Laugh, and your learners laugh with you. Maybe.

Is it ever safe to use humor in training materials? Read more.

Laugh, and your learners laugh with you. Maybe.

By Cathy Moore

Fake front page of a tabloid

Are you brave? Try some humor and bond with your learners. Here are a few tips that might help.

Know your learners

Learners will feel connected with you if they think you understand them. The kind of humor you use will show whether you have that understanding.

For example, the fake tabloid above has “in” jokes that, if they work, will help readers feel like I know their world and am one of them. If the jokes bomb…luckily for me, it’s just a blog.

I wouldn’t use something as extreme as the tabloid in a course without testing it on some learners first. In fact, I’d want to have a contest and ask learners to submit headlines.

Convince others to join you

Your biggest challenge might be convincing everyone else on the project that it’s safe to use humor.

Here’s what (sometimes) works for me:

  • Instead of saying, “Let’s use humor,” pitch a specific idea (“What if we used a Twilight Zone theme and…”). This shows the team what you mean by “humor” and gives them something to reject.
  • Cheerfully abandon the rejected idea and offer up more possibilities. This will get others’ creative juices flowing, and soon you’ll have several ideas.
  • When an idea gets a tentative OK, write or sketch a short example of how it could be used in the course and get everyone’s feedback.
  • Write or prototype a larger section of the materials using the idea and show it to some learners. Adjust as necessary.

Some benefits you can point out to the fearful:

  • Learners like funny materials and are more likely to stick with them. (The funniest course I worked on was also one of the most successful.)
  • Others working on the project, such as illustrators, will be more inspired by funny content, which could increase the quality of the course.
  • Funny courses are viral–learners tell their coworkers about them, possibly increasing participation.
  • A web search will pull up studies supporting the idea that humor engages learners and helps them learn.

There will always be a few learners who don’t like something about a course. Maybe some learners will think the humor is unnecessary. But others won’t like the organization, or the spelling, or the colors… If adding humor makes the course more effective for most learners, don’t worry too much about the occasional dissenter. Just make sure all the stakeholders like the course before you publish it.

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8 comments on “Laugh, and your learners laugh with you. Maybe.

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  1. Great post. I was talking to a friend recently about how a lot of companies are scared of humor. He told me about a training course he had just gone through that was pretty funny. As he was telling me about the funny parts he was able to relate to some of the key points of the course. I think it was a good example of how humor helps connect people to the course.

    I always go back to the Sir Ken Robinson video on TED. It’s captivating and all it you see is a talking head for 20 minutes. However, the content is interesting and his humor is what keeps you watching.

  2. I have always used humour to good effect in the classroom, but humour in online learning is a hard sell. We recently put forward a proposal to a client to use cartoons in an online learning solution we were designing. They rejected it out of hand, because they wanted the concept taken seriously. The odd thing was, we weren’t even planning to make the cartoons funny – just explanatory! In another solution, one of my colleagues used a comic strip approach to cover information security, to brilliant effect. It is by far my favourite of all the materials we have ever produced.

    I like the idea of suggesting a specific humorous approach, rather than just saying “let’s be funny”. I think it’s important to find a way to give the learner a mental hook to hang the new information on, and images and humour have a way of providing that.

    Love the tabloid, by the way!

  3. Thanks for the comments. I’ve also heard the argument that humor is bad because “we need the learners to take the topic seriously.” My (usually ineffectual) response is that a “serious” approach to a topic can often be a boring and ignored approach–learners click through the course just to get it done. If humor will make the course more effective, then humor helps an important topic get the attention it needs.

    I think an additional challenge we have is the lack of a singular human “voice” in most elearning. Sir Ken Robinson has personality, but the typical authorial voice in elearning has none.

  4. The Australian stereotype is irreverent. Many elearning products play up to this in cartoons, stories or instructions which poke gentle fun at “the way we do things now” or the demands of power interests (for example), although few as marvellous as this mock tabloid cover. However, my feeling is that there is increasing multicultural diversity (a good thing in itself) and an increasingly competitive and class-building nature of business and social endeavour (not so good), that people are generally becoming more earnest in their own learning pursuits and in how they expect others to learn. The patronising “we know and we’re going to tell you how” ethic of teaching and learning also persists and flattens creative possibilities. So I think we need more humour in learning materials to help encourage brave critical thinking and dialogue. But I think the risk of putting people offside is higher now too, so the learning provider needs courage too.

  5. Hmmm….I can’t wait for the next issue…More stories from the Dark Side of frustrated eLearning Developer…What about when courses include the obvious viewer/user information like stating “You need Flash, electricity (or a really fast pedal), and a computer to view what you are viewing right now”. cool thaaaanks. Okay, if I have the Flash, electricity, and the computer (which is obvious if I am reading “this”, then why are you telling me this?) We were recently “required” to include this kind of useless information into our training project. ARRGGHH…

  6. I used to have a teacher in my masters in Communication who used to teach Writing for various Media Writing and Film Studies. He used to bring lots of action and emotions on to his face, move his body alot and other things while teaching. We never felt bored in his classes. Sometimes, we felt that we forgot what he taught us. May be this a extreme case. But I am sure if any ID who can balance the action and content on the screen can be a big hit!

    One of the inspiration our E-Learning can is from Ads. The basic funda of the ads is to show the status of the user before and after the product. In this process, humor is used most of the these ads.