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To Sell Better, Make 'Em Laugh

Laughing releases oxytocin, known as the “bonding hormone,” into the body’s system. When a salesperson and customer laugh together it builds trust and empathy and helps remove the customer’s body armor. Here are seven tips that can help you make the customer laugh.

Know your audience. Don’t try to be funny with somebody you don’t know. They may not get it if they don’t share your values and assumptions. Don’t try to use humor to change the subject or defuse the other person’s concerns, either. You’ll release the wrong kinds of hormones. And be careful not to offend cultural sensitivities.

Make it relevant. Unless you’re accomplished at stand-up, don’t try to use a joke as a conversation-opener. The best way to open a conversation is to respond to what the customer’s saying. As the dialogue continues, keep an eye out for when it might be right to make a wry comment or relate a funny memory or tell a story (AKA joke) that's relevant to what's being talked about.

Let’s say you're asked to lower your bid to an unreasonable level. You can tell the customer you feel like Neil Armstrong when he was asked if he was nervous going to the moon. He said, “Of course, who wouldn’t be? There I was sitting on top of 9,999 parts and bits – each of which had been made by the lowest bidder.”

Be sure the customer can relate to the situation and identify with the story’s hero.

Make It sweet. Your humor must not be mean. If there’s a butt of the joke, make it you.

Al Gore lampoons his dour reputation with one-liners: “How do you tell Al Gore from a roomful of FBI agents? He’s the stiff one.” “Al Gore is so stiff that the racks buy the suits off him.”

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo let it be known he wasn’t taking himself too seriously when he became COO and Tweeted “First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Task #1, Undermine CEO, consolidate power.”

Show that you’re real and that what they say about you is true (or isn’t).

Make it short. Don’t ask permission to tell a joke; make it a surprise. Spare the buildup; drive to the punch-line.

Desert Island Restaurants CEO Randy Schooch took only a partner with him on a sales call where he found 50 potential customers. He pointed to his partner and said, “How about we all just team up against this guy.” He later commented he knew within ten minutes that he had made the deal.

If a story needs a long introduction, it isn’t right for a sales call. Something as simple as attaching a Dilbert cartoon to an email helped improve job offer benefits, according to a study. When creating a presentation, a cartoon might be just what you need to help keep things lively. Go to the New Yorker’s cartoon bank, where you’ll find thousands of cartoons in categories like Business and Technology that are available at low cost for presentations.

Laugh for real. When the customer makes a joke be sure your laugh is genuine. Research shows fake laughter can be recognized. (It uses shorter breaths between the ha-ha’s. Real laughing uses a different vocalization system.) You can laugh at your joke. It'll help make the customer join in.

Make it live. Be wary of being funny when you use media. Lacking body language and inflection you can easily be misunderstood. Some people can do this well. Warren Buffett tosses in humor in his writings – “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” – but it’s harder to be amusing online than it is face-to-face. You may not want to risk it.

Make it sparing. The customer doesn't want you to be a barrel of laughs; the customer wants you to provide value. Use humor to get closer to the customer, raise the meeting's energy level and get your message across in a fresh way -- but don’t try to be the class clown.

Bill Rosenthal is CEO of Communispond,which has taught 700,000 people to communicate with clarity and power since being founded in 1969. Go to its website for free access to whitepapers, articles and webinars on all aspects of communications and selling and to subscribe to e-newsletters.