I’ve wanted to write this article for over a year, and yet only alluded to the issue for the first time earlier this week. The reason I’ve put it off is the reaction I get whenever I warn clients and friends about employing humor in their writing.
They never want to believe me.
Every good copywriter will tell you to avoid trying to be funny in a written conversion situation, and that’s the gospel truth. No matter how funny you are (or think you are), you’ll hurt your conversions simply because some people won’t get it and they’ll be distracted from the path you’re trying to keep them on.
Blogging is different—there’s generally less on the line with any single post, and humor can actually help you if (and only if) your sense of humor connects with the vast majority of your target audience. Even then you’ll lose people, because a shockingly large percentage of the population is completely humorless, and other people will simply perceive “funny” differently than you do.
Ask around… any blogger who’s been at it for a while has dealt with the nasty comments and hate mail that followed an innocent joke. If you didn’t realize that this is a natural function of society, and therefore social media, you might think something is wrong with you.
So anyway, here’s the point. In my post earlier this week, I conducted a little experiment.
At the end of Three Ways to Spice Up Any Blog Post, I made a string of really bad seasoning puns—curry, sage, thyme, etc. I personally do not find this stuff funny at all, but several readers did. I’m not saying those readers are wrong, because puns are a valid form of humor. All I’m saying is it’s not to my taste.
On the other hand, this entire paragraph earlier in the post was a joke that I find quite amusing:
The crackling flames danced manically upon the charring husk of the car, illuminating the starless night sky as I stood and watched helplessly. Warm canyon winds pushed the pungent smoke into my face and nostrils, and I tasted my own salty tears at the thought of the laptop in the back seat. All I could think was, how am I going to blog this?
While the paragraph does in fact demonstrate how to appeal to all five senses as promised, it’s still a big joke. This is basically me in my best bad noir prose imagining Robert Scoble after he’s wrecked his car in the desert, wondering how he will post about this latest super-cool thing. If the last line doesn’t give it away, the fact that no one has ever seen me write this way in a year-and-a-half might be another clue.
Now, let me stress this… if you didn’t get the joke, it’s no one’s fault but mine. I have a dry and often bizarre sense of humor, which is why I have the good sense to mostly leave it at the door when writing for Copyblogger.
In this case, I threw caution to the wind to see what would happen.
Sure enough, one reader ridiculed me for my “purple prose,” while another actually chastised me. An especially self-important blogger named Nancy Friedman even wasted 963 words of her life equating me to the end of good writing as we know it. Nancy doesn’t get a link, because trolling for links via attack post is so 2005.
Again, it’s not the reader’s fault if the writer’s joke is missed. Any stand-up comedian will tell you: if no one laughs, it’s not funny—period.
Speaking of stand-up comedy, you won’t find a more difficult discipline that can teach copywriters and bloggers more valuable lessons. Roberta and Tony have touched on stand-up before, because the writing and testing process of the stand-up comedian shows you just how important the audience is relative to the personal tastes and desires of the writer or performer.
Comics write material, and then these brave souls get up on stage and try it out live. They’ll tell a joke several different ways over several nights, modifying it depending completely on how the audience responds. If after all those attempts a joke doesn’t connect, they simply toss it and write something else.
Copywriters seeking conversions don’t mess with humor, because it doesn’t sell and it usually only hurts (sorry, Madison Avenue). Bloggers don’t have a way to test their humor other than by observing comments and unsubscribes, and that’s terribly imprecise.
If humor isn’t your main goal, are you sure it’s absolutely necessary?
I’m not trying to discourage humor, because laughter is one of the most important parts of my life. What you need to ask yourself is this: who are you feeding with your jokes—your audience, or your ego?
UPDATE: Here’s a great example. A small Denver newspaper publishes a satirical humor piece about a man who has his thumbs surgically altered to better operate his iPhone. The interwebs take the piece seriously, and attack en masse. Shocking, I know. But as some of you have pointed out, explaining that you were joking can be good for traffic, as the Denver paper’s editorial explanation is now up on TechMeme.