Companies today shy away from humour in standard business communication because they are unsure of how it will be received. But it is possible to lighten up and still retain control of the narrative.

Does Corporate Communication have a soul? I asked this question two months into my career in Public Relations. Isn’t the whole point of communication to connect? Why then are Corporate Communicators so afraid to lighten up, to be self-deprecating, or even say something that is beyond a dry script. I find it even more baffling that we, in India, with a history of cultural wit – where even our Gods (think Ganesha) haven’t shied away from a sense of humour – have largely settled for a humourless existence in our Corporate world. It’s almost as if we are afraid that we won’t be taken seriously, if we should happen to communicate a smile!

“If I no longer had a sense of humour, I would long ago have committed suicide.” So said someone who fashioned an independent India, long before Corporate India became the entity it is today. Mahatma Gandhi had a definitive sense of humour and was unafraid to state his opinion, with candour and wit.

When asked if he wasn’t embarrassed to meet King George V so scantily dressed, Gandhi, tongue firmly in cheek, replied that the King had on enough for both of them. And that is the thing. Humour in communication requires honesty, transparency and a fair amount of courage. The more “serious” our communication as corporations get, the greater the degradation of ethical corporate behavior there appears to be. Of course, it would be simplistic to say that the two are directly linked but it isn’t entirely farcical either.

A recent TEDx event showcased some amazing entrepreneurs and their even more amazing ideas – from a pathbreaking water wheel helping rural women in their daily life to a funky gadget to counter colour blindness.

Amongst all of these people and ideas, one man got a standing ovation – Muruganandam of Pappanaiackenpalayam. Through his use of earthy and Humour in communication requires honesty, transparency and a fair amount of courage. Standard corporate communication is often un-engaging with a focus on getting content out there but with more of a “push” than a “pull” effect. natural wit in communication, he has earned recognition and respect for his invention – a cost effective sanitary napkin making unit. I absolutely believe, that if he hadn’t used humour to engage people about a product related to a woman’s cycle, he wouldn’t have been nearly as successful.

Beyond his “funny village man” persona is a smart business brain and an idea that is creating immense social impact. have no doubt if his communication had been handled by a team of “professionals”, he would have been advised to tone down his rhetoric and to use “politically correct” language all with the intention of positioning him as a serious businessman in the same space as larger multi-national corporations. It would have been a disaster both for him and his business.

Humour in communication has the ability to create longevity and relevance. Amul is a classic case in point. Without the humour behind the strong and topical message, it’s hard to imagine that the advertisements would have become so iconic. We don’t see enough of that in corporate communication. We will, as communicators, only come into our own when we free ourselves of rigid constraints and embrace wit and humour.

Standard corporate communication is often un-engaging with a focus on getting content out there but with more of a “push” than a “pull” effect. Some of the best business heads close business deals because they are liked as people. The punch line definitely has an impact on the bottom line. B2B communication can also benefit greatly if communicators remember that people relate to stories more than they do to dry facts, and that business, at the end of the day, is about people.

One can get into pedantic mode and offer solutions to force-fit corporate communications with humour but the result would be contrived and flat. Instead, if each of us as communicators questions what we hope to achieve through communication rather than what is expected from a “corporate communicator”, I have no doubt that humour will find a place in communication. We can take a leaf or two from the “unsophisticated” honesty that exists in grassroots communication which never fails to connect and bring a smile. I try never to get so caught up in the world of “serious” communication that I fail to appreciate the simplicity, earnestness and grounded humour of a small tailoring unit whose tagline read – “God Made Man, We Make Him A Gentleman”!

Sandhya Thukaram is a former Principal at The PRactice.