Blog in 01 2020.
Recently we’ve been writing some video scripts to launch a tone of voice. They needed to be funny, and it was interesting to see what worked and what didn’t.
Here’s my theory: In life, things can be one-beat, two-beat or three-beat funny. And you have to pick the right number of beats for your message, audience, and how long you have their attention for.
On screen it’s physical comedy like Del Boy falling through the bar. In writing, it’s stuff like simple puns.
Something unexpected, like this error message.
Or this bin lorry’s strapline.
When it’s good, one-beat funny can show a pop of personality. It takes no work on the part of the reader to ‘get’ it. And it’s handy when you don’t have your audience’s attention for long.
Dad jokes tend to be two-beat funny (or cringeworthy). My favourite joke from my Dad was when he called me one day and we had this conversation
Dad: Charlotte, we’ve seen a celebrity stabbed in London!
Me: What?! Who?!
Dad: Ummm, Reece…Reece something.
Me: Reece Witherspoon?!
Dad: No, it was with a knife! Bah ha ha ha! (Hangs up).
Kudos Dad – two-beat funny.
It’s what you see in observational comedy, where the audience needs to make a connection.
Like this Nytol advert.
Using this kind of humour is good for when you know you have your audience’s attention for more than a second or two. It tends to sound more intelligent or sophisticated than the one-beat kind. (With the exception of some dad jokes.)
This is where the audience has to engage their brain a little more to get it. Like this poster from The Economist.
This sign that went up when this electronics store closed down.
And that whole suite of ads from Spotify.
Beyond being three-beat funny
It’s where things get more surreal and you’re asking your audience to suspend belief or enjoy the ridiculousness of what you’re saying. Or they have to have some inside knowledge to get it.
Like Lewis Capaldi’s album launch ad.
This kind of funny can be risky, because there’s a good chance you’re going to alienate a portion of your audience. But the pay-off is big for those that do get it.
Why am I sharing all this?
If you’re wanting to get humour into what you write, here’s my advice:
- if you don’t have much time with your audience, go for one or two-beat funny
- for more high-brow humour, go for two-beat funny or above
- only do something beyond three-beat funny if you know your audience, or they know you, really well.
And with that, I’ll leave you with my favourite joke.
Q: What’s the difference between a kangaroo and a kangaroot?
A: One’s a kangaroo and the other is a Geordie stuck in a lift.
You. Are. Welcome.
When Dominic Cummings, chief aide to the Prime Minister, posted job ads on his blog recently, it caused quite a stir.
We noticed that in spite of the blog’s mad moments (appealing to ‘weirdos’ and ‘misfits’ and promising to ‘bin’ people within weeks if they don’t fit), Cummings makes some commendable linguistic choices that HR pros could learn from.
To avoid inflating his ego too much, though, let’s kick off with how not to do it…
Try not to be exploitative
Brazenly admitting to exhausting your staff beyond the point of irreparable psychological damage is a definite no-no. In the brief for his personal assistant, he goes all Dom Wears Prada on us. ‘You will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly it will be hard having a boy/girlfriend at all.’ Steady on, Dom. Where’s the work-life balance?
Stay on track
Rambling’s never a good look, and Cummings definitely derails his point on more than one occasion. He actually admits to his own folly, when after a three-paragraph ramble about failed projects, he starts the next paragraph with ‘Anyway…’. You can almost hear his broken cogs spring off the page. When you’re hiring, try not to fall into the same trap – keep your writing concise and focused.
Give your quotes some context
Cummings quotes five of his favourite thinkers in a pompous, irrelevant epigraph that he doesn’t bother to explain. It’s left to the reader to join the dots as they read on. If you want to use a quote in your writing to back up a point, then great. Just make sure the reader doesn’t have to work to realise why it’s included. Used poorly or too often, these allusions can be distracting instead of supportive.
Okay. Now we’ve brought him down a peg or two, let’s take a look at the good stuff…
Choose an open and honest tone
Too often job specs slip into internal jargon and the human disappears from behind the words. Not Cummings. ‘We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant.’ With this approach, the applicant gets a much stronger sense of the person they’ll be working for.
Try something unusual
Job specs tend not to evolve with the role. The same old ads are wheeled out year on year with the same tired structure – a brief summary of the role followed by a list of must dos and must haves. Cummings throws out the formula, and to good effect. ‘Those applying must watch Bret Victor’s talks and study Dynamic Land. If this excites you, then apply; if not, then don’t.’ Hiring managers can use these specs as an opportunity to show off their company’s personality. Share a quote, a study, a story: something unexpected to get the best candidates interested.
Use more ‘you’, less ‘we’
It’s a common gaffe in job specs for companies to talk too much about themselves. Off the back of the election, Cummings could’ve waxed lyrical about Boris’ romp to victory, The Tories’ huge majority, Brexit oven-ready, blah blah. Instead, he puts the candidate centre stage. ‘You should be able to explain to other mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists the ideas in such papers, discuss what could be useful for our projects, synthesise ideas for other data scientists, and apply them to practical problems.’ Next time your HR teams are updating your role profiles, try doing the same. It lets the applicant picture themselves in the job and get a stronger sense of whether they’re the right fit.
We’re curious to see what happens next, and whether Cummings will stay true to his promise to ‘post some random things over the next few weeks and see what bounces back’. In any case, even if your company isn’t looking to hire a graduate Rasputin, there are some tricks and techniques here that you can borrow for your own job specs. And definitely a few habits you can ‘bin’.