Think Ethics Training Has to Be Boring? Think Again

3 steps to creating an ethics training course that is simultaneously educational and entertaining.

Recently a new client asked us to create a training program to address four areas of business ethics:

  1. Conflicts of interest
  2. Harassment and discrimination
  3. Proper use of company information
  4. Understanding the difference between a gift and a bribe

They told me they’d created this training once before, but the results were…what’s the right way to put this?…oppressively boring. So boring that people started inventing illnesses just so they could skip out on training day, which I’m not even making up. They wanted us to create something that would educate as well as engage. We did, and our clients were so pleased that we’ve been contracted to create additional training courses.

If you read my Training magazine online article, “How to Create Truly Entertaining Training,” then you’ll know how we operate. A belief that education and entertainment aren’t mutually exclusive, accompanied by a particular focus on the method of delivery, is the approach we take whenever we create training of any kind. In this article, I’m going to walk you through how we created an ethics training course that was simultaneously educational and entertaining. We’re not the smartest people on the planet—seriously, I once accidentally locked myself inside my own car, which I didn’t even know was possible until I did it—so if we can do it, you can, too.

Step 1: Establish a Fun Tone at the Beginning

We knew our audience was not going to race into the training room saying, “Oh, boy; oh, boy; oh, boy, it’s ethics training day, I’ve been waiting so long, and it’s finally here, yippie!” So we decided to frame this training not as an opportunity to become a better team player or improve customer loyalty, but as the best way to avoid being thrown in prison. (Watch our introductory video here.) We also encouraged instructors to ask the following question immediately after showing that video: “What is your least favorite thing about the idea of going to prison?”

In less than five minutes, we had shown our audience that this was going to be a different approach than what they were expecting. Already they were more open-minded than they would have been if we had started with a more strictly educational tone.

Step 2: Create Entertaining and Concise Training

Our client was planning to use their own instructors to teach the course, so we decided to introduce each concept with a short video (emphasis on short) and accompany it with a workbook with questions, room for notes, etc. So far, this should sound pretty standard. What’s important is how those items are structured.

First, our videos are short (have I said that often enough?) because all of us have the attention span of a gnat or a mayfly or some other tiny creature that occasionally flies into walls. I understand that many of us like to hear ourselves talk, but it is critical to keep your stories, anecdotes, examples, and lectures as brief and to the point as possible. The less you talk, the more you’ll be forced to rely on group discussion, which is where you’ll start to get real audience engagement.

Also, if you decide to create videos, then I suggest paying more attention to the script and the actors than you do to the actual filming. Your audience will forgive a less than perfectly produced video—there are 12 billion viral YouTube videos with little or no production value to back me up here. But none of us tolerate a bad script or bad acting for very long. If you don’t have access to quality writers or actors—and many of us don’t—then find someone who can do those things for you. Otherwise your well-intentioned training video will backfire.

Second—and more critical—humor does not interfere with your ability to educate. Our videos are sometimes less than three minutes long, but we still take time to incorporate humor. Doing so is the best way, and possibly the only way, to keep your audience constantly wondering what’s going to happen next. The same techniques that keep people watching a TV show after they really should be going to bed can be used to make people focus on your training longer than they otherwise would. We also sprinkled entertaining questions among the more serious ones in the workbooks, specifically so that our audiences would wonder what they were about to read next. Some of those questions were ridiculous and completely off-topic, but we received zero complaints about “wasting” anyone’s time with a few frivolous questions.

Step 3: Create Opportunities for Enjoyable Engagement

We’ve talked with hundreds of trainers who don’t think that they’re particularly funny or good at telling stories, and we know that concern is a big reason many trainers avoid humor entirely.

So we did the work for them. For every lesson in our instructor guide, we created a specific “Ways to Make This Entertaining” section where we provided stories, games, contests, and other ideas for using entertainment to teach each concept (click here for an example). We tried to provide more ideas than our instructors would have time for, since not everyone will use the same methods to teach the same concepts. And you can do this as well, as long as you spend some creative energy on it. If you have trouble thinking of creative ways to train on a particular concept, ask your colleagues. Like they say, two heads are better than one, unless of course they happen to be attached to the same neck.

And that’s it. It’s an approach that’s worked very well for us, and I know it will help you, too. It’s going to take a bit of work and creativity, but I guarantee it’ll be more enjoyable work than standing in front of a bunch of people playing quietly with their phones while you’re talking.

Jeff Havens is the founder of The Jeff Havens Company, a corporate training company dedicated to delivering high-content professional development training in an entertaining and modern way. From leadership, communication, and change management to ethics, generational issues, and more, the company makes learning fun. Because improving your business doesn’t have to be boring.