Using humor to make a point or soothe a wound — In some cases, it’s better to have people laugh at you, instead of with you

We’ve all heard the saying that laughter is the best medicine. Humor can be an effective tool to help people cope, to relieve stress in business situations and even as a technique to emphasis the importance of a key topic of discussion.

Many politicians and executives, too, are especially adept at using humor to deflect criticism. Over a century ago the father of psychoanalysis, Dr. Sigmund Freud, lectured that humor provided an effective way for dealing with life’s stresses.

Business leaders don’t have to be stand-up comics to use humor effectively to underscore serious points that will be remembered. A bit of levity is a good icebreaker to lighten up audiences, making them more receptive to the message, and a few tasteful quips can make the difference in a presentation from people tuning out to intently tuning in.

Much of the best humor in business talks is not scripted, but instead spontaneous and plays off of any number of factors, from the environment in which one is speaking to the refreshments being served to even the subject, itself.

A leader can learn to take advantage of the opportunity by first being a good observer and listener and sensing the mood of those to whom he is speaking.

Frequently, when a business project hasn’t turned out quite as expected or resulted in an utter disaster, everyone involved is not only downtrodden and disheartened but also feels as if the worst is yet to come. This is when a sensitive leader can take control and change the dynamics of a meeting without minimizing the negatives that have occurred.


Being able to be self-deprecating, particularly when one is known as a buttoned-up executive who is all business, not only shows one’s human side, but also projects leadership, which in a difficult situation, is what everyone is looking for.

As an example, when explaining a failure, the speaker could make himself the butt of his wn humor by stating something such as, “Your company’s leadership in its infinite wisdom chose to do X or Y and wound up taking the wrong fork in the road. I just hope someone doesn’t try to put a fork in me.”

It takes broad shoulders to be a leader, and humor used at the right time and place can lighten the load for all involved.

Healing takes its own speed

The age-old saying is “sticks and stones will break bones but words will never hurt.” That simply is not true. The wrong words do hurt and can demoralize a team.

However, serious words and thoughts packaged with a dose of humor will not only help get everyone’s attention, but also serve as an elixir to soothe those inevitable hurts that every organization experiences from time to time.

Healing is a process and takes time. Letting a team know about whatever mishap has occurred is not the end of the world. A few chuckles can help everyone to move past a failure. Giving others something to laugh at will enable the leader to laugh the loudest.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, with $20,000. During a 16-year span as CEO, he grew the company to 1,000 stores worldwide with sales of $5 billion.