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I know the basics here, and in technical circles it usually comes down to locking the Engineering Manager and the Sales and Marketing Manager in a small room and seeing who makes it out, but I would be interested to hear anyone's thoughts.

Does forbidding it always come over as stuffy, and will encouraging it come over as unprofessional? Is it a "know your audience" kind of question? Is there a "happy medium"? Any definitive limits?

Thanks in advance for any ideas.

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There are two reasons for a reader to read something, because they are interested in the subject matter and because they like how it is written.

The risk of using humor in business or technical writing is that it can turn people off even if they are interested in the subject matter.

The opportunity is that if there are competing works on the same subject, humor can differentiate your book and attract readers the might otherwise read a different work. The risk is that you will lose some readers who don't like the humor, but that is okay if you gain more readers than you lose.

In the technical space, for instance, there are the O'Reilly books that have a reputation for clarity and technical excellence, and the Dummies books that use a lot of jokes. Both sell well to different parts of the market. Humor is a market segmentation device for the Dummies books. Market segmentation is a good strategy if you can dominate the segment you create.

So, if you business writing is competing in a crowded market, the use of humor could be an effective market segmentation device, provided that you do it well enough (humor is hard!).

But a lot of business writing is not meant to compete. It is meant to be the sole source of information or instruction to a particular audience on a particular product, service, or agreement. In these cases, the last thing you want to do is to segment the audience. There is literally no place else for the audience to go. So the use of humor, or any other divisive writing technique is not a good idea in these circumstances.

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It depends on what you are doing, who your audience is and whether you can do it well. I have, for example, sitting my shelf, a computer programing manual that tries to use some humour. Personally, I think the book would probably be better without it, but it doesn't do any harm and it looks like the author enjoyed himself. However, other texts I have read use humour very effectively. You aren't going to create a load of belly laughs with the audited accounts for the year, but I have listened to commentaries on figures that use humour. It's a bit like graphics on PowerPoint presentations: if they add to the message, make it clearer or more memorable, use them. If they distract the audience, don't. Humour is the same.

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Humor has very little place in business writing, just like erotica or violence.

The reason for this is people are not generally in the frame of mind, when consuming business writing, for anything but what they are trying to learn or understand. Sitting in a club or theater or at home watching TV, they are expecting humor, or erotic love scenes, or fighting.

When they are expecting entertainment they will enjoy it and accept it. When they are expecting facts, analysis, conclusions and/or guidance for their business or legal situation, they don't particularly like anything else, it creates cognitive dissonance.

That said, the key thing to know about humor is that there is generally an in-group and an out-group defined by a joke. Jokes point out something ridiculous; derived from the word "ridicule." So many jokes are pointing out something stupid somebody else is doing. The set of people being ridiculed is the out-group, the set of people laughing at the ridicule is the in-group.

Jokes tend to be naturally divisive, except in one circumstance: When the person being ridiculed is yourself or your group. That is self-deprecatory humor; e.g. how you are so bad at reading maps it took you ten minutes to figure out this restaurant was next door to your hotel.

Otherwise, it can be extremely difficult to be certain that your out-group does not include any members of your audience. It is not a good idea to start ridiculing members of your audience!

So you have to exclude from your joke material anything that you cannot know about your audience, including their personal characteristics, or characteristics of friends they care about. So nothing about sex or homosexuality, religion, disabilities, national origin, prison, politics, and on and on.

Further, business writing (like in a book or lesson plan) may be an evergreen essay; so nothing about current events, or cultural references that won't be relevant or understood in ten years.

It isn't impossible to find humor in business, but the good spots are rare, and you should avoid ridiculing anybody but yourself, or perhaps your own fictional characters you used for illustration, but even those are not safe: Some of your audience members may be identifying with the Paul the Plumber character you invented, and not appreciate you ridiculing choices they too might have made.

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