How to Create Truly Entertaining Training

The first step in creating entertaining training is philosophical (and probably the most difficult), and the rest are practical and quite simple.

By Jeff Havens

Ever since we started falling asleep in school during our teachers’ lectures, we’ve all wanted our education to be enjoyable. Companies spend billions of dollars trying to develop training programs that entertain as well as inform; the most recent innovation in this respect is gamification, which is estimated to be a $2.8 billion industry in and of itself by 2015. Also, innumerable studies have demonstrated that if a particular subject is taught in a humorous or entertaining way, audiences remember a higher percentage of the subject material and retain that knowledge for a longer period of time. So not only is entertaining training more fun to begin with, it’s also more effective—which means less money you’ll have to spend on retraining, which means more money you’ll have for the company holiday party, which means you’ll get to eat more pie. And I think all of us could do with a little more pie.

At the same time, creating training programs that combine purpose with pleasure is more important now than ever before. Employees are changing jobs faster than they used to—every 4.4 years, according to Forbes—and the cost to replace a departing employee is significant, somewhere between 120 percent and 150 percent of that employee’s salary. In surveys that try to analyze why employees choose to leave their employers (as opposed to leaving for external causes such as a spouse taking a job in another city), “bored by the work” and “unenjoyable corporate culture” pop up frequently enough that they should be taken seriously.

Obviously, training is only one part of animating employees and creating a vibrant work environment. Fortunately, however, creating entertaining training is not very hard to do. The first step is philosophical (and probably the most difficult), and the rest are practical and quite simple.

Step 1: Recognize that education and entertainment do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This is the one that training managers—and training development companies, for that matter—will struggle with the most. Too many people believe that useful training is necessarily boring, and that enjoyable experiences have no intrinsic value. For this reason, many companies avoid humor entirely for fear it somehow will dilute the value of their content, when, in fact, the opposite is true. So recognizing that these two concepts can co-exist is the first step in creating them.

But don’t take my word for it, because maybe I’m lying to you. However, as far back as the 1970s, John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) founded Video Arts, a training company that created entertaining training videos. Cleese sold the company in the 1990s, but for a time, it was the largest training company in England. So not only do entertainment and education go well together, but they also have a track record of being successful.

Step 2: Focus on the delivery.

This is the step that the gamification movement has capitalized on—taking traditional content and wrapping it in a fun package. The content really hasn’t changed; training still focuses on conflict resolution techniques, leadership strategies, and so forth. But the delivery now suggests a more enjoyable experience than a standard lecture or seminar is likely to offer.

Fundamentally, this means two things. If you’re looking for an in-person training experience, you’ll want to find a trainer with an engaging, entertaining personality, someone who can deliver serious content in an enjoyable way. If you’re looking for learner-centric training (computer-based, text-based, or otherwise), you’ll want something constructed in such a way that it doesn’t look like a textbook or user’s manual. Engaging graphics or a casual, even irreverent tone to the writing can make all the difference between material that feels stultifying or stimulating.

Step 3: Keep it short.

Sitcoms are 21 minutes long. In that time, they have to establish a scene, create a problem, attempt one or more ineffective solutions for solving that problem, and come to a workable resolution. That’s a lot to accomplish, which is why sitcoms keep their jokes short and to the point.

Similarly, the humor should never overwhelm the rest of the material. A single funny joke or entertaining story can be enough to keep an audience satisfied for several minutes. Done intelligently, a small number of entertaining moments can make an hour-long training seminar move from obligatory to eagerly anticipated.

Another excellent strategy is to employ short, entertaining videos as an introduction to a serious topic. Especially if everyone knows the training is going to be serious (cybersecurity training, for example), a lighthearted icebreaker can help prepare learners for a more enjoyable experience than they may have been expecting.

Step 4: Don’t be afraid to demonstrate worst practices.

The vast majority of training focuses on how to do things correctly, and that’s important. But it’s equally important to know what behaviors to avoid, and focusing on what not to do offers infinitely more opportunities for entertainment. What makes this so easy is that almost everyone has been exposed to some bad practices that, presented correctly, can be a hilarious reminder of the improper way to handle a given situation. Those scenarios then can lead smoothly into a conversation about the appropriate response to that situation, and all with more laughs than would have happened without the examples of “worst practices.”

The blueprint for creating entertaining training is not terribly sophisticated, which means it all comes down to execution. Some people are better at telling jokes than others, and some training companies are more effective at combining relevant content with the kind of entertainment value employees are coming to expect from their training materials. Done properly, adding the right amount of entertainment will improve retention, increase participation, and develop a culture in which training is something to look forward to rather than something that must be endured.

Jeff Havens is a corporate speaker and author of “Unleash Your Inner Tyrant!” He helps people succeed at leadership, communication, professional development, and more by telling them exactly what notto do. He shares his unique blend of comedy and content at JeffHavens.com.

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