Interviews can be so serious and boring. Here's how to weave in a little humor while still coming across as professional.
Laughter is a powerful connection tool. As Sophie Scott's TED talk puts it, part of the evolutionary purpose of laughter is to create social bonding. Humor is a great way to become memorable, stand out from the crowd, and leave a positive impression as a likable and fun person.
It can also be a way to shoot yourself in the foot by coming across as unprofessional, inappropriate, and otherwise cringe-worthy. Humor, especially job-interview humor, is a skill that some of us have mastered to a greater degree than others have. My experience as a hiring manager confirms that misplaced and poorly-timed jokes are anything but funny in an interview.
So, what do you do if you want to use job-interview humor in a way that will boost your candidacy? Keep these job-interview tips in mind:
1. Stay away from jokes
Jokes come across as clumsy, self deprecating, scripted, and fake. They can leave the interviewer thinking, “If he made that up, what else is he making up?” So, stay away from anything fabricated. If you feel compelled to memorize something funny, find a quote or two that might be relevant and keep them in your back pocket.
2. Reflect on something genuinely funny or fun in your life
The good news is that each one of us is surrounded by real-life events that are funny and make us smile. When you share a real-life experience in a fun frame, you get an opportunity to lighten the mood without coming across as fake. Look for something that has happened in your world and consider a way of slightly exaggerating or remixing the story to make a point.
3. Tie it into something relevant for the interview
Sam Horn, the Intrigue Expert, refers to it as “hinge and hook” – capturing a phrase or a story turn and linking it into your response or observation. Yes, this is a strategic use of humor.
How to use humor during your interview
Now that you know the types of ways to incorporate humor into your interview, you might be thinking, “This is all great theory, but how do I apply it?”
Let's start with an example.
While interviewing for a job as an accounting manager, I was asked about my ability to collaborate effectively in a high-pressure situation. I took the opportunity to weave in some job-interview humor.
“That is a great question,” I said. “I am glad you asked because deadlines and high stakes can quickly turn a working relationship confrontational. As an auditor, I am no stranger to having to ask sensitive questions, dig into mistakes that could potentially damage someone's career, and poke around when people are just trying to do their jobs. To be effective at what I do, I had to come up with something that would lighten the mood and get me better results. I decided that I would bribe my clients…”
At this point, the interviewing manager's eyebrows went up in surprise, as I delivered the punchline:
“With chocolate and cookies!”
That got a chuckle, and I went on to explain that homemade cookies and foil-wrapped chocolate treats earned me a way into my clients' stomachs and hearts. As a result, clients did not dread the terrible visit from the auditor upstairs, but actually looked forward to our meetings. Delicious food will get you far!
Another way I used humor and fun in an interview came from spotting three tennis balls on a desk in the corner of the conference room. I was in my third interview for a consulting position, and the company director asked me how I managed conflicting priorities and communication in a large team.
Having had an opportunity to speak with him for about 15 minutes, I had a sense of his dynamic personality. We had built a good rapport and an easy-flowing conversation up to that point. These considerations inspired me to try something unconventional.
I asked his permission to get the tennis balls from the table to help me answer his question. Then, I began to juggle. All the while, I reflected on how important it is to have a clear focus, a disciplined practice, and a willingness to respond in the moment — both for juggling and for managing conflicting priorities. Now, the sight of a professional woman in a business suit juggling tennis balls is a special treat, and we did attract a bit of an audience. I even got a volunteer who wanted me to teach him how to do it! That's job-interview humor at it's best.
I will be the first to admit that my juggling was not perfect — I am a CPA, not a performance artist, and I did drop the ball once or twice. Far from feeling embarrassed, I turned it into an opportunity to talk about learning from past mistakes, assessing what works best, and course-correcting for continuous improvement.
In both cases, I got job offers.
Here are some important takeaways and job-interview tips for you to maximize your results in using humor in an interview, or any other professional situation:
Humor is only one part of your professional image. You can make it larger or smaller, but don't neglect your other professional attributes. Coming across as a perpetual jokester will not serve you.
Read your audience and follow the interviewing manager's lead. You cannot control how well your humor lands with the listener, so pay attention to cues and body language. Pushing it too far can feel awkward and unprofessional — the opposite of your desired effect of helping the conversation flow and lightening the mood.
If you plan to use humor in an interview, practice first. Test it on a family member or friend, and if they are not laughing, try a different approach.
Make sure that you use a joke as a tool to make a point, illustrate an example, and create a perception of you as a likable and pleasant professional. Attempting to use it for anything else is a mistake. Be sensitive to topics of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, and anything else that could potentially offend.
Remember, if you are not funny, don't try to force it. There are plenty of other great ways to connect and be impactful.
Not sure if you're coming off funny or annoying? An interview coach can help you with that! Check out our sister site, TopInterview, today.