In every business, gravity dominates. Attempts at levity - it’s giggling, carefree sibling - are often seen as unprofessional. Most of us share a joke every now and then, and sometimes we’re even asked to do work that will make people smile. But generally, kidding around, as the phrase suggests, finds itself shut out of the grown-up conversations.
Sure, it’s fun to have around, but when there’s real work to be done there’s a sense that it’s a distraction. It can even be perceived as a lack of respect both for the client and for the job itself. So we suppress our laughter.
We’ve all got friends who are fantastic company in some contexts but slightly embarrassing in others – and in the context of a meeting about an important project, we tend to treat humour like that friend.
Which is a shame, because I firmly believe that as a creative, humour is the best friend we've got. A friend that will not only look after your mental wellbeing, but, managed properly, will also be unfailingly helpful to you, a constant source of perspective, intelligence and invention. Allowed expression at the right time, humour is far from being a distraction; it’s an essential part of getting the job done - the key to generating fresh ideas and executing them with originality and flair.
And, let's not forget, it's not only 'creatives' that have to be creative these days. Every job, from time to time, benefits from creative thinking. In order to improve, innovate or find solutions, it's essential that you can tap your creative resources, and humour helps you do that.
So here, in no particular order, are my rules for harnessing the power of a good laugh…
No stand-up comedians
Humour at work is not about one person making an audience laugh, or even the quality of the jokes. It’s about cultivating an atmosphere in which everyone’s sense of humour is encouraged. People who are very confident and quick witted can put others off sharing the silly idea or off-beat thought which might just have offered a creative solution. So try to welcome and encourage every attempt at wit, and look for those people that make each other laugh and team them up. They’re much more likely to have a creative rapport with each other.
Recognise the importance of a safe space
Humour can and should permeate through every aspect of a project, but it’s vital you mark out the boundaries in which it’s ok to really let rip. It’s always worth allowing a creative conversation give way to pure levity for a while before you bring it back to something a little more practical. But that kind of conversation should have a time limit and a strict invite list. It’s usually not a great idea to save your dorking about for client meetings.
Create an ecosystem of smiles and surprises
If you’re surrounded by people that make you smile, you’ll want to make them smile too – that’s human nature. Part of your mind will always be searching for new perspectives and new opportunities for humour… and theirs will too. Pretty soon you have a virtuous circle in which everyone is thinking creatively, seeking out elements of wit and mischief as they interpret the world around them. And if that environment itself is rich in little surprises - books, images, objects, films – then you’re feeding that humorous instinct to fuse different frames of reference, reinforcing that virtuous circle and creating a perfect atmosphere for creativity.
No joking at the expense of others
This one’s pretty obvious, but very important. Humour requires openness and trust from people, so be aware of their feelings and don’t make someone else the butt of a joke unless you’re 200% sure they’ll take it in the right spirit. It could cause that person to shut down and you’ll lose out on their potential as a creative contributor. Charlie Chaplin said “My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh, but my laugh should never be the reason for someone’s pain.”
Don’t leave people behind
The poet Ogden Nash had this little saying… “here’s a good rule of thumb… too clever is dumb.” In other words, a witty idea that no-one understands is worse than an idea that isn’t witty at all. Good jokes are just a leap of logic that no-one saw coming (and sometimes they’re funny even when you do see them coming). But if the logic isn’t clear enough, that leap is like a jump off a cliff, in the dark, when no-one’s watching anyway - baffling and pointless. It’s a fine line - liberated thinking is to be encouraged, but to be useful it needs to retain a modicum of sense, however tangential.