How humor helps + Powtoon review

I recently created a funny (I hope!) cartoon to motivate people to learn more, and it motivated me to learn more about how humor can improve learning.

If you don’t see the cartoon below, you can watch it here.

The cartoon is a trailer more than a “teaching” tool, since it just touches on the main points. Its design comes straight from marketing: Remind them of the pain they’re feeling, tell them they can get the cure, and ask them to act. The same pattern would probably work in any training trailer to boost enrollments.

In a LinkedIn discussion about the cartoon, Megan Torrance reported that in one of her projects, elearning modules with a funny cartoon trailer had twice as many signups as modules without the trailer.

The same type of cartoon could be used when a client wants “awareness” but can’t identify any behaviors that actually require that awareness. When a “course” must be created regardless of its usefulness, a cartoon would at least be more fun than an information dump.

What research says about humor

I poked around Google Scholar and found studies that seem to agree that (relevant!) humor in teaching can increase retention, motivation, and comprehension.

The use of positive humor can also increase the likeability of the instructor. This could be especially helpful in corporate elearning, where the “presenter” is often faceless and personality-free.

The article “How Laughing Leads to Learning” offers a readable summary of some research and makes several points that are relevant to corporate training. Thanks, Matthias Herrmann, for pointing it out. My main takeaways from the article:

  • Humor appears to reduce anxiety by decreasing the effects of stress hormones.
  • It appears to improve motivation and recall.
  • It should be appropriate to the audience and sprinkled here and there rather than applied with a firehose.

I’d add that humor is surprising, and surprises are memorable. As Julie Dirksen explains in her (funny!) book Design for How People Learn, “If something is exactly the way we thought it would be, there’s really no reason to allocate mental resources to reinforcing that thought or idea.”

Finally, humor often uses analogy, exaggeration, emotion, vivid imagery, and unique sounds, all of which probably make the content more memorable.

Design decisions for the cartoon

Narration: I could have uploaded narration to the tool I used, but I thought, why? What would it add? So I didn’t add it. Plus, I’m not a fan of narration, as I’ve probably made clear in this blog (like in this post).

Pacing: The quick pacing is more marketing style than training style. Even when it’s just offering the high points, training tends to be a lot slower because … why? I actually wish that elearning developers would speed up, which is another reason for my burning hatred dislike of narration. It’s ironic that we easily digest quick messages from marketing but then design elearning that plods.

Powtoon review

I made the cartoon with Powtoon, a web app. You edit and save your work online and export the files as MP4s. Although you can upload audio and visuals, all the content of my cartoon is provided by Powtoon.


  • It’s intuitive — the timeline is simple; it’s easy to change entrances and exits.
  • The stock characters and animations inspire you to use humor.
  • There’s a decent supply of images within each “style” of images.
  • It’s easy to preview and export your cartoon.
  • Non-artists like me can easily create cartoons.


  • You can’t change music files in the middle of a cartoon or fade the audio. I had to make two cartoons and join them in iMovie, where I also edited the audio.
  • The shortest interval on the timeline is one second.
  • The range of character styles is limited but will likely grow.
  • Other users report that it’s hard to sync narration. If I wanted to add narration to the cartoon (when pigs fly), I’d record it separately while watching the cartoon and then connect the cartoon and audio in a video editor.
  • I noticed some visual artifacts when editing, and when I exported a cartoon, it often had a random audio glitch that re-exporting usually fixed.

More thoughts on humor

I think we have a bajillion opportunities to make things lighter and more memorable without offending someone somewhere, but all I hear when I mention humor is fear. I’ve got some tips for incorporating humor in this early blog post (along with the dramatic front page of the tabloid Elearning Informer).

What do you think? Is this kind of cartoon too risky? Why don’t we use humor more often?


  1. Loved the cartoon! Fast paced, funny, and got the message across! Makes me want to make my own cartoon!

    Many times I hear people say they aren’t funny themselves. And, maybe they aren’t — who knows. But, there is always someone who can be funny for you. So, I’ve seen people use cartoons, funny pictures, and other people’s stories, etc. Find funny things around you and incorporate them (appropriately) if you don’t think you’re funny.

    Thanks for sharing and for the inspiration! It’s got my creative juices flowing!

  2. You´re so right, Cathy! I think that animated videos are just great resources to get the message across in an engaging and effectively condensed way. Tools like Powtoon help us integrate emotions and humor with our training initiatives and also, incorporate that unique touch of coolness that instructional designers can leverage to present content in a more compelling way and make learning happen. Here´s a video I created with Powtoon Many thanks for sharing yours too!

    • Mayra, thanks for your comment and for sharing your PowToon. I loved the music in particular! I think we’ll be seeing more PowToons in the learning & development world. If anyone else reading this has one, please share.

  3. Great post! I also really enjoyed the old Elearning Informer blog post (the garden gmomes quip still makes me giggle). We recently completed a project on a dry compliance topic where we introduced some subtle humor by using a quirky theme – and the characters we used as coaches were animals. It sounds silly, but that was the point, and the learners enjoyed it. Lastly, here’s a static cartoon we made that shows how wonderfully effective boring elearning can be [said with sarcasm]:

    • Thanks, Robert. I like the idea of silly compliance training, and in my (regrettably limited) experience with funny courses, animals tend to be “safe.” One programming-related course that I helped create had an activity in which you practiced new commands by using them to change the bark of a poodle. That’s a great new look for your site, by the way!

  4. You’ve got me musing about the nuances of “humor.” My (unresearched) bias is that many people equate it with “funny,” as in “comedic” — leading to the “I just can’t tell jokes” conundrum: how can I create (or support) learning with humor if I’m not funny?

    What you’re demonstrating in your trailer is more on the lighthearted end. Not big gags and an elaborate set-up, but little riffs on an overall theme.

    This to me is like the difference between sarcasm and satire. Sarcasm almost always comes with bile: it originates in discontent and often arrives with anger. Good satire, by contrast, capitalizes on shared perceptions: you can’t successfully lampoon bad elearning if you don’t know its conventions. And instead of dwelling on the discontent, you start with shortcomings that your audience recognizes and you move on to alternatives.

    • Dave, thanks for your comment. I’ve also heard people leap to the conclusion that “Let’s use some humor” means “Let’s tack on some jokes.” The article I linked to had a great example of a joke used to help people remember the axiom “No one reports negative results” but it’s really hard to write clever jokes like that. I agree that “lighthearted” or “playful” is an easier goal.

      In the research-browsing I did, I came across the point that humor also helps you feel like part of the “in” crowd. If you get the jokes in the trailer, for example, you can feel like your membership in the group is reinforced. In training, that type of self-deprecating and “in”-group humor might help the instructor make the audience more receptive, because they might think, “We’re all together in this, and the instructor is one of us.”

      I would love to see an online course that lampoons the genre while helping people learn something. Any takers?

  5. Hi Cathy,
    Combining humor and training is my personal mission, so I’m delighted to read this post. Thank you. The world needs more laughter. Your video works because you’re poking fun at your own field and using exaggeration, contrast (the music), and truth and pain. Mel Helitzer’s book, Comedy Writing Secrets, is a good resource for anyone interested in humor techniques (and it’s not just for wannabe comedians). Humor is tricky, but I believe it’s a craft we can hone like learning to draw caricatures. It’s a challenge to find good humor mentors though. Most that come to mind are comedians or comedy writers. Travel writers use humor quite often and Dave Fox at runs a great course. I worked with an instructional designer recently who warned me against using fun and training in the same breath (yipes). I admit that safety training is serious but not all training needs to be. Years ago I came across a training video on holding effective meetings that John Cleese created. I still remember it.

    • Gay, thanks for your comment and for the recommendation of Mel Helitzer’s book. Another way to work on writing and presentation style is to immerse yourself in the material produced by someone who has a style you admire. I did that a long time ago with Mike Royko’s stuff — I analyzed why it worked and consciously emulated it, and it got a good reception. Dave Barry is another one who has a funny style.

      And if there is anyone on earth who hasn’t already seen the Dollar Shave Club ad, they should go see it now (using headphones–some language isn’t safe for work):

      • Yes, Dave Barry is a great humorist to emulate. I’ll have to look up Mike Royko…and get some headphones to watch the Dollar Shave Club ad. I’m pulling together humor resources on the blog I started, so I appreciate these suggestions. Thank you.

  6. Rebekah says:

    Cool website! For those with limited to no training budget, did you know you can create similar (thought perhaps not AS robust) animations in PowerPoint? I learned how here: (4th reason down, “Use PowerPoint to Create Videos”).

    • Rebekah, thanks for the link to Tom’s useful blog about exporting video from PowerPoint. Mac users, you can do something similar with Keynote by exporting to QuickTime. Or, you can do what I did to create a cartoon for a different use: Use Screenflow or another screen recorder to record the screen as you move through the slides and talk. When you don’t use the expected bullet-point approach to designing slides, no one can tell what tool you used.

    • Thierry says:

      Hi Rebecca, try out Moovly I think you’ll love it

  7. Thierry says:

    Great post! I loved the cartoon. Perhaps you can use Moovly the next time. It’s also an animation tool with lots of predefined animations. They are still in beta and you can register for free at

  8. Awsome idea! 😀 A very engaging cartoon although i did not enjoy the music in the first half…

  9. Cathy:
    Thanks for sharing the Powtoon app and your fun video!

    I’m always looking for quick, innovative and inexpensive learning solutions that have built-in assets and templates. I recently spent a month self-learning Adobe After Effects by plugging my own content into a template I bought. The resulting video that touts Serious Learning Games is kinda cool, but it was a brutal experience getting there!

    I’m also learning Corel Video Studio to design YouTube-like videos – it has a much shorter learning curve but not as many cool templates or effects as AE. I think I’ll also try a Powtoon template to compare! The on-line feature of Powtoon also is appealing – you can access and edit from all your pc’s! Maybe there is no one-stop shop for all video-design needs but it would be nice to get good at one of them!

  10. Great cartoon Cathy – and thanks to that I have now spent FAR too many hours playing with PowToon! 🙂

  11. Great cartoon. I am an instructional designer and I work in higher ed, and I feel that the agonizing information dump that you humorously illustrated here is right on the mark. I’m going to share that with some folks!

    This is a topic I researched/wrote a little about too – I was inspired by watching a Delta Airlines safety video:

    Finally, I just wanted to say hello. I’ve been reading this blog for a year-ish, and have used some of your posts as communication tools with fellow designers and faculty – especially about narration (which seems to be pretty popular around here)!

    • Thanks, Kristin, for your comment and for the link to the safety video. It’s tricky to design humor that couldn’t possibly offend anyone, and I think Delta managed to do it.

  12. Thanks Cathy (and commenters)! I have just immersed myself in your blog and now have heaps of tips on how to improve my scenarios, especially the feedback and not ‘information dumping’ upfront.

    In relation to this post specifically, check out the Air New Zealand Safety videos for some other great examples of how to use humour for ‘boring safety training’, in particular the first one they did; ‘The Bare Essentials of Safety’. I think they now do two new ones a year, so even if you are a frequent flyer, it is worth watching!

  13. Joanne Thorpe says:

    Love this clip about online learning – oh I feel the pain.

    Learning needs to be fun and for me, I tend to be the one every one is laughing at because I dont create online learning materials that make the learner learn……..its just pdf’s or txt docs added to an online platform, as this is all my time allows for. Yet im responsible for getting the course ‘online’ LOL.

    Love your work

You can control their minds!

Self-paced toolkit now available

Stop being an order taker, and steer clients away from an information dump.

- Practice what to say & and what NOT to say
- Downloadable templates
- Learn at your own pace