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How to use humor in technology writing

By Dave Jagodowski
October 30, 2020

How to use humor in technology writing

When you’re a marketing writer in an industry where phrases like hyperconverged infrastructure, Kubernetes, and CI/CD pipelines invade your vocabulary like bugs at a barbecue, you really only have two choices:

  1. Keep good humor about it.
  2. Wince painfully and die a little bit inside.

This article is for my fellow technology writers interested in option 1.

While there is little opportunity for outright humor in technology writing, there are two good reasons to put some personality into your work. First, it is unexpected, and the unexpected (whether appreciated or not) gets noticed. In marketing and advertising, getting noticed is the bee’s knees. (See? You didn’t expect a hip 1920s catchphrase.) The second reason is because it provides you, the writer, with an underlying challenge to not just present information, but to connect and communicate with the reader.

Here are some practical strategies you can apply.

Alliteration

A simple way to leverage levity in desert-dry content is by using alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound—usually a hard-consonant sound, as in Tic-Tac-Toe. It can add pizzazz to an otherwise drab heading or subtitle and engage the unsuspecting reader. For example, both of the following titles are viable candidates for a piece about cloud compliance strategies:

How to Maintain Compliance in the Cloud

Keep Control of Cloud Compliance

While both titles work, the second one is more captivating. If you’re not naturally clever, use a thesaurus to help you find just the right words.

Situational humor

Situational humor is when you build off an existing problem or situation, like a chaotic data center. It presents the rare opportunity to redirect the conversation to the human condition, where it’s easier to connect with the reader.

For example, a case study could read, “Client X had a serious issue with their data center footprint. Their server room was so full, if it were a zoo they’d have to truncate the elephants. Clearly they need to increase their hardware density at every level.”

An elephant in a server room

And there it is. Use the situation to set up the humor, then get out quick.

In some media, like videos or blogs, you can set up your own situations. When I write a video script, I hear a voice in my head reading the words aloud. Often, just the timbre of this imaginary voice can bring personality, humor, and interest to the script and guide the story.

For inspiration, listen to some old-time radio shows from the 1940s. Note how the voices help you visualize each character. Writing scripts “in character” can drive fresh creative ideas. Just be sure to convey this character/voice to your production team.

(Note: If you continue to hear that voice, you should probably take a few days off. Go wherever it tells you.)

In blog writing, you often have carte blanche to set up a situation, but your tools to express it are quite limited… usually just words and a few still images. Don’t be afraid to use parentheses to introduce a dissenting voice, raise questions, or reaffirm a point. (Seriously… it works.)

Double entendre

Sometimes (rarely) you are blessed with a situation that doesn’t need your help to be funny. In that case, just roll with it. For instance, the adults in the room will remember that computer mice (mouses? meece?) used to have a rubber ball on the underside that needed periodic cleaning to keep it operational.

This created headaches for IT support and forced IBM to issue a “mouse balls alert” to its field engineers. Almost 30 years later, it’s still a must-read classic.

Mouse-w-Copy-750x292-1

Early in my undistinguished career, I wrote for a company whose leading product was marketed under the acronym PMS. Low-hanging fruit? You bet. But it gave me rare opportunities to spell out the word “period” in my copy.

Never pass up the opportunity to use a bit of discreet double entendre. Period.

Leave your mark

There is a lot of exciting tech going on in the world, and I have been privy (on rare occasions) to write about it. But in marketing, you do a lot of templated work where you repackage the tech flavor of the day. It’s like cutting different shaped cookies out of the same dough to serve at different events.

The next time you face an uninspired writing task like that, and after you fill in all the benefits and talking points, put it aside for a day and revisit it with fresh eyes. Does it have personality? Are you in there somewhere? Is it recognizable as your writing? When you can check those boxes, you will feel like you created something instead of just completed something.

Incorporating subtle touches of wit is a great way to brand your work and add sparkle to your cookies. If you’re still wondering whether humor will prevent you from dying a little bit inside every time you whip up some boilerplate, well… no. Probably not. But it will help.

Write on!