A CEO and a comedian walk into a conference room…

Posted on March 23, 2011


Avoid turning phrases that rely on your tone of voice for their interpretation.

My wife rarely appreciates my attempts to pun-tificate.  I throw out a line like, “What do you call candies made by a rap star on the Arabian Peninsula?  Eminem Yemeni M&Ms!” and I get “the look.”  It must be excruciating for her, as it is for my workmates.  In the end, my failed attempts at humor in front of the television or on the phone with a colleague are of little ultimate consequence.  Not so, however, in a presentation or news interview.

Some people are natural raconteurs or comics and can pull it off.  Most of us aren’t—and shouldn’t try to be.  While its fine to point up ironies that in themselves may be funny or thought-provoking—“New York was hit by three blizzards this winter as Global Warming gathered steam”—trying to make yourself funny in front of an audience can be deflating if you hear crickets after your punch lines.

On a more subtle level, sometimes we say things in front of a reporter or stakeholders that are meant to be funny in a sarcastic or ironic way but that result in a completely different meaning when a transcript of the presentation or a news report from the interview is published.

For example, when asked if you plan to retire soon, you might answer, “Oh, yeah, that’s gonna happen any day now.”  When you said it, your tone of voice made it clear that it would never happen.  In print (in the press or on the Web), however, we can’t hear your tone of voice, and it can easily be assumed
that you meant you would be retiring within the week.

When your competitor stands in front of his employees, who have been overworked, underpaid, and griping about the workload they must handle, he might declare in sympathy, “I know how eager all of you are to fill  your remaining free time during the day.” Again, a statement meant to be ironic but which, when printed in a company memo, can trigger hostility.

Be as funny as you like—or as your friends and family can tolerate—in your conversations, but when you are going on record with audiences that can make or break your business, be straightforward in your statements and your meaning.  Think how what you say will look on the page.  Be as bold, audacious and newsworthy as you want—don’t be boring—but avoid turning phrases that rely on your tone of voice for their interpretation.