Using Humor to Boost Your Training Programs

If people believe there’s something inherently funny and interesting in it for them, they’re far more likely to stay tuned.

What’s that—nobody laughs at your training? You could have a problem on your hands.

Here’s why: Humor is a vital component of successful education, though you might not hear “educators” say that too often. But it’s true—and I’ll make the formal connection in a minute.

The opportunity for learning professionals is rich: If you embrace humor more actively, you’ll engage your workforce more deeply. What’s more, you’ll inspire people to learn. Too often, comedy is treated as a nice to have—if it’s considered at all. But humor is like salt: It’s both easy for people to miss it, and to have an enhanced experience when it’s there.

At Second City, after 55 years of winning audiences nightly, we have a unique perspective on the role of humor. We also educate 15,000 improv students every year and know well the possibilities that surface when education and comedy work together.

But don’t just take my word for it: There’s science at work here, as well, according to the American Psychological Association, which shows how humor can help facilitate improved learning.

In fact, two researchers (Jennings Bryant, Ph.D., and Dolf Zillmann, Ph.D.) studied classroom humor for decades, ultimately concluding that humor made learning more pleasurable while also enhancing attention and improving the classroom environment itself.

Bryant and Zillmann also suggest that humor is particularly effective when it plays off the knowledge of the audience rather than just being fun for fun’s sake. And to take it down a peg or two: You only need to watch a Super Bowl, or experience viral social media content, to understand the powerful connections advertisers make using comedy.

Content Plus Creativity

As I write, we’re focused on helping Human Resources professionals use comedy to make their learning efforts stick. As HR migrates from a backstage administrative function to a more main stage talent management one, organizations such as Google, Edward Jones, Virgin, Netflix, and Zappos realize that talent is a differentiator and the policies, procedures, and educational efforts their talent organizations creates must truly be additive to their cultures.

Second City’s recent launch of RealBiz Shorts Talent reflects our belief that humor can help humanize cultures while reinforcing the myriad complex learning messages that talent management experts have to communicate within large, complex organizations.

In developing this approach, we have found it particularly helpful to team with client collaborators also experienced in using humor for learning, such as John Kolmer, manager of Global Leadership Development at DOW, who noted that, “a few years ago we embraced using short, funny videos in our training delivery and noticed the impact immediately. Using this method of injecting humor into our learning initiatives helps wake people up and vastly increased topic retention. We were excited to think about what could be done around topics such as performance and talent management in collaboration with Second City.”

It’s this kind of approach to marrying content expertise with creativity that’s key. More than four years ago, we challenged ourselves at Second City (perhaps somewhat masochistically) to take our own educational efforts to the next level by finding the learning category for businesses that was both critically important to the organization, but woefully painful for workforce audiences. This ultimately led us to corporate ethics and compliance training.

As we explored this category more fully, and began talking to those responsible for this critical, mess-this-up-and-folks-could-go-to-jail training, we empathized with the difficulty of the task at hand and found empathy for those responsible for running these programs. Ultimately, we realized we could be part of the solution, that our unique ability to find the funny in anything coupled with the business expertise of our new compliance friends could truly work wonders. As Jerry Garcia once remarked, “somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” Hundreds of the world’s most ethical companies now rely on this approach to make their ethics and compliance education stick.

From an audience’s perspective, it’s easy to see why the link between learning and comedy is so strong. People want to play. They want an experience. They want to laugh. If they believe there’s something inherently funny and interesting in it for them, they’re far more likely to stay tuned.

That’s especially true in our multi-screen, always-on, everything-reviewed world where simple heuristics make it easy for audiences to quickly figure out content is worth investing in before they decide to tap the screen (and harder for publishers to make something go viral that is simply flat). Take airline safety videos, as a case in point. Since the conventional approaches weren’t working, Delta, Virgin, Air New Zealand, and others now wisely play against established, boring, straight-laced conventions—knowing that any challenges associated with doing it different were preferable to being ignored.

Where to Start

Here’s how to incorporate more humor into your next learning initiative:

  1. Begin with the audience in mind. This sounds like common sense, but often it isn’t common practice. When you’re an avid learner and/or seasoned Learning and Development pro, it’s easy to develop a mentality of “of course, they’ll want to learn this.” Not true. Better to assume people are busy and operating under their own wishes, desires, and quirks. Think like a marketer. Who are they? What do they care about? It isn’t the “last mile.” It’s the first step. If they don’t care, you’re done. Period.
  2. Make your approach for originating learning content collaborative and fun. Make it a game. Play with your audience. Involve them in the process. There should be no grand reveal. There should be no guessing. You should know something will work because you’ve seen an example of it already. Invite their thinking and capture real-time insight into what they care about. Make this shift in originating your content and you’ll be surprised you ever did it any other way.
  3. Always share point of view; use humor to make it stick. Training can’t be neutral. You’re always asking your audience to make a choice. So you have to stand out. Too much learning content in the world never gets put to practical use because it’s too generic and easy to ignore. Humor goes along way here. It’s particularly great in softening resistance to strong points of view and nurturing empathy when the audience must undergo significant change in order to progress.

In our view, it’s not that learning can be entertaining, it’s that it deserves to be. Let comedy serve as teacher and friend, and you will be truly inspired by where the journey can take you.

Steve Kakos is a vice president at Second City Communications, the business solutions division of improvisational comedy theatre The Second City.

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