Somebody in a group I’m part of asked an interesting question the other day: should you use jokes in your leadership communication?
Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minster, was famous for flubbing jokes her speechwriters had written.
Once, as a response to opposition leader James Callaghan comparing himself to Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, she was supposed to read the line: “Keep taking the Tablets”. Except, she didn’t get the joke and delivered it: “Keep taking the pills”.
Today, leaders are told to stay away from comedy. But I think that would be a missed opportunity.
There’s one business writer who does use jokes to marvellous effect: the legendary investor Warren Buffett.
Every year on the last Saturday in February, Buffett issues his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.
This document is gospel to investors. They scrutinise its predictions, trying to read the macro-economic tea leaves.
But what many overlook is that Warren Buffett’s annual letter is also a masterclass in business communication.
Part financial document and part grandfatherly lecture, Buffett’s annual letter has folksy stories and homespun wisdom. He has a knack for making the most complicated financial shenanigans as straightforward as cheese on toast.
Over the years, Buffett has perfected the art of explaining difficult concepts in a simple way, without dumbing them down. And jokes are one of the key tactics that he uses.
Here’s one example from Warren Buffett’s 1984 letter to investors:
“I heard a story recently that is applicable to our insurance accounting problems: a man was traveling abroad when he received a call from his sister informing him that their father had died unexpectedly. It was physically impossible for the brother to get back home for the funeral, but he told his sister to take care of the funeral arrangements and to send the bill to him. After returning home he received a bill for several thousand dollars, which he promptly paid. The following month another bill came along for $15, and he paid that too. Another month followed, with a similar bill. When, in the next month, a third bill for $15 was presented, he called his sister to ask what was going on. “Oh”, she said. “I forgot to tell you. We buried Dad in a rented suit.”
Ben Graham told a story 40 years ago that illustrates why investment professionals behave as they do: An oil prospector, moving to his heavenly reward, was met by St. Peter with bad news. “You’re qualified for residence”, said St. Peter, “but, as you can see, the compound reserved for oil men is packed. There’s no way to squeeze you in.” After thinking a moment, the prospector asked if he might say just four words to the present occupants.
That seemed harmless to St. Peter, so the prospector cupped his hands and yelled, “Oil discovered in hell.” Immediately the gate to the compound opened and all of the oil men marched out to head for the nether regions. Impressed, St. Peter invited the prospector to move in and make himself comfortable. The prospector paused. “No,” he said, “I think I’ll go along with the rest of the boys. There might be some truth to that rumour after all.”
An annual letter to shareholders might seem an unusual place for comedy. But Buffett seems to have a keen sense of when a joke will bring a business concept to life. Jokes are tricky to pull off. But they’re great for holding people’s attention – and they have the obvious advantage of making the reader smile.
Once you decide to use more jokes in your writing, you’ll find you suddenly start spotting jokes that you can use in all sorts of places. They make a great introduction for forewords and corporate reports.
If you want to learn to use jokes and stories in your writing, download our free e-book ‘Hooked On You – The Genius Way to Make Anybody Read Anything’ from our Knowledge Bank at here.
Ian Harris is an experienced communicator with a passion for clear communication. He has spoken for some of the world’s largest organisations, including Google, helping them to produce impactful messaging. As Gatehouse’s Head of Content, he regularly applies these skills to organisations’ strategic messaging