When used effectively, humour in the workplace can make you happier – and more productive. Humour engineer Andrew Tarvin tells us how.

An introverted computer science engineer and a self-proclaimed “super-nerd”, Andrew Tarvin is not what typically comes to mind when thinking about comedy – yet he has created an entire career based on humour. As the CEO of Humor That Works, a training company that delivers workshops on using humour to be more effective, Andrew has taught thousands of people at organisations like Microsoft, the FBI, and the US Navy how to get better results while having more fun. We sat down with Andrew to discuss how literally anyone can use humour to increase productivity, reduce stress, and be happier at work.

Start With Humour For Yourself 

Many are intimidated by the concept of using humour in their daily lives – but Andrew believes that anyone can do it. “You don’t have to try to be funny,” he explains. “It’s not about trying to be a class clown or a comedian; it’s simply about finding ways to make work a little bit more fun.” For those who are worried about venturing into humour for the first time, Andrew suggests starting with humour for yourself.

“Starting with humour for yourself can feel a lot safer, and from there, you can slowly start to build out with other types of humour,” he explains. “There are things that you can do just to make your own work more fun that no one else ever really sees or interacts with – like reading emails in a different accent.”

Humour Engineer Andrew Tarvin

Learn To Balance Humour and Seriousness

Ask yourself: “Would you rather do something that is fun, or not fun?”

Humour and seriousness are not mutually exclusive, Andrew says. “Being serious does not mean being sombre,” he explains. “You can take your work seriously, but that doesn’t mean that you have to do it seriously.” He points to the story of former GE leader Jack Welch, who stressed the importance of having fun while taking business seriously. “I wish I could give you an exact number – like if you’re funny 11.3% of the time, that’s the exact amount,” Andrew laughs. “But I think the way to find that balance is to use humour for a specific reason as opposed to using it just for the sake of humour.”

Use the Humour MAP 

While humour is a universal language, it can change based on culture, context, generation, and even organisation. Andrew suggests using the Humour MAP – medium, audience, and purpose – to determine what type of humour to use in order to get the best results.

Choose Your Medium: Different types of humour are more effective depending on the medium it’s delivered in. “Medium impacts the type of humour that will work,” Andrew explains. “For example, things like sarcasm and satire can be very difficult to execute over something like a text message or an email.” If employed correctly, humour can be a key to success, which is why it’s important to choose your method of humour based on the medium it will be used in. 

Know Your Audience: Knowing your audience – what they need, what they know and what they expect – is vital to understanding what type of humour will work. “You want to deliver against what they need in a way they don’t quite expect,” says Andrew. “Your relationship to that person also has an impact – the humour that you use with your best friend is very different from what you might use with your boss.” By doing your research, you can increase the chance it will resonate with your audience.

Understand Your Purpose: Having a strong purpose can help increase the chances of achieving your goals. “Rather than just using humour for the sake of humour, try saying, ‘I want to use humour so that people read my emails more often,’ or ‘I’m going to use humour at the beginning of my presentation so that people pay attention,’ Andrew suggests. “When you’re using humour for that specific goal, people will start to see the results that come from it.” Without a clear objective for why you’re using humour, you’re more likely to miss the mark.

Humour Engineer Andrew Tarvin TedxTamu

Find Out What Makes People Laugh

“Humour is very much a human trait. If you are human, you have some type of sense of humour.” 

When confronted with someone who does not share your sense of humour, it can feel discouraging. However, while humour is subjective and varies from person to person, Andrew believes that laughter is universal – it’s just a matter of tapping into what makes that person laugh. “There’s a couple of ways that you can learn a little bit more about someone’s sense of humour,” he says. He suggests practising effective communication, such as active listening, reading body language, or paying attention to how people react to what you say – even something as simple as asking questions can help you get a better understanding of what their sense of humour is. Andrew also suggests trying test jokes to gauge the audience’s reaction.

Be a Humour Curator

You don’t need to be funny to effectively use humour. Instead, Andrew suggests being a humour curator: “If you’re trying to build a relationship with someone and they are talking about their love for marine biology, you can send them the funny TED talk on mantis shrimp to make them laugh and smile – that’s a way to build a little bit of rapport where, while you didn’t necessarily create the humour, you’ve created the space for them; you’ve created an opportunity to share them,” he says. “That can be a great place for people to start if they are a little bit more hesitant about their ability to create humour.”  

Try Improv

Humour in everyday life is different from humour on a comedy club stage, and the bar for what makes people laugh is often much lower, especially in the workplace. Even the smallest amount of humour can make people smile or laugh, which is why Andrew believes that conversational humour is an important skill to learn. He encourages people to try improv in order to learn the fundamental mindset of “Yes, and…”

“Improv helps in a lot of different aspects of life, particularly when it comes to the conversational, off-the-cuff style of humour,” says Andrew. “This conversational tool is how I, as an introvert, get through networking because it’s a way to never run out of things to talk about in a conversation; it’s also a great mindset for building off of people and creating a more positive experience.” 

Make Humour a Habit

Ultimately, the key to mastering new skills is a matter of deliberate practice. While anyone can learn to use the skill of humour, committing to improving your performance can help you take your skills to the next level. Andrew likens it to computer programming: “They’re both very much iterative approaches – it’s not about having the picture-perfect thing; it’s more about testing things out as you go along and slowly building it over time by finding the bugs, fixing them, and tweaking it by testing it with other people.” He suggests making it a goal to drive one smile per hour, whether it be from you or from someone else. “By making humour a habit, you’ll start to see how many opportunities there are for humour every single day,” Andrew explains. “It might be a conscious activity that you do at first, but over time, it will come to you naturally. And I think that’s a great starting point for a lot of people.” 


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