Are your webmeetings a laugh a minute? Probably not. Is the alternative to make them as boring and personality-free as possible? It's not an either-or proposition, but very often we treat it as if it were. There is a place for appropriate humor in any human communication. The key word there being appropriate.
Humor can be a terrific tool for helping a team come together and form bonds. It can also be seen as cruel, cutting or disrespectful. The trick there is to know when you're using one and not the other and it's not easy to tell the difference.
I was reminded of this recently by two unrelated incidents. The first was an article on the Arkadin blog (Arkadin is a global provider of telecom and web meeting services ) by Matt Bott called Why You Should Run Your Online Meeting Like a Standup. You should check it out, there are some valid points, although the metaphor is a bit strained.
The second incident is also important: I recently lost a client because of an inappropriate use of humor, and of all people I should know better.
Let me start by saying I am uniquely qualified for this discussion because I spent 15 years of my life as a professional stand-up comic (defined as really doing it, not having a day job) before joining the real world. Humor is an integral part of what I do in life and business. I also understand the risks and dark side of its use.
As I said, the trick is to know when and how humor is appropriate and when it's not:
It can't be forced: There is a huge difference between comedy and humor. Humor is what arises naturally from an interaction or communication that strike people as funny or amusing. Comedy is the attempt to intentionally interject it into a situation. But there are a couple of rules here.
"Opening with a joke" is the kiss of death for a couple of reasons. First, those who are not naturally "funny" shouldn't have it thrust upon them. Secondly, even those who think they are, usually overestimate the appeal of their charms (mea culpa). Oh, and be aware that the best jokes offend someone. Always. Let humor arise from the situation rather than forcibly inject it where it doesn't fit.
It should be used sparingly: Humor is the seasoning to a conversation, meeting or any communication. Like salting your food, it can add flavor and make the experience more enjoyable. On the other hand, over doing it can spoil the occasion in a hurry.
The first time you replace your photograph with a picture of Angelina Jolie, it's funny. After that it just looks needy. Let people see the real you. You know who you are.
Don't be mean: One of the most common areas where humor gets people in trouble is in the use of sarcasm. This is the situation that occasionally gets me in more trouble than I need, and the one I usually am most on my guard for.
I have a client who recently asked for some online team building because the team was becoming very testy with each other and the humor was becoming very dark and sarcastic. The tone was designed to snipe at each other and punish folks, rather than to bring them together.
Pick your spots: What got me in trouble recently was pointing out something to a client that they were overly sensitive to. What I thought was an attempt to lighten the mood over a bad technical situation was seen as nasty and unprofessional. Here's a note to you and myself: when people are highly stressed over something, they are far less likely to find it as amusing as you do.
So empathize, don't pick fun. Had I seen her face in person, I could have adjusted my tone or let the better angels of my nature take the lead and not even said anything.
Because you lack visual cues online, it's easy to go too far. Additionally, you may be working with people you don't know at all. In a business environment it should go without saying that politics, religion and race have no place in the conversation.
That being said, gently poking fun at yourself or the situation, sharing an amusing story and laughing are part of life's best experiences. People bond over laughter and develop better working relationships. I can't imagine working with someone where the only conversation was task oriented and completely impersonal.
If your humor falls flat, don't be afraid to check with someone to make sure things were perceived as you attended, apologize when necessary and make a mental note not to repeat the occasion. Occasional miscommunication is inevitable, repeat offenses are not.