Friday, July 2, 2010

When self-deprecating humor doesn't work for you

(Editor's note:  I've been thinking a lot about the common advice that's offered to speakers about humor -- "make it self-deprecating" -- and speakers' tendencies to use this type of joke too often, especially when they're starting a talk or presentation, the time when they should be establishing themselves as credible. 

Then, Amber Naslund posted "Laugh at Yourself--But Take It Easy" on her Brass Tack Thinking blog, and realized she'd said it for me.  With her permission, I'm reprinting the post in full--and if you don't have clients or customers, just substitute "audience" or "coworkers" to make this work for your situation.  Amber is a business and communications strategist and director of community for Radian 6. Let me know what you think in the comments!)

Making a few jokes at your own expense can be fun. It can break the ice with new acquaintances, get a chuckle from the crowd, show that you don’t take yourself too seriously, all of which can be good things.

Except when they’re not.

There’s a point where self-deprecating humor goes too far, and starts feeling as though you’re pandering for attention or fishing for compliments.

Where’s the line? It’s hard to say, and that tolerance and perspective would be different for everyone. But here are a few things you need to keep in mind when you’re making yourself the fallguy, especially when you’ve got a professional presence you’re trying to build.

Learn to Take A Compliment

When someone says something genuinely nice about you, a simple “Thank you so much” is more than fine. Occasionally it’s okay to poke a little fun at yourself, but if that’s your habitual way of responding to compliments, you might be inadvertently insulting the other person. When we say something nice about someone, we’re usually trying to demonstrate that we care, and that we noticed something that the other person should be proud of. A flip, sarcastic, or self-deprecating retort can really diminish the other person’s efforts, and make them second guess whether you’ve taken their thoughts to heart.

Confidence is Sexy (and Reassuring)

We’ve almost overcorrected when it comes to being sure of ourselves and accepting confidence in others. Sure, being arrogant isn’t pleasant. But being confident and self-assured is attractive, and gives people faith in a business context that you can do the job you say you can do. If you’re hiring someone for a role or a consultative/advisory position, you want the reassurance that they can stand tall and deliver on their promises. If you’re cutting yourself off at the knees by undermining your own abilities, how do you expect your customers and clients to believe in you and take you seriously?

Selling It Too Well

After a while, if you’re tearing yourself down enough and focusing on your shortcomings (look, we all have them), you just might succeed in focusing others’ attention in the wrong place. Call yourself disorganized or inept one too many times, even in jest, and we wonder if we should be looking a little more closely if we’re going to do business with you. Oft-repeated “I’m just kidding”s start to sound like you’re not so kidding after all, and that you just might be overcompensating or trying hard to cover up for something. What do you want people to believe about you?

I’m the last proponent in the world of taking work (or ourselves) too seriously all the time. And I’m way in favor of having a healthy sense of humor, because it’s saved my soul on so many occasions. But there’s definitely a point where I find myself uncomfortable around those that are constantly making themselves the butt of every joke, and I’ve learned my own lessons about tearing myself down. So while humor at our own expense is critical, I think it (like anything else) needs to be practiced in moderation.

Have you experienced this? Do you notice it when others are doing it? Are you a perpetual self-deprecator, and do you stand in defense of that tactic?

Curious to know what you think.