship grows, your humor can be riskier. But if you try to skip steps here, you may risk damaging a relationship, or even destroy it completely.

Environment

Anyone who sees your humor, hears your humor, or participates in your humor is part of your humor environment, regardless of whether or not that was your intention.

So if you share a risqué joke with a close pal at the dinner table, but a colleague at the next table overhears you—still your environment. If you send an email that's off-color to a good friend and he forwards it to someone else (with your name still attached), again, still your environment. This has become problematic for some folks in social media who haven't thought this through.

I was visiting with a millennial who had posted a sick joke on her Facebook page. In fairness, she only had close friends in her group. However, one of her friends "shared" it to her own page, and in her group was the first young woman's supervisor. When the supervisor saw the humor, she called the young woman into the office and let her know that her actions were not in compliance with the company's philosophy. And she was fired.

The humor you share may be just right for the intended audience, but if it isn't appropriate for your entire audience, then move forward only if you're willing to accept the consequences.

Safety

When sharing your humor, think about whether or not someone could be hurt physically or emotionally.

Time

There are two aspects of timing to keep in mind. The first has to do with the manner in which you tell the humor. It's such a drag to listen to someone drone on and on, jumping back and forth in the story, and then massacre the punch line. Some people are naturals at joke telling. For others, it's an acquired skill. If it doesn't come easily to you, practice your joke aloud, at least seven times. Then, go out and share it at every appropriate opportunity. If jokes aren't your bag, no problem. We all have an abundant resource of funny stories that happened to us, a coworker, a friend, or a family member. Practice telling the story out loud, and cut out any parts that aren't crucial. As Shakespeare so wisely said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." In other words—keep it short! There's a direct ratio between length of humor and the expected payoff. Short remarks or one-liners don't have to be hysterical. The payoff can be just a smile. But if it's long, your story better be hysterical or folks are going to fry you!

The other aspect of timing has to do with the relationship of the humor to an event. When we're children, our experience of humor comes from joy and delight. However, by the time we're adults, a good amount of our humor comes from pain and discomfort. It might be ours or it might be somebody else's.

Think about it. When was the last time you laughed about having a perfect client? A hot, new car? A big, fat commission check? (Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!) We laugh about the things that drive us crazy—that cause us pain.

Mel Brooks once said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." And that's because time allows us to emotionally detach from our discomfort. The tricky part is that you have to use discernment. Sometimes, a person can emotionally detach almost instantly. Sometimes, it may take a few hours. Or days. Or weeks. Or maybe it's so painful that it takes years—if ever—to be able to find the humor in the situation.

A certain amount of time needs to elapse, however, before we see the humor in the situation. (Have you ever said to yourself, Someday I'm gonna laugh about this?)

It was Saturday afternoon, and I was at the movies with my young sons to see a comedy film about a cop and his canine companion. The three of us made our way to seats in the middle of the packed theater and became engrossed in the story. As we neared the end of the movie, it looked like the dog was going to die. People were holding their breath, gripping their armrests, blinking back tears, and you could have heard a pin drop on that icky-sticky floor . . . when out of the dark silence, my five-year-old, Adam, leaped out of his seat and announced to me and the entire theater, "I've got an M&M stuck up my nose!"

While a few people started to turn their heads, I did something in the darkness of the theater that only a mother would do: I attempted to snag the M&M with my pinkie. Immediately, we both realized that it was lodged so far up his nose that it was about to fall into his brain. He began to cry. More people started to turn around. I needed a plan but didn't have one.

So, without thinking, I held my hand in front of his face and demanded, "Blow into Mommy's hand." He blew. Nothing happened.

He began crying harder and wailed, "It's still stuck!" I needed a better plan. "Blow harder!" I demanded, now starting to feel panic creep in. Now everyone started to turn around. No one cared anymore if the dog was going to die—the real drama was happening live in the theater.

My life began flashing in front of my eyes; I was an ER nurse, and I was remembering all the parents who would rush into the emergency room, child in tow, claiming emphatically, "I only turned my back for a minute. I'm a good parent. I don't know how that [take your pick: jelly bean, Lego block, Barbie doll head] got stuck up her nose!" And I would smile sympathetically at the parent and then mouth to my colleague, "Call Family Services." Now the tables had turned.

So I turned to Adam and explained, "Mommy's going to put her finger on the other side of your nose. And then I want you to blow really hard." I pressed my finger against the opposite nostril, held my hand in front of his face, and shouted, "Blow!"

Adam took a deep breath, and then at about 317 miles per hour, a slimy green M&M flew out of his nose and lodged itself into the palm of my hand! While I sat pondering about what to do with the toxic waste that was in my possession, I felt something lightly brush my palm and then heard Adam say, "Hey—that's mine!"

Believe it or not, it took quite a while before I could laugh about that event. A certain amount of time needs to elapse before we see the humor in the situation. You may see humor in a situation right away, but the other person might not. It gets a little tricky sometimes, as the amount of time required for each person varies. When in doubt, let the other person signal the all clear.

Engagement

A company that plays together stays together.

For instance, it was time again for the dreaded safety certification at Cosmoflex, a plastic pipe manufacturer in the Midwest. A boring and laborious task, right? Wrong! Thanks to the ingenuity of a couple leaders, employees took part in a certification process like none before. The creative solution? Forklift Rodeo—no bull!

Outside the plant, a course involving all the necessary skills for using a forklift was laid out: Exercises like "Loaded Figure 8," "Stack and Back," and "Ram and Jam." The safety committee judged and assigned points to the employees individually and as teams, based on knowledge, accuracy, speed, and safety.

The initial goal was simply to complete certification for all the employees. When I asked if there were any unexpected benefits, the leadership team agreed: They were surprised by the amount of enthusiasm, the improved communications, and the contagious effect of positive attitudes.

The downside? "Just that the employees didn't want to return to their posts—they wanted to stay and watch their coworkers compete."

When tasks at work are boring or laborious, people are likely to check out mentally and maybe even physically. How do you get folks to participate? The two fundamental motivators behind everything we do are pain and pleasure. So you could force people to participate in activities by threatening them. Or you could entice them to take part by making the task more fun. Now you may be thinking, But you don't understand. There's no way you can make [fill in the blank] more entertaining. That's what most people would've said about the safety certification process at a manufacturing plant. But with some creativity and ingenuity, leaders at Cosmoflex proved them wrong. They understood that when activities include laughter and fun, people are more likely to participate.

Create a humor habit. Can you think of some activities or tasks that cause people to drag their feet when you try to get them involved? These might be tasks involving committee work, volunteerism, continuing education, or work competencies. How could you incorporate more humor, laughter, and fun? When you eventually implement your idea, I have no doubt that you're going to see just how much more engaged and involved people become.

Best Practices

  • Be authentic.
  • Be proactive.
  • See funny.
  • Have your end result in mind.
  • Anticipate and prepare.
  • Be consistent.
  • Avoid land mines.
  • Stretch out of your comfort zone.
  • Listen beyond the laughter.
  • Become a student of humor.
  • Lighten up.

Find the humor around you. It's abundant. I promise. With just a little bit of investigation, I was able to find material just waiting to be discovered. For instance . . .

The work you do for clients is truly amazing. You advise people how to invest gazillions of dollars! People trust you. This is serious stuff! It's no wonder you use so many sophisticated analytical tools and economic indicators: stock prices, interest rates, housing starts, retail sales—the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Consumer Price Index. But you already know all that. I'm here to share some new information and resources with you. I have three new economic indicators that you probably don't know about.

First, are you familiar with the Skirt-Length Index? Yep, that's the Skirt-Length-Index. Now, this is not a joke! According to Business Insider, the Skirt Length Index is a predictor of the stock market direction. The data reveals a positive correlation between women's hemlines and stock prices: When skirts are short, it means the markets are going up. And if skirts arelong, it means the markets are heading down.

The concept, introduced by a University of Pennsylvania Wharton professor, is that shorter skirts are popular in times when consumer confidence and excitement are high, meaning the markets are bullish. Longer skirts are popular when consumers are fearful and lacking in confidence, indicating the markets are bearish.

Folks, there is humor around you that is ripe for the picking!

Are you ready for the next economic indicator? It's the Beer Consumption Index.

According to a study by Ernst & Young, this index shows that declining beer consumption may be contributing to the European debt crisis. Europeans are saving money by drinking at home rather than in pubs, which is costing jobs in the hospitality industry and is depressing tax revenue. In addition, when beer consumption goes down, governments also collect less sales tax on beer sales.

Now, this all may be true and factual and verifiable. But it's also funny—right?! The Beer Consumption Index?!

OK, just one more—and I promise I'll keep it short. In case you haven't heard, there is a new leading indicator of the state of the economy based on one highly specific segment of jobs. It's called the Hot Waitress Index. Yes, you heard me correctly—the Hot Waitress Index.

This index recognizes the relationship between the attractiveness of restaurant waitresses (and waiters) and the state of the economy. According to New York magazine, the hotter the waitress, the more poorly the economy is likely to perform. I am not making this stuff up.

Unfortunately, I don't have time right now to explain exactly how this important economic indicator functions—but if you really want to know more about the Hot Waitress Index, I'm here all week. Let's discuss.

Karyn Buxman, CSP, CPAE, is an international speaker, author, and neurohumorist from San Diego, California. A pioneer in her field, Buxman shows audiences how to build resilience, enhance communication and boost engagement through humor.

 

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