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No joke: How to use humor in a job interview

(MoneyWatch) Interviewing for a job is no laughing matter, but that doesn't mean humor can't help you. It can lighten the mood, putting both you and your interviewer at ease; smooth over an awkward moment; and show what you're like to work with. But use it sparingly.

"Throughout the interview, balance humor with statements and examples that paint the perception of you as a smart, results-driven, team player who can roll with the punches. [Then] deliver a good punch line when appropriate," suggests recruiting specialist Yolanda Owens, author of How to Score a Date with Your Potential Employer.

For instance, do you feel like your interviewer questions whether you'll mesh with the corporate culture? Show that you'll fit in just fine by making a self-deprecating remark. For example, if your familiarity with current industry technology is in doubt, career coach David Couper suggests saying something like, "Technology? Yes, I just hooked up my cassette tape player last week." Then subtly follow up by pulling out a smartphone or iPad to show -- not just tell -- your comfort with the latest tech.

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Another smart use of humor is explaining long-term unemployment. Couper suggests downplaying any doubts about your ability to hit the ground running by saying the following: "If I could start work in the afternoon, it would be better for me. I don't usually get up in the mornings!" [Pause] "I'm kidding. I don't think it will be a problem. With my job search, volunteer work, and my work toward studying for my MBA, I was putting in a 50 to 60 hour week. Did I tell you I volunteered mentoring high school students in math?" The trick is to sell yourself, and the joke, with confidence. This tactic can be used to answer a variety of potentially sticky questions.

"As long as you are sure of your humor, this can help to redirect the criticism and avoid sounding defensive," Couper says.

Don't forget -- If you're naturally more of a straight-shooter (or your interviewer seems to be), don't feel obliged to unleash your inner Jim Carey. Misplaced humor can backfire, says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career coach with SixFigureStart. "People have different senses of humor," she says, "and some people are funnier than others. If you are naturally funny and can infuse this into your responses, then it could be worth the risk. But it is a risk. A job interview is a professional situation."

Remember that your goal in tactically deploying humor during a job interview shouldn't be to have the hiring manager rolling on the floor with laughter -- just smiling and seeing you as an engaged, personable potential member of the team.

Photo courtesy of Eric McGregor via Wikimedia Commons

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