Funny technical writing--risky?

Subject: Funny technical writing--risky?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 20 Sep 2002 11:16:11 -0400

As always, the choice of whether to pick a humorous approach to your writing
depends to a large extent on the nature of the audience and the the
communication task. Humor is obviouslyinappropriate in the instructions
provided by a funeral director to a grieving family member, but equally
obviously, it would be entirely appropriate in a training manual for clowns.
Most of our situations lie somewhere in between such extremes, but in _any_
situation, the first thing you've got to decide why you would use humor:
what goal does it serve?

There are risks to using humor, including:
- Giving offense: What people consider funny is intensely subjective, and
something that has your entire development staff rolling on the floor may
have your product's users calling their lawyers. Even if the joke might be
funny under normal circumstances, the highly stressed user trying to print a
memo with an angry boss looking over their shoulder and the user who just
deleted a crucial file and needs to recover it may be less than receptive to
your attempts to make them laugh.
- Failing to communicate: Ever failed to understand a joke? Every told a
joke that one of your friends didn't understand? The "language" and
"grammar" of humor are far less well defined than their technical
communication counterparts, and anyone who's been on this list for more than
a week sees how even we, as a group, sometimes fail to understand each
other. (And how we sometimes lack anything resembling a sense of humor. <g>)
- Doing it badly: There are few things more uncomfortable than a joke that
falls flat. Even if you don't offend anyone, and the reader easily
understands your meaning, do you really want to be seen as a "lame" writer?
("Yeah, that was funny... back when I was in grade school.")
- Distracting the reader: Success also has its perils. If the reader enjoys
the joke, you're taking them out of the moment enough that they'll probably
lose sight of what they're doing. When that happens, they're probably going
to be annoyed at having to backtrack to rediscover their purpose or where
they were in a series of steps.

Given these problems, humor is a technique best avoided if it doesn't
accomplish something you can't accomplish in any other way. If badly done,
the humor may fail to communicate, and after all, isn't that our primary
goal? That's not to say you should never use humor, but before trying to do
so, be very aware of the risks and take measures to reduce or eliminate

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada
"User's advocate" online monthly at
"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is
noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience,
which is the bitterest."--Confucius, philosopher and teacher (c. 551-478

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