Using Comedy to Communicate the Message

Tim Washer
Tim Washer

Making someone laugh is the most intimate connection we can create in a business environment. Humor is a powerful way to amplify a message as competition for the attention span increases exponentially. In February 2013, 178 million Americans watched 33 billion online videos, per comScore, which is cutting into the time set aside to read press releases.

A model for corporate comedy:

The first corporate comedy video I produced cost $400. I had recently joined the IBM corporation communications team following a two-year comedy sabbatical. During a planning meeting, we were struggling with the best approach to deliver key messages at the global sales conference. I suggested that we produce a comedy video.

The video was a big hit. It was funny and people seemed grateful that we made the effort. The executives immediately demanded a sequel. We invested a little more this time and produced “Mainframe: The Art of the Sale” which earned press coverage, increased blog traffic by 25 times, and was selected as a finalist in Comedy Central’s “Test Pilots” contest.

Find a champion:

My first pitch of the idea was rejected. It’s very difficult for people to visualize a comedic idea. So I wrote the script, then showed it to one VP whom I knew appreciated creative, off-the-wall ideas and had enough influence in the organization to sell the project. The idea and the script would have never survived a committee review.

Start with friendly test audience:

Not to stereotype, but salespeople tend to make a much warmer audience for humor than some other corporate departments, like procurement. The sales team also hosts internal meetings and training sessions and welcomes moments of entertainment to keep up the energy. They usually have an event budget and are eager to spend to produce a short video, especially if they can get more mileage from it as a fun opening in customer meetings.

Overcoming the “Big Obstacle”:

Most comedy comes from pain, and while some is based on insulting a person, instead, lampoon an industry problem that your product or service can solve.

Start by considering what clients complain about the most. What problem is most costly to them? Ask your customer service reps for the top “gripes” and ask for the clients’ exact words.

Two corporate-friendly comedic devices:

Beginning with the clients’ actual pain points helps to build rapport, as it demonstrates that your company has heard the complaints and understands the impact. It also sets up the conversation to discuss the solution.

Two devices to evolve the problem into a storyline are:

Hyperbole: Explore what would happen if those problems were exaggerated to an absurd degree. What would be the consequences if this reached disastrous proportions?

Anachronism: How would a modern-day problem impact a historical figure? What content management issues might have plagued Johann Gutenberg?

Finding affordable comedy talent:

The best place to find affordable, brilliant comedy talent is at an improv theater. Look for one that teaches long form or “The Harold” (an improv exercise). Long-form improvisers are masters at creating scenes that raise the stakes, heighten tension and reveal character.

Contact a nearby film school or communication school at a local college. Ask a professor if he or she could point you to the best storytellers. They will bring fresh ideas as well as free access to professional film equipment.

Provide simple guidelines. Give the team the elevator pitch for your announcement, but remove the corporate jargon and the word “breakthrough.” Tell them it needs to be politically correct, and let them run with the creative process. Give them as much creative freedom as you can tolerate.

Reporting ROI:

Define success when you propose the project and gain agreement with senior execs. When we proposed a mock commercial pitching a $100,000 Cisco router as the perfect Father’s Day gift, we made it clear we didn’t expect to sell products. It did not, in fact, but was highlighted as a best practice in the best-seller “Real-Time Marketing & PR.” PRN


Tim Washer is senior marketing manager of social media at Cisco Systems Inc. and former writer for Conan O’ Brien and “Late Night With David Letterman.” He can be reached at

This article appeared in the June 10 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.