Wit in Corporate Writing? 3 Places to Try It, and Lots of Places to Avoid It

This post was written by John White on Tue, 08 Dec 2009 23:12:48 +0000
Posted Under: blog,case studies,ideal reader,text to use or avoid,Web content,white papers

witty-marketing-writing229766355_4ecd88e7deBefore you try to write witty corporate or marketing content, know your ideal reader intimately. Otherwise, don’t even bother.

Witty? Says who?

Well, that’s really what it all gets down to, then, isn’t it? Who says your writing is witty? And who gives him/her the authority to judge it?

“Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth,” wrote Archimedes, and if you have been writing for very long at all, you know exactly how to paraphrase him:

Describe to me the ideal reader, and I will make him laugh.

It is, of course, your ideal reader who deems your writing witty. The more you know about that person, the more you can appeal to his sense of humor. If you don’t understand what makes that ideal reader tick, how can you expect him to read what you’ve written and find it engaging?

Witty content in a business context is a rarity, almost as rare as witty content about Catholicism. But consider IBM’s series of deadpan “Art of the Sale” videos, or just about any nun joke. The essence of their wittiness is The Great Unexpected, and you too can take advantage of that essence.

Consider a few content channels in our Web 2.0 world, and their likely receptiveness to witty writing.

Wit in Corporate Writing – Maybe

  • Blogs - If you’re reading a blog, you deserve what you get. You expect to derive some eventual value or information, but the channel is so informal that you could land on a real gem of inspiration in a hilarious wrapper. I think this is the best place to start. And, when your blog is new and undiscovered, you can write just about anything you want, secure in the knowledge that nobody will be reading it. Yet.
  • Customer success stories – Depending on the customer and the success (and the customer’s lawyers), you might be able to make this work. Your reader would be deep in The Great Unexpected when he came across a closing line like “We liked working with Acme’s new line of optical routers, and we have a good relationship with them. We just need to figure out what to do with all this extra pizza.”
  • Web pages – Here is another place where witty content can thrive. Imagine an organization that describes certain aspects of itself and its history with good-natured self-deprecation. It would be a breath of fresh air, like hearing a head of state say something funny. Most organizations relegate such content to blogs, though.

Witty Corporate Writing Need Not Apply

  • White papers – Face it: even with the evidence as you lay it out, these are an attempt to get ideal readers to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions at a certain point in the sales cycle. Wit in a white paper would probably feel like bumps on a smooth road. I would like to read a white paper infused with wit, but I cannot imagine what it would look like.
  • Annual reports - Probably not fertile ground for wit. If you publish an annual report, your ideal readers are analysts, investors, chartered accountants and people who will drop your stock like a hot potato at the first sign of The Great Unexpected. Still, if your stock has already tanked this year, what do you have to lose?
  • Social Media answers (e.g., LinkedIn, Yahoo! and other collaborative forums) – I’m not convinced that anybody who posts questions in these is really interested in the answers, which means that the ask-er is probably not your ideal reader. If you want to turn your wit loose on the answer-ers, however, you might get noticed.
  • Twitter - Can you be witty in less than 140 characters? Will anybody care? One fellow has over 900,000 followers, but I don’t know where he’s leading them (us, really), if anywhere.
  • Press releases – Don’t even bother. Journalists are always under pressure and they’re looking for extractable facts, not wit. If you want to flex your wit on these ideal readers, take them out to lunch sometime.
  • Brochures, sales collateral – Again, you’re asking for trouble. By default, these pieces get used when casting a wide net, and it’s too difficult to define the ideal reader.

In short, if you don’t know your ideal readers or can’t get enough information on them, you’re skating on thin ice by trying to use wit. But when you do know about them and what will appeal to them, give wit a chance.

As usual, I’m happy to be proved wrong. Send me samples of witty corporate and marketing communications.

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

photo credit: nukeit1

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