HomeLearning CenterHow Women Leaders Benefit from Using Humor

How Women Leaders Benefit from Using Humor

Originally published by Ella Miron-Spektor for INSEAD Knowledge

New research suggests that being funny helps leaders gain influence, and that women benefit more than men from using humour in public speaking.

“A sense of humour is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. The ability to make light of a situation and make people laugh, as the former US President and statesman noted, is undoubtably a handy skill for managers. But there is a specific group of leaders for whom humour could be even more potent: women.  

This is the main finding of a study Julia BearEmuna Eliav and I conducted on the benefits of using humour to influence others. In our analysis of 2,407 TED talks by prominent speakers presenting new ideas in their areas of expertise to live and online audiences, we found that humorous speakers were more influential, especially women. Female TED speakers who used more humour were more popular and perceived as more influential than less funny women and comparably funny men.

Our study, published in Academy of Management Discoveries and recently featured in Harvard Business Review, tracked how often the audience laughed to quantify humour. Audience ratings, independent evaluations and online view counts were also used to measure its impact.

Take the 2013 TED talk by Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and an adjunct assistant professor at Stern Business School. Webb said: “I like the idea of online dating, because it’s predicated on an algorithm… I thought, well, will data and an algorithm lead me to my Prince Charming? So I decided to sign on… When I was asked about fun activities and my ideal date, I said monetisation and fluency in Japanese. I talked a lot about JavaScript [audience laughter].”

Our evaluators rated Webb as highly competent, warm and leader-like, while audience members rated her as highly funny. Her talk has been viewed more than 8 million times.

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