Training & Development For Dummies
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Thomas Edison once said that he had never worked a day in his life. It was all fun! Adding humor to your training is one way you can add fun to your participants’ days (and have fun yourself).

People should love their jobs so much that they get up and go to play each day. Learning should be like that, and people seem to learn more when they are having a good time. This article offers some ideas on adding humor and fun to your training session, and how to feel like everyone has come to play for the day.

Laugh and learn

When humor and playfulness are suppressed in traditional education and training, other traits are lost as well. Creativity, imagination, and inventiveness have a hard time surviving in a mirthless environment.

Use humor that matches your style. What works for your favorite stand-up comedian or even another facilitator may not work for you. Relate humor to something that participants know. It is difficult to find humor in something that must be explained.

Focus on funny stories as opposed to jokes. Stories usually fit into the flow of events and have a purpose in training because they are generally used to make a point. So even if your participants do not find the story funny, you have still made a point and not wasted participants’ time. Unless the facilitator is very skilled, jokes, on the other hand, tend to break the flow of the training. On top of that, if the joke bombs, you may have wasted participants’ valuable time.

Relate humor to the training. Forget adding extraneous humor, such as an irrelevant joke at the beginning. The best humor happens as a result of what occurs naturally in the classroom. Facilitators can have ready-to-go funny comments that work when a certain situation pops up in a classroom. Facilitators can also relate humor to content in the session or to the processes used to deliver the training. Be ready to laugh at yourself.

Follow the lead of good comedians and paint a picture for participants using concrete, real-world descriptions helps them see and hear the humor. Keep it simple. Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Whatever humor you use, be sure to practice. Be sure to practice your punch line with a pause just before it.

Start off on a funny foot

Establish the atmosphere right from the start. Every session should start off on a high note to set the stage for the rest of the session. Be positive. You want to send the message that this will be fun. Your opening comments can have some planted humor — perhaps about the topic.

Grab a red marker and write the word FUN, stating, “Above all, have fun.” This drives home the message of encouraging humor and the idea that learning should be fun.

Adding humor to the opening of a training session accomplishes the following:

  • Relieves any nervousness participants may feel

  • Establishes the environment for the rest of the session

  • Gets participants’ attention

  • Models that although the session is serious, the facilitator does not necessarily believe in being glum

I’m lost!

Use humor to defuse unexpected situations. Here are some examples you may want to try.

  • If you lose your place or pause too long, you can say, “I just wanted to wait a moment in case any of you have lost your place.” Steve Martin’s favorite for this situation, “Where was I? Oh yes! I was here!” (Take a step to the side.) Or, “I’m just going through a mental pause!”

  • When you garble a sentence, you can say, “Later on I’ll pass out a printed translation of that sentence.”

  • If you tell a joke and it bombs you could say, “Okay, I’ll just go back to my desk (Wisconsin, home office, or wherever you call “home”) now!”

  • If you are using a microphone and it goes dead, you can say, “Evidently someone has heard this presentation before.”

  • If people are talking during your presentation, you can say, “Feel free to talk among yourselves.” Or, “I see you’re starting to break up into small discussion groups ahead of me.”

  • If someone points out a misspelled word, you could say, “Mark Twain once said he never respected anyone who couldn’t spell a word more than one way!” Another response when informed you have misspelled a word is to look around the flipchart as if you are missing something and then say, “Does anyone know where the spell check is on one of these?”

  • If you need to write a word on a flipchart that you can’t spell, write 10 to12 arbitrary letters in an empty corner of the flipchart, for example, Q, B, R, J, Z, D, N, A, and say, “I’m not the best speller in the world, so if you notice that I have missed a letter someplace, just take it from this group of letters and place it wherever it belongs in the word.”

  • If you give incorrect instructions, say, “Does everyone understand? Good. Now forget it. That was just a test to see if you can follow instructions. Now I will give you the actual instructions.”

  • If a participant answers a question incorrectly, you could say, “Right answer, wrong question!” (Be careful with this one.)

  • If the lights go out, you can say, “Why do I have the feeling that when the lights come back on, I’ll be alone?” or “You thought you were in the dark before this session!”

Humor can turn an awkward situation into an enjoyable experience. The participants laugh. The laughter makes them feel good and eases the tension of a difficult situation for the facilitator.

Get participants in on the act

Don’t feel as if you need to be the one responsible for all the laughs. Get participants in the act so all enjoy themselves. Many games and energizers exist where everyone is laughing at the end. Relay races can have that effect on participants. “All Tied Up” is an energizer in which participants stand in close proximity to one another. Everyone grasps everyone else’s hand in no particular order. Next participants begin to untangle themselves.

One game that results in everyone laughing is called “Did You Shower Today?” Place one chair for each participant in a circle. Have all participants sit in the chairs. Begin giving directions for participants to change chairs. This activity helps participants get to know each other better and leaves them laughing because at times four of five people may be trying to sit on the same chair.

  • If you showered today, move 3 chairs to the left.

  • If you read a newspaper regularly, move 2 chairs to the right.

  • If you traveled abroad within the past year, move 1 chair to the right.

  • If you like chocolate, move 2 chairs to the left.

  • If you have a pet, move 3 chairs to the right.

  • If you like snow and winter weather, move 1 chair to the right.

  • If you are a gourmet cook, move 2 chairs to the left.

  • If you like to paint, move 3 chairs to the left.

  • If you play a sport, move 1 chair to the right.

  • If you are involved in a sport that does not require a ball, move 1 chair to the left.

  • If you like Mexican food, move 5 chairs to the left.

  • . . . add your own ideas.

When participants say something funny, be sure that the entire group has heard it so everyone feels a part of the humor.

Practical humor

Sometimes facilitators conduct energizers that are unrelated to the content or the process. You can do this, but with time often short, think of ways to energize the participants yet make it useful. Humor can be practical, such as when you are forming small groups or designating a leader for a small group. Here are two suggestions for designating a leader. Both get laughs.

The first is to ask for someone to volunteer from each group. Tell them that you cannot say what they are volunteering for until after they volunteer. This always gets a laugh. After you get a volunteer from each group, tell them that they can select the leader for the group. That usually brings on lots of groans.

The second method is to have each small group stand in a circle. Ask all participants to point their index fingers to the ceiling and to think of whom they can select as their group’s leader. Then tell them that on the count of three they should all point to the person for whom they are voting. Each group counts the number of “votes” each person received. The person with the most votes is the leader.

Add humor when you are forming small groups. One way to do this is to place table tents around the room that have funny activities printed on them. Participants are asked to stand next to the card that describes something that they do. Items can include these or others you identify:

  • Has eaten an entire batch of cookies

  • Has gone skinny-dipping

  • Squeezes toothpaste from the middle

Don’t be original

All of your humor does not need to be original. In fact, it may be better if someone else has tested it for you. Many books are available for finding anecdotes or stories to make your point, such as Braude’s Treasury of Wit and Humor for All Occasions (Prentice Hall, 1991). And of course, be on the lookout for cartoons (remember to obtain permission if you intend to print them in your materials) and jokes that will fit in your content.

The Sunday comic strips are often closer to real life than you may imagine. If it is a simple concept, you may be able to describe the cartoon without the image. Tear jokes, cartoons, and advertising out of magazines and start a file of content. Join a daily joke list on the Internet.

You can get ideas by reading or listening to current and classic comedians. Several of the classic comedians include Mae West, Groucho Marx, Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, and W.C. Fields, who said, “Comedy is a serious business. A serious business with only one purpose — to make people laugh.”

Referencing something that most participants will remember can add humor. For example, sometimes television ads will make a point that you can use. You may not need to say anything much more than refer to the ad, such as, “Remember the X Company ad where they were herding cats?” You can also reference lines in movies that make a point and add humor. You can state the movie, the actor’s name, and the punch line to get a laugh.

Remember who is in your audience. Don’t reference a movie that over 30 years old if most of the participants is in their late 20s and early 30s.

Phunny props and puns

Sometimes a prop can represent a concept within your training session. For example, you can use a flashlight to teach creativity skills in a variety of ways to add fun to the session. Refer to the fact that their “creativity may be in the dark” but there are ways to “ignite their spark.” Challenge them to “harness their creative energy” and state that there is a “ray of hope.” Tell them that the session will “illuminate” their natural creativity. You get the idea.

Notice the use of puns. You can’t just add props without making a point. If you use a rubber chicken to point to content on the flipchart, there is no purpose except to make people laugh. And you may be successful. Some people may laugh. But many won’t. There are many other ways you can make people laugh that relates to the training content.

Props may be used to review content material and increase energy. Many facilitators have participants get in a circle and toss a tennis ball or a koosh ball as they review material. In addition to relating to content, you can use props as prizes during the session after games or activities or as rewards when someone volunteers to be a leader or observer or to play another role that goes above and beyond expectations.

Other props that will make people smile may be related to an upcoming holiday. Sparklers for the Fourth of July or candy hearts for Valentine’s Day will make people smile without your saying anything. You can go beyond the traditional holidays by using props related to Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl, Groundhog Day, May Day, the first day of spring, and so on.

Another logical prop is anything that has a yellow smiley face on it. Smiley faces are common, so items displaying them are easy to locate. And they often do make people smile. Whatever you use, try to tie it to the topic, the area, or your audience. Use puns to stretch the meaning a bit.

Tips to make a joke bomb

How many facilitators does it take to make a joke bomb? Just one. But once is enough. Telling a joke is easy. Making people laugh is hard work. Professional comedians make it look oh so simple. But the truth is that few have ever ad-libbed a line in their life. They practice and prepare — just like great facilitators do. If you are going to tell a joke, heed the following ten things that can go wrong. If you want your participants to laugh, don’t do them!

  • Announce that you are going to tell a joke.

  • Don’t practice; rely on your natural skills and your ability to ad-lib.

  • Ensure that the joke has nothing to do with the content.

  • Insult someone, or better yet, everyone.

  • Use a sexist, ethnic, political, racist, or religious joke.

  • Extend the joke, making it drag out.

  • Garble the punch line.

  • Don’t research your audience.

  • Laugh your way through the joke.

  • If your joke bombs, be sure to try to explain the punch line.

Here’s to having only good belly laughs following all your jokes.

But I’m not funny!

Don’t take yourself too seriously. You need to be able to laugh at yourself to be seen as someone who has a sense of humor. Mess up in front of the class? Make a joke and write it off as an opportunity to add humor to the session.

Focus on the participants. When you care more about the participants and the experience you are creating for them than you care about yourself, it frees you of a huge responsibility. You do not need to be perfect. Things will go wrong in your training session. Participants will not behave the way you want them to; the room will not be set up as you wanted it to be. There’s not much you can do about anything that goes wrong, but you can have fun with it while you are fixing the problem. Find humor in the unpredictable.

Identify the humor that is natural to you. If you can’t spell worth a darn, make a joke about it. If you’re short, make a joke about it. If you’re at an advanced age, make a joke about it. If you’re no computer whiz, make a joke about it. What's funny about you?

Learners are desperate for humor, but it is virtually absent in the learning environment. Most learners are very forgiving and will appreciate any attempt at humor. Participants often walk into a training session expecting a boring experience. If you can surprise them by removing most of the boredom, you will be a star. Remember, you do not have to be really funny — just have fun.

Austere attitudes

Everyone who walks into your training session will not be interested in being humored. Some will bring attitudes that are barriers to having a good time:

  • Training is serious business — just like work.

  • Humor is a waste of time.

  • Employees who have fun at work are not productive.

  • We can’t possibly accomplish our goals with all this raucous laughter.

What can you do to try to turn these attitudes around? Well, nothing new: Build trust, encourage participation, respect others’ opinions, and ensure that participants take responsibility for their own learning. When using humor, it should flow naturally from the content. Humor should support, not replace, the learning objectives. Always have alternatives to humorous activities available if the humor isn’t right for a particular group of participant.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Elaine Biech is president and managing principal of ebb associates inc, an organizational and leadership development firm that helps organizations work through large-scale change. Her 30 years in the training and consulting field include support to private industry, government, and non-profit organizations.

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