Our Funny Theory:
Use Humor to Improve Training Effectiveness
February 10, 2016
Quick: can you recall any of the ads from Super Bowl 50? How about a play from the game itself? If you’re like most people, you still remember the ads but can’t recall the details of a single play. Of course, there is one exception. If you’re a Broncos or Panthers fan, you likely have certain plays imprinted deep inside your hippocampus.
Why? Emotion plays a crucial role in memory and learning. So if you love the Broncos and were euphoric on Super Bowl Sunday, certain plays will linger in your brain a long time, giving you great satisfaction with each retrieval. And if you hate the Broncos, certain plays have taken up residence in your head, despite your wishes. The reason is that negative emotions—fear, anger, disgust—embed memories, too.
What does any of this have to do with employee training? Well, in our view, everything.
Let’s go back to the “Super Ads” for a minute. People who have no interest in football tune in to watch the commercials, which is interesting when you consider most Americans have a negative view of the advertising industry. But we want to watch the ads because they’re funny. And we remember them, whether we want to or not—they make us laugh, and laughing helps us remember.
A (Very) Little Bit of Neuroscience
Ever notice how you don’t remember much from a boring day? Extreme emotions on both ends of the spectrum tend to be best for firing up the neurotransmitters that make us remember. Who could forget being beat up by a bully? Or crashing into a tree at 55 MPH? And, on the other hand, who could forget a first kiss? Or the birth of a child? Or the day you really did laugh out loud when your dog joined you in the shower after hearing a clap of thunder?
Since advertisers, teachers, and corporate trainers can’t go around traumatizing people or tempting them to fall in love, laughter is perhaps the next-best way to rouse up the emotions that aid memory and learning. Laughter increases the neurotransmitters, like serotonin, that reduce stress, relax the body, and allow the enjoyment area of the brain to take over. When this happens, the “thinking” part of the brain, the neocortex, increases its activity. This is why people tend to understand the message better and remember it longer when information is accompanied by humor. And this is why Super Bowl advertisers, who paid an average of $5 million for 30 seconds of air time, like to make funny ads.
Corporate Training: No Laughing Matter
If arousing positive emotions is so crucial to learning and memory, why do so many companies spend a fortune to make funny ads while their training content is flat out boring?
Two-thirds of employees say the quality of training positively influences their engagement. And yet, research shows learners don’t find their training material interesting and they see current training programs as an unproductive use of time.
With US companies spending approximately $70 billion on corporate training (worldwide figures are around $130 billion), boring training is risky. So, channel the “Super Ads,” embrace some fun, and maximize your investments in training.
Ways to Make Employee Training More Fun—And More Effective
“Fun” and “engaging” don’t have to be overwhelming, scary, or distracting. There are some pretty straightforward adjustments you can make to your training to increase engagement (and ultimately retention). Here are some examples.
Embrace and acknowledge inside jokes, pop culture, or other telltale elements of your workplace or industry. In this video, we wove in typical sales jargon (okay, and some texting shorthand) into the script because we knew it would resonate with our audience. (FYI, if you like this, check out our list of 8 funny sales videos that will have you ROFL.)
In an instructor-led training course, this may look like coaching facilitators and participants to share “war stories” to add a personal, storytelling feel to the session.
If telling a joke or saying TTYL isn’t your style, even a change like writing in plain language can make a huge difference in the perception of, and engagement with, employee training.
Clean up PowerPoint decks. Ditch pointless clipart and distracting slide transitions. Reduce text on screen to the most salient points only. Less is more.
Instead of stock photos, experiment with (relevant) comics, or even a funny meme or two.
Do you typically rely on talking heads in your videos? Switch things up with animation. Case in point:
The psychology department of the University of Hertfordshire studied talking head shots. Led by professor Richard Wiseman, participants watched a one-minute talking head video followed by a second video with the same voice track. However, in the second video the talking head was replaced by an animation. The animation video resulted in a 15% increase in retention of information and a 33% increase in entertainment value.
The Creative Direction
Using an unconventional or unexpected theme for your training can also make it feel more fun. Take product training for a new product launch. We helped one of our clients produce a video in the style of a home shopping network special. It went beyond features and specs and told a story.
To be certain, this had to be very carefully executed. We wanted a high-energy, slightly over-enthusiastic feel but the delivery still had to be controlled so the video didn’t unintentionally mock the product or the company.
Corporate trainers, take a page out of the “Super Ads” book: use humor to create an emotional connection with your audience and ultimately increase training effectiveness. Start small. It might mean more whitespace in a training workbook, or ending a sentence with a preposition. And, use fun smartly or else you’ll end up in Doritos territory.