Pretty much every interview starts out with some version of “tell me about yourself.”
One of my clients recently responded like this: “Well, I was born on a quiet night in March in a little town called Skokie, Illinois….”
It was silly, yes. The interviewer laughed and, very quickly, my client moved on and said, “Okay, I’ll skip ahead a bit.” He then launched into his real elevator speech.
He certainly took a risk, but he felt it paid off. He built rapport with his interviewer quickly. And he did get an offer a few weeks later. His lightheartedness probably wasn’t the deciding factor, but it helped them ease into a good conversation and showed a bit of his personality—which obviously fit in nicely with the company culture.
That example aside, humor is a delicate thing in the workplace. It’s especially delicate in the interview process where you’ve just met a key decision-maker and you’re trying to build quick rapport. If you do it poorly, you can get blacklisted fast. Do it well and you might have a better shot at getting the job.
According to a recent survey by CareerBuilder, when two candidates are equally qualified, sense of humor is the top factor that will make employers consider one over the other.
Here are some keys to keep in mind when attempting to use humor in the interview.
My client had it right when he didn’t carry his little joke on for too long. It was a split- second icebreaker and no more. Some people carry a joke on far too long and it leaves the “audience” feeling awkward. Others seem to delight too much in their own witticism, creating an impression of arrogance.
Your interviewer needs to obtain specific information during your time together so don’t be wasteful. A little light humor here and there is fine, but be quick about it. Smile and laugh but move on.
Keep It Clean
It almost goes without saying but obviously this is a work environment. No matter how comfortable you feel—and no matter what the interviewer says or does—don’t be lulled into feeling that an off-color joke will fly. Stay far, far away from any topic or innuendo that can be construed as sexual, political, religious, or otherwise potentially explosive.
Don’t Use Humor to Avoid Answering the Question
Interviewers will see immediately if you’re trying to use humor as a means of not answering a difficult question, and they won’t like it. This is an easy way to create an air of suspicion and harm your credibility.
Show Your Personality
Using humor well can help demonstrate personality. It shows you can have fun and be lighthearted but still get the job done. Be natural, easy and confident when using humor. Don’t pretend to be a stand up comedian with pre-planned jokes. And hey, if you’re not naturally a funny person (and not everyone is), don’t push it.
Be Receptive to Social Cues
The use of humor requires well-developed emotional intelligence, meaning you can read your audience. You can pick up when humor is appropriate and when it’s not. You can sense when people are authentically laughing with you and when they aren’t interested. You know how to reel it back in when needed, adapt to the people and the topic at hand. In short, it’s a tough skill to simply “learn”. Don’t push your abilities if it’s not well within your comfort zone.
The point here is simple: Let the interview be a natural, free flowing conversation. Present the best version of yourself—one who is poised and at ease speaking about your accomplishments and abilities. Humor can be a helpful component of that, but it’s not a requirement.