Spitfire Strategies

Your Issue is Too Serious to Not Be Funny

Two nonprofit executives walk into a bar… and the joke ends there because they both insist that their issues are too serious to joke about. But the joke is on them. They are missing out on one of the most powerful communication tools available. Whether addressing a crowd or meeting with a few important stakeholders, humor quickly builds deep connections and gets people to think about an issue in a new way.

Mohammed Qahtani, the 2015 Toastmasters’ International World Champion of Public Speaking, suggests “when you get an audience laughing, you get them on your side.” He even started his award-winning speech with a cigarette gag.

Don’t just take his word for it. It’s science. When we smile and laugh, we release stress-reducing hormones and endorphins. Endorphins build connections between people and are the same hormones we release during exercise and sex. Bullet point-packed PowerPoints or overly earnest appeals to emotion never have that effect on anyone. And it gets better. When you tell a joke and smile your audience will likely mirror your smile and laughter, physiologically they almost can’t help it.  That mirroring connects them to each other – and to you. Tell a good joke and you build a little community, even if just for a moment. 

Of course the issues we work on are serious, sometimes life and death. But for many issues, the biggest hurdle in our activism is raising awareness and motivating people to act. This is where humor can be a powerful tool.

Done well, satire is teaching. John Oliver proves this every week (for 35 weeks a year). Oliver and his team take an issue, study it with the depth of investigative journalists and introduce it to his audience in a way that makes some of the most obscure or overwhelming issues accessible and actionable. The range of topics he’s covered includes global warming, LGBT rights in Uganda, payday loans, civil asset forfeiture, sugar, chicken contract farming and public defenders. You probably know nothing about some of those issues – unless you saw that episode, of course.

As Lizz Winstead, co-founder of the Daily Show, points out, humor “makes the inaccessible accessible.” It can come at a taboo subject from a different angle and effectively lower the anxiety of a serious conversation by having a funny one first. As your audience connects to you through humor, they become more willing to listen, learn, understand and act, even on complex or obscure issues.

That’s right, audiences not only laugh, they also act. When John Oliver called on his viewers to flood the FCC with comments on net neutrality, their response brought down the FCC website with more than 45,000 comments. Based on FOIA released emails, the FCC leadership was watching and laughing along. Oliver’s satire gave them political cover, as one staffer quipped: “We had a good laugh about it. The cable companies… not so much.” Another asked “who knew [net neutrality] could be fodder for comedy?”

That wasn’t a fluke of a particular topic. Stephen Colbert showed just how absurd our campaign finance system is by starting his own super PAC. Researchers found that people who watched his show were better educated on the issue than those who watched traditional news media.

And humor doesn’t (necessarily) make your audience dumber or more cynical, as some people fear. Sophia McClennen, a professor at Penn State, studies this phenomenon and has some pretty cool things to say about it. She found that humor actually makes your brain work harder. Traditional or editorial news, by contrast, makes you lazy – usually telling you not just what happened (sort of) but what to think about it. In a 2015 frank talk, McClennen said, “Satire depends on you practicing critical thinking.” To the benefit of social justice, satire speaks truth to power in a way that is confrontational, fun and not depressing. This is something George W. Bush should have noted before inviting Stephen Colbert to speak at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

It may be a long shot to get Stephen Colbert or John Oliver to cover your issue. The good news is, you don’t need them. You (or someone you work with) can make anything funny. Don’t believe it? Winstead proves it during Spitfire’s Executive Training Program. Initially skeptical trainees throw everything at her: homelessness, lead poisoning and water shortages. She shows them how to make any issue funny. She discusses how she utilizes humor to motivate action for reproductive rights with her “cabal of comics and writers” at Lady Parts Justice during this interview with Spitfire’s Kristen Grimm, in which they explore how to make things funny.

Now, some serious advice about humor. Like any good communication, you need to plan ahead. That means, think through (preferably with someone funny):

  1. Your objective: What are you trying to communicate? Do you need to motivate to action or teach? Point out the absurdity of an issue?
  2. Your audience: What do they know already? What do you have to teach them? Do they know enough to get your joke or do you need to set it up?
  3. Your messenger: Are you the right person to make this joke? Jerry Seinfeld can create a Soup Nazi character; Prince Harry cannot dress up as a Nazi.
  4. Your timing: Is this the right time to joke? It’s not always the right time, especially if you aren’t a full-time comedian. Not sure? Play it safe and read the research on how soon is “too soon.”
  5. Whether you are funny: Comedy is a talent and practice. There are funny people out there for hire. If you don’t come by your humor easily, hire someone.
  6. Whether your joke is actually funny: Not all jokes are funny. Just ask President Obama’s first chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, about his dairy farmers and spilled milk joke in the 2012 State of the Union. He describes it as “the least funny thing I’ve ever written for the President.” Ouch. So, test your material with someone who will tell you if you are going to bomb.

Using comedy as a superpower is something we could all get better at. Science says it works. Try it. Capturing hearts and minds means opening minds first, teaching the audience something new and getting them to think. Comedy can do that. Next time you consider creating an infographic, think about whether a (well-written) joke will go further.

Still don’t believe you can write jokes about serious issues? Vulture put out a list of 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. There you will find some comedic inspiration like Tig Nataro’s groundbreaking routine on cancer and Maria Bamford on mental illness.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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