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Humour in Business
Publicado por: EUROWARDS
Tema Tips & Trucos
by Brian O'Kane*

Management by motto

It's not what you say, it's how you say it – so comedians explain their special skill. Making your point, in a way that people remember afterwards, is often what distinguishes successful and unsuccessful leaders. Yet, the use of humour in business is rare. A pity, since it can be so effective.

As the Spanish writer Baltasar Gracián explained, "Advice is sometimes transmitted more successfully through a joke than through grave teaching." And management theorist and teacher, Edward de Bono reminds us that "Humour is by far the most significant activity of the human brain."

This is why mottoes, short pithy sayings that encapsulate years of experience, are so valuable as a management tool. And they are at their best when they appear to violate the rules of commonsense or logic, or to pose a counter-point to accepted wisdom.

For example, who could argue with the truth of Eileen Shapiro’s definition of a mission statement: "A talisman, to be hung on the wall, to ward off evil spirits," or Alan Sugar’s iconoclastic draft: "'Pan Am takes good care of you,' 'Marks and Spencer loves you,' 'Securicor cares ….' at Amstrad, 'We just want your money.'"

Definitions are the richest source of humour of business, often making the point more clearly than any lexicographer. For example:

  • Obstacles: Things a person sees when he takes his eyes off his goal. (E Joseph Cossman)
  • Credit: The only enduring testimonial to man's confidence in man. (James Blish)
  • The Internet: So big, so powerful and so pointless that for some people it is a complete substitute for life. (Andrew Brown)
  • Salesman: A man who knows nothing of what he is selling save that he is charging a great deal too much for it. (Oscar Wilde)
  • Engineering: The ability to do for one dollar what any damn fool can do for five dollars. (Arthur Mellen Wellington)
  • Money: Just something to make book-keeping convenient. (HL Hunt)
  • Executive ability: Deciding quickly and getting somebody else to do the work. (John G Pollard)
  • A resumé: A balance sheet without any liabilities. (Robert Half)
  • Advice: What we ask for when we know the answer but wish we didn't (Erica Jong).

But my favourite definition is John D Rockefeller's definition of riches: "A gift from God, signifying 'This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.'"

For a delightful descent into cyncism, try Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, from which the following are extracted:

  • Price: Value plus a reasonable sum for the wear and tear on conscience in demanding it.
  • Labour: One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.

Sometimes, it's not just what's said but who said it that counts. For example, who would have thought that Albert Einstein would say: "There's nothing so hard to understand as the income tax." Or that Mintzberg, better known for his management theories, but clearly possessed of practical experience too, would define a manager as: "The person who sees the visitors so that everyone else can get the work done."

Whereas it's easy to picture movie mogul Sam Goldwyn, a man legendary for his meanness, saying: "Spare no expense to make everything as economical as possible." Goldwyn is also supposed to have said, in response to a comment that one of his movies was too caustic: "Too caustic? To hell with the cost. If it's a good picture, we'll make it anyway."

Rules are always useful in business, to point out the path to success based on the experience of others:

  • Rule No. 1: Never lose money; Rule No. 2: Never forget Rule No. 1. (Warren Buffett)
  • To spot the expert, pick the one who predicts the job will take the longest and cost the most. (Murphy's Law, Book Two)
  • To keep an organisation young and fit, don't hire anyone until everybody's so overworked they'll be glad to see the newcomer no matter where he sits. (Robert Townsend)
  • The causes of mistakes are, first, I didn't know; second, I didn't think; third, I didn't care. (Henry H Buckley)

    Some mottoes need thinking about:

    • Finance: What you have when you don't have as much as if you had nothing. (T Grandon Gill)
    • Always tell yourself: The difference between running a business and ruining a business is "i." (Frank Tyger)
    • Too few accomplish twice as many as too many. (Malcolm Forbes)
    • We haven't the money, so we have to think. (Lord Beaverbrook)

    Marketing provides a treasure trove of advice:

    • If we aren't customer-driven, our cars won't be either. (Donald Petersen, former CEO, Ford)
    • Competition makes life turbulent and uncertain; competition almost always eats into profits. Worse, you can lose at competition. (Charles Mann)

    So, too, does enterprise:

    • Never play down the importance of incompetence in the organisation. It has always been the seed of discontent, independence and successful entrepreneurship. (William Bliss)
    • I was figuring on starting some kind of business, but most every business is already engaged more than's necessary; and then, I ain't got no business ability. What I want is something that don't call for no kind of ability whatsoever and no kind of exertion to speak of, and ain't out of town, and pays good, and has a future. (Unattributed but, perhaps the best description of the wannabe entrepreneur)

    And no collection of mottoes about business wuld be complete without some direct reference to money:

    • If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a deposit in my name in a Swiss bank account (Woody Allen)
    • The two most beautiful words in the English language are "Check enclosed" (Dorothy Parker)
    • After a certain point, money is meaningless. It's the game that counts (Aristotle Onassis)
    • Never steal more than you actually need, for the possession of surplus money leads to extravagance, foppish attire and frivolous thought (Dalton Trumbo).

      I first began to collect quirky sayings, quotations and definitions while still at school. The ones that have caught, and held, my attention over the years are those that combine a graphic image with pithy advice, like this one: "Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl across a darkened room: You know what you are doing but no one else does." (Anon)

      And again: "Getting an idea should be like sitting down on a pin; it should make you jump up and do something." (EL Simpson)

      And finally, there are folk proverbs, many of which have a direct business application:

      • He who can see three days ahead will be rich for three thousand years. (Japanese)
      • If I am a gentleman and you are a gentleman, who will milk the cow? (Irish)

      But as they say, sin scéal eile, that's another story for another day.

      About the Author

      Brian O'Kane is the author of Starting a Business in Britain (Virgin Books) and webmaster for With Ron Immink, he is co-author of Starting Your Own Business: A Workbook and co-developer of the SPOTcheck growth assessment tool (



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