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Considered Quips: A Defence of Suitable Humour in Elearning Programmes

As elearning designers, we pride ourselves on editing, restructuring and repurposing dry material into appealing content. There are numerous tools that we can use to achieve this aim, such as ensuring textual brevity throughout, but there is one tool that causes much uproar: humour.

Of course, not all content readily lends itself to a humorous approach. There is good reason to be cautious when using humour in more serious contexts, as too much of it can detract from or trivialise the programme’s subject matter. You must also consider cultural sensitivities when trying to be funny and if there’s anything that may be considered offensive, it should be avoided.

But even though humour is highly nuanced, I offer that to avoid its use entirely would be remiss of a discipline whose primary objective is to create engaging content for potentially disengaged audiences. Designers exercise self-judgment effectively in terms of applying a mixed media approach to content – one endorsed by Clark and Mayer’s relevant research – and I’ve seen little evidence to suggest that we can’t apply it when considering the use of humour either.

The conventional wisdom suggesting humour is inappropriate in corporate communications is also discourteous to the scientific evidence suggesting that humour is good for the brain. When we laugh, our brains release dopamine, serotonin and various endorphins. These neurotransmitters send good vibes throughout the body and help increase motivation, retention and participation – three critical factors in achieving positive learner outcomes.

Imagine this scenario. You’re a manager, and you need your team to undertake some essential due diligence. It might be fair to suggest that your colleagues won’t perform somersaults of joy when considering this prospect. Some of them have become entrenched in beliefs and day-to-day working practices over many years so are therefore likely to be sceptical of change.

What should the opening screen of the elearning look like?

“Welcome to this e-learning course on due diligence. It is important that you know X so that you can do Y, because if you don’t Z will happen. Do you hear me? Z!”

I concede that I’m exaggerating somewhat – for comedic effect, of course – but that kind of tone is worryingly prevalent across different elearning programmes. If the learners are being addressed in this way, are they primed for a productive training experience? Or are they crying out for a saviour from the imperious omniscient voice of the programme? Perhaps so. Maybe a different approach is required.

For example, consider the following scenario.

You’re a member of the Due Diligence team in a large multinational organisation. You’re conducting standard background checks on Patrick Nutt, a contractor your organisation is working with.

You’re told that he has a reputation for questionable online conduct and a love of squirrels. Your line manager asks you to identify seven ‘red flags’ on his profile that will require additional consideration and extra caution.

After a thorough review of his profile, you identify the following red flags:

  • Representations or boasting about influence or connections
  • Refusal to provide a certification of compliance with applicable anti-bribery and corruption obligations
  • Unusual payment patterns or requests
  • Accusations of improper business practices (credible rumours or media reports, etc.)
  • Unusual requests for payments, such as “up front” payments or money to “win the business,” “make the necessary arrangements,” or similar expressions
  • Unusually high commissions, agents’ fees, or payments for goods or services
  • Family or business relationship with a government entity or an entity that can influence the government

While Mr Nutt’s intense affinity for squirrels might strike people as curious, it has no relevance to his credentials as a contractor.

Would it not be beneficial to at least consider the notion of injecting a context-appropriate-yet-humorous scenario such as this into the training? To make these potentially disengaged learners feel more at ease? Perhaps it would.

Because for a disengaged learner, completing a dry due diligence training course is the e-equivalent of enduring an attritional war. All they can see is an avalanche of joyless statistics and legalese when, in actuality, what might be more engaging is a humorous story showing a situation that actually happened or could conceivably happen at work.

I don’t necessarily envisage that everyone who completes a due diligence course should do so with an inane grin emblazoned across their face (though that is my dream as an elearning designer), but they should at least be motivated throughout the learning.

How can LEO Learning help? First, we can help you conduct background research on your learners to ensure the tone of the humour is appropriate and that cultural sensitivities are considered. We can also assess where humorous elements can be incorporated to illuminate rather than overshadow the learning point. And, with the steadying hands of your subject matter experts, we can ensure that the humour doesn’t derail your learners from achieving your organisation’s objectives.

So, don’t rule out humour just yet. Because if it’s applied correctly, your learners could be more likely to retain the information to which it pertains and apply it appropriately in their day-to-day role.

And then your organisation may be having the last laugh.

Based on original scripts by Frank McCabe and Raoul Dewhurst.

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