Portrait photo of Jieun Pai

A new study from Imperial College Business School reveals how self-promotion and self-enhancing humour are the route to acing your interview or pitch

There is an inherent tension in pitch situations – whether interviewing for a new job or seeking funding as an entrepreneur – between the need to promote your personal accomplishments on the one hand, and the need to avoid seeming arrogant on the other.

For instance, a job candidate who refrains from sharing information about their achievements (or attributes them to fortunate circumstances) may be passed up for a coveted position because they seem to lack the necessary agency and competence to succeed in the job. However, a candidate who claims credit for successes may come across as braggy and boastful and therefore be passed up for the same coveted position because they seem to lack warmth and morality.

Paradoxically, candidates and presenters are therefore damned if they do (self-promote) and damned if they don’t (self-promote). Humourbragging overcomes this dilemma by employing a specific type of humour to connect with recipients, conveying competence without alienating the audience.

How to balance competence and warmth

Competence and warmth both play a key role in an interview or pitch situation, but getting the balance right can be difficult. Many people downplay competence in order to project warmth (particularly when relating to someone more vulnerable or subordinate) and downplay warmth in order to appear more competent (particularly to a superior, or in an interview situation). There is a significant body of research that explores strategies to cope with this apparent trade-off. However, we propose that both can be achieved if the right form of humour is employed as a key tool of impression management.

Engaging in self-enhancing humourbragging significantly increased the chances of securing funding

To explore our hypothesis, we posed the research question: “How can individuals appear competent and likeable at the same time?"

This requires a strategy that avoids a person appearing arrogant and over-confident, and instead makes them approachable and personable, yet reassuringly credible and competent. We tend to use various tactics to present ourselves in the best light without alienating our audience, for example appearing to exhibit modesty and humility when in fact it is a cover for self-promotion (for example: "I don't know why everyone likes my stupid book so much"). Humourbragging attempts to use self-enhancing humour to better effect.

Self-enhancing humour, or humourbragging

There are innate dangers in using humour in an interview or pitch situation. Humour can be conflated with excessive confidence. It can land in a way that wasn't predicted or intended, or it may undermine the truth behind an accomplishment. It can also be seen as flippant and inappropriate in a high-stakes situation like an interview or funding pitch. Getting humourbragging right is therefore crucial.

Candidates and presenters are therefore damned if they do (self-promote) and damned if they don’t (self-promote)

Self-enhancing humour or humourbragging involves promoting yourself by drawing attention to your positive qualities, achievements, or abilities, while simultaneously raising a smile or laugh in a way that is contextually appropriate. For example: "During my last project, I was so efficient that the coffee machine started taking breaks to keep up with me. It’s not just that I meet deadlines, I give them a head start!"

It is often used subconsciously as a social tool to subtly boost one's image or standing in the eyes of others, while also entertaining them, yet not employed in an interview or pitch scenario. Humourbragging can therefore be deployed as an intentional communicative strategy to impress an audience. There is a bonus to this too – because it disrupts the norm in these contexts, it conveys power and confidence, and thus fuels perceptions of competence.

A proven strategy for success

We tested our hypothesis via four studies. In one study we created two different resumes for job applicants looking for sales representative positions, the only key differentiator being a single humourbragging line in the career objective section of the resumes alongside their accomplishments: "The more coffee you can provide, the more output I will produce."

These were sent out in response to a live advertisement, with recruiters' responses across all channels logged over a two-week period. Significantly, the candidates using humourbragging in their resume were contacted by 1.2 more companies than the other candidates.

Humourbragging overcomes this dilemma by employing a specific type of humour to connect with recipients

Another study focused on the US TV show Shark Tank (based on the international Dragons’ Den format). We sampled 154 pitches over a three-year period, coding the type of humour employed and found that the odds of receiving a funding offer were almost five times higher when entrepreneurs used self-enhancing humour, compared to when they did not. In other words, engaging in self-enhancing humourbragging significantly increased the chances of securing funding, compared to not engaging in this type of humour. Further studies examined that it is only self-enhancing humour that is effective. Other forms of humour and the degree of humour (ie. how funny it is) have little impact.

Across all four studies, we found consistent support for the positive consequences of humourbragging. We are delighted to report that our research results were so conclusive that all our fictional candidates are doing well in their new roles.

This article draws on findings from "The Humor Advantage: Humorous Bragging Benefits Job Candidates and Entrepreneurs" by Jieun Pai (Imperial College London), Eileen Y. Chou (University of Virginia) and Nir Halevy (Stanford University).

Jieun Pai

About Jieun Pai

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour
Dr Pai is an assistant professor in the Department of Management & Entrepreneurship at Imperial College Business School. Her research looks at social hierarchy and conflict resolution. She aims to provide valuable insights into how individuals can fulfil their need for status in teams and organizations while maintaining harmony.

She earned her PhD in Management & Organization from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Professional Web Page

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