Make people laugh, and you’ve got their attention. Hit people in the funny bone, and you have a chance to hit them in the heart and gut as well. People learn from humor. They share it. They may even become fans and customers of companies that provide it.
Yet many content teams steer clear of amusing content. They consider humor inappropriate for their brand or they don’t see themselves as funny.
In his Content Marketing World talk, Tim Washer, social media manager for Cisco Systems’ service provider marketing group, invites marketers to rethink their objections to amusing content and start exercising their comedic content chops.
Tim supports his position with a sobering statistic:
Why should we trust what this man says about humor and corporations? For starters, he has written for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, has served as executive producer of The Colbert Report, has written for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, has studied improv under Amy Poehler and written for her on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, and has worked as a “corporate humorist” for clients like Google, IBM, FedEx, and Pepsi.
Tim may be the best person on the planet to take seriously when he urges corporations not to take themselves too seriously.
Often in the corporate world, people get nervous about comedy and say it doesn’t belong here. But if it might help you get a point across efficiently and economically, why wouldn’t you try it and see if you can make it work?”
How do you train yourself to lighten up? Among other things, Tim recommends building your creativity muscles on your own time by writing playful captions wherever you share your own photos – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, emails, even old-fashioned photo albums.
Caption writing develops your ability “to get into what John Cleese calls the open mode, where you’re playful and having fun and relaxed and not worried,” Tim says. The more you can get into the open mode, the more often you’ll find yourself coming up with fresh ideas in all areas of your life, including work.
In this post, I pass along some of Tim’s own photo-caption examples, demonstrating comedic elements like simplicity, irony, contrast, hyperbole, sarcasm, and the rule of threes.
TIP: Don’t overthink the category labels for these photos. The elements of comedy are not mutually exclusive, Tim points out. “Comedy is not a clean science.”
(Note: All images come from Tim’s slides.)
Before Tim gets into examples of his photos, he points out that to create anything humorous you need to embrace simplicity. “We have this tendency as marketers and professional communicators to be overly complex,” he says. “We’re afraid of simple because we think it makes us look stupid.”
This slide shows the unhelpful complexity he’s talking about. (Such a kidder, that Tim. No one would ever pack a slide so full that the audience can’t read it.)
As for simplicity, Tim points to a skit he helped develop for John Oliver’s news show with Bill Nye.
The four-minute sketch on global warming generated this feedback from The Guardian’s Chris Mooney: “They’ve said in four minutes something I’ve been trying to say in 10 years with hundreds of thousands of words.”
Note: Continue to appreciate Tim’s wording simplicity in the photo captions throughout.
One technique to apply to building your comedic muscles is irony. Here are a couple of examples from Tim’s collection:
Here’s a photo from the airport in Amsterdam, where Tim came across a “mini-museum.” His caption is pure silliness. As he says, “I’m sure some people think that’s dumb. It doesn’t matter; I like it.”
TIP: To open yourself to creativity, silence your inner critic.
When you’re brainstorming for captions, ask yourself, “What does that look like? What does it remind me of?” Look at things the way a child would.
“For me, being immature is finally an asset,” Tim says. “If you’re not childlike, go get a child, bring the kid in, and say, ‘What do you see here?’”
Another element of comedy is contrast. In a grand setting seen in this image, the question Tim comes up with is delightfully un-grand.
Follow the rule of threes
In your captions, experiment with the rule of threes: Establish two items in a series – a pattern – and then break the pattern with the third item. You set expectations and then reverse them. Tim calls this taking a hard turn.
Here’s how he graphs the rule of threes – the anatomy of a joke. “I think vector physics is the best way to explain comedy,” Tim says.
“A comedian wants to get the audience on a train of thought going in one direction, nodding along, ‘Oh, yeah, I know what you’re talking about.’ Then you interrupt them – bam – with the punchline. Surprise them,” Tim says.
Here’s the rule of threes applied in a caption:
In this photo from a canoe trip with his daughter, lacking anything visual to latch onto, Tim asked himself, “What was the story? What were we doing? What was happening? How can I bring that into a caption?” He came up with this hard turn:
Comedians exaggerate to Pluto and back. Try this technique in your captions. Consider Tim’s description of what looks to me like a kid’s quiet moment on a bunny hill:
Be careful with sarcasm; you don’t want to come across as unkind. Sometimes, though, only sarcasm will do, as when you come across a package of fireworks labeled “CAUTION: FLAMMABLE:”
To develop your ability to create like a comedian, write funny captions whenever you share your personal photos. Use comedic elements like simplicity, irony, contrast, hyperbole, sarcasm, and the rule of threes.
Even if you never write a humorous caption as part of your job, as you develop your comedic creativity outside the office, you’ll find yourself getting better and better at coming up with amusing content ideas on topics your customers care about.
Here’s an excerpt from Tim’s talk:
Want to really LOL? Register for Content Marketing World Sept. 5-8 and make plans to attend Tim Washer’s session. (Oh, and you’ll learn a lot from him and the other 200 or so speakers.) Use code BLOG100 and save $100 (and that’s no joke.)
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute