The Big Picture: Humor in Sales


Clients often distrust salespeople. They think salespeople put their own agendas ahead of their own. Not news to you, I’m sure. So how do you get past this prejudice and really connect with your customers? One way is humor. Using humor shows you’re vulnerable and if you show you’re vulnerable, the client is more likely to open up and show his or her own vulnerability. And then the magic happens: you learn what your client is really thinking and you can focus on addressing what’s really on a customer‘s mind rather than guessing.

So why are we so reluctant to use humor? Well, for starters, we may not be funny. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t advise memorizing punch lines and spouting them off to your clients. Instead play to your other strengths. But what about those of us — and I think it’s the majority— who have a sense of humor but we keep it under wraps? My wife often tells me I’m funny and I should let some of my quirky personality come out more in business situations. Why am I often reluctant to do this? Well, I know my humor often veers into Sarcasm Land and sarcasm goes over like a lead balloon with many people. Plus there are the fears, particularly in this day and age, of saying something that could offend. Better to play it safe, right? Yeah, but play it too safe and you’re seen as just another drone who is interchangeable with all the other salespeople out there. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But wait. Maybe there’s a middle ground. Humor, like ice cream, comes in many different flavors and there are some kinds of humor that appeal to a broad swath of people while other types of humor are what I would call niche flavors. For instance, where I live in Princeton, New Jersey, there is an ice cream store called Bent Spoon that has flavors you’ve likely never tasted, like lavender mascarpone. Fortunately, the store allows you to taste its unusual concoctions so you’re not stuck with something that ends up making you gag. Unfortunately, you can’t give out small samples of your humor like ice cream. Let’s stick with this ice cream analogy though. Certainly there are ice cream flavors somewhere between vanilla and lavender mascarpone that appeal to a wide range of people without being too generic. Fudge ripple anyone?

Using humor shows you’re vulnerable and if you show you’re vulnerable, the client is more likely to open up and show his or her own vulnerability.

So, what types of humor give you the best shot of connecting with your customers? Although opinions differ on this, self-deprecation is usually safe ground and can produce some laughs. I’ve seen it done right, where the self-inflicted put-down makes a person much more likable and does not in any way broadcast an image of someone who lacks confidence or self-awareness. In fact, a well-executed self-deprecation can make you look more confident. The keys are to poke fun at the right things and to not overdo it. You don’t want to make fun of any skills or smarts that are essential to delivering what you’re selling. Instead, talk about your thinning hair or pathetic sense of direction. And never ever dis your company or product.

Also, people love anecdotes if they’re interesting, not too long, and make a point. Even better if the stories have main characters with whom the client can identify. The facts on which the stories are based may not be funny in and of themselves, however, storytelling offers a great opportunity to impart a memorable message while sharing a humorous gift in the funny details and side commentary you add. Collect stories from your customers that you can trot out with other customers. A story can include extensive details on a particular patient where the dentist or a registered dental hygienist faced a clinical challenge and then your company’s product saved the day. Sprinkle with humor and serve.

Using colorful expressions or phrases can also set you apart but they have to be ones that naturally flow. I’ve worked with people from the South who’ve regularly uttered such homespun gems as, “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.‘‘ If I said that with my New Yawk accent, though, it would sound really strange.

And finally there’s always good old-fashioned wit. Coming up with a well-timed quip in the moment is appreciated by most people. And being witty is a skill you can practice. First experiment in a social setting. If a funny thought comes to you, put it out there and see what response you get. Of course, you have to be cognizant of your audience. If you don’t know them well, there are comments that are okay for mass consumption and then there are others you’ll save for those you know better. In time, your wit will be like a well-oiled gear ready to be downshifted or upshifted as the situation demands.

“Monty Python‘‘ legend John Cleese put it best when he said, “Laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter.‘‘1


  1. AZ Quotes. John Cleese. Available at: Accessed February 28, 2018.

From MENTOR. April 2018;9(4): 6-7.

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