Winning with Wit: Using Humor in Learning Experiences

by Extension Engine | February 13, 2023

Estimated time to read: minutes

When Extension Engine Media Producer Savannah Gillespie began ordering clothes from popular online retailer Reformation about eight years ago, she noticed something unexpected about their brand. All of their communication with their customers had a breezy, humorous tone. Their packaging contained messages like, “Hey, babe, you look fine today,” and their emails employed similar fun, casual language. This approach fit well with the company’s overall brand as an eco-friendly sustainable fashion label and appealed to the (mostly) young women who bought their clothing. But at the time, their branding approach was unusual enough to catch Savannah’s attention.

As a media producer, she’s thought a lot about how to help clients best represent themselves through branding, including both visuals and writing. The use of humor is something that she thinks more people should consider. Whether they have clients, users, or learners, companies are always trying to craft a voice that’s tailored to their audience, and just as Reformation has, they can use humor to help shape that voice and build an emotional connection that lets their brand thrive.

“Humor is hard to land,” Savannah says, “but when it’s done well, there are few things as effective in capturing interest and making something memorable. People love to be surprised and to laugh; so as long as it’s a conscious decision made with the right audience in mind, I think it’s absolutely a strong tool to wield.”

How to Incorporate Humor Effectively

The major challenge with using humor in branding is that people don’t always agree on whether something is funny. Any joke that some people love is inevitably a joke that others will hate. Many companies feel that it’s not worth potentially alienating their audience by trying to make them laugh. But for Savannah, the benefits outweigh the risks as long as everyone keeps the following points in mind:

  • Know your audience. This is arguably the most important thing. “The companies that do humor well have clearly invested in finding the right tone of voice for their target audience,” says Savannah. “And that’s key, as is not assuming your opinions about your audience are correct without doing the work to find out who they are and what they care about. You want to hear from them directly.” Differences in age and background as well as geographical location, among other factors, play a role in the kinds of humor that will resonate with a particular group of people.
  • Being funny and being clever are not the same thing. “They’re very similar, but I think usually brands have more success when they lean toward the witty side,” Savannah says. Because, as with Reformation’s messaging, since the best humor is a little bit surprising or even shocking while still being relatable, clever content is usually a better fit with a wider audience. As a reference point, think of funny as references to the latest meme and clever as the kinds of wordplay and jokes found in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. This brings us to our final point.
  • Try to keep your humor evergreen. For humor to last — that is, for a brand’s older content to still be seen as funny and not outdated months or even years later — it can’t be completely based on current cultural moments. “If you’re making references to pop culture, that will date your content very quickly,” Savannah says. “But if you’re clever, [you can find] a way to laugh about universal truths or things people experience and feel but have difficulty expressing in words.” She cites Dreyer’s English as a book that does this well. “There are so many hilarious moments in it despite it being a book about grammar. By using humor, he invites a wider audience in and makes it easier for them to care about his thoughts and the subject he is discussing. But because his humor is inventive and doesn’t just rely on novelty, his book is timeless.”

The Importance of Enjoyment While Learning

When people discuss the elements that go into a successful learning experience, enjoyment is not at the top of most lists. But Savannah thinks that’s a mistake. “Both our company and our clients in general should really be prioritizing capitalizing on enjoyment more. There’s no substitution for engaging learning. There is a reason why a random chemistry lesson from high school sticks with you or you end up recommending a book about Ernest Shackleton to everyone you know. It’s because something about it sparked an emotional reaction or captured your attention, making that moment or that thing memorable. Humor does this incredibly well.” Engagement isn’t all about humor, of course, but humor is a good avenue to explore if you want to really draw an audience in and keep them.

When going for humor, the writing must be strong, but companies also have to pay attention to who’s presenting it. “Some people are inherently funny, some people are inherently engaging,” says Savannah. “But some people are neither funny nor engaging on camera, even if they are amazing in person. It’s important to keep format in mind and to make sure you’re delivering your message in a way that will resonate with your learner. A quip that doesn’t land is just painful for everyone.” She compares it to the way people gravitate toward a specific book when selecting a new one to read, or toward a particular bottle when picking a new wine to go with their dinner: If you don’t know exactly what you want going in, your choice often comes down to the cover or the label. “The content is not enough. It matters how you package it,” she says.

With the proliferation of learning experiences and learning experience platforms out there now, it’s more impactful than ever if companies can make theirs stand out. Humor should be seen as a pathway to help a brand communicate effectively and efficiently, and to have fun doing it. “It’s a bold choice,” Savannah says. “It’s high risk, high reward. If a client is looking to differentiate themselves and they’re willing to really invest in using style and tone to expand their reach, then considering unexplored areas like humor can be really beneficial.”

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