Funny business

Do you find yourself going to too many meetings? Or to meetings that don’t really achieve anything? I know I do.

Like many large organisations around the world, my employer is not immune to that most insidious of diseases: the ineffective meeting.

However, unlike other organisations that prefer to sweep the problem under the carpet, I’m proud to say that ours has chosen to tackle it head on. The term “proud” might seem somewhat of an over statement, but allow me to put it into context…

You see, in Australian terms at least, the company I work for is old. And with age comes a reputation for being risk averse, compliant, not really innovative, but big and safe. Perhaps we are some or all of those things, but in any case I think it sells us short.

I’ve been employed by the company for a while now, and I can personally vouch for the progressive changes that have occurred over that time. I think no better example of our evolution is a little video clip that we produced to combat the aforementioned spectre of the ineffective meeting.

In the clip, a woman in a supermarket asks the store attendant for directions to the bread aisle. The attendant dutifully escorts the customer to the bread and asks her what type she wants. What follows is an excruciating sequence as she defers to her colleagues for their opinions, everyone suggests conflicting ideas and alternative solutions, someone turns up late, no one is willing to make a decision, and eventually everyone departs, leaving the attendant holding a perfectly acceptable loaf of bread that no one wants.

Customer: Greg’s the key decision maker here.
Attendant: Greg…?
Customer: Greg’s not here.

It’s cheeky; it’s self-deprecating; and above all, it’s funny.

And it set the organisation alight. Our enterprise social network was deluged with positive comments, ranging from wishes of congratulations to urges to post it onto YouTube. Never before have I witnessed such a reaction to piece of training content.

Will it change the meeting culture of the organisation? Only time will tell. But given raising awareness of the problem is an objective, it’s off to a flying start.

Bread stacked on shelves in a supermarket

All this got me thinking about the under-exploited role of comedy in education. Perfect timing – because just as I was contemplating this theme, my friend CJ Delling flew back into town.

CJ is a German-born comedian, cartoonist and “maker of stuff for the easily amused”. She has performed at the likes of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Inevitably, the first observation anyone makes upon meeting CJ is the oxymoron of the German comedian. But that, of course, is a myth. I have met a surprising number of Germans over my lifetime and I have found the vast majority of them to be well humoured. CJ goes one step further by being hilarious.

But this post isn’t about the sociability of our continental cousins; it’s about e-learning – so I cornered CJ on the pretence of catching up for coffee and asked her the following questions:

  • Should comedy be used in education?
  • What style of comedy is most effective for education?
  • What is your favourite example of comedy used in education?

I agreed with CJ’s view that comedy should indeed be used in education. As she explained, it can improve the learner’s attention, interest and memory retention, while simultaneously reducing their stress and interpersonal barriers they may be experiencing.

I also subscribed to CJ’s advocacy of observational comedy in education. While we view the scene from a safe distance, we still see ourselves in it and hence its relevance to our own worlds. It works because it’s true.

With this in mind, I can see why CJ’s favourite Air New Zealand safety videos work so well. Moreover, I recognise how some of my own favourites might be re-deployed to develop mindsets and capabilities in the workplace; for example…

     • Leadership

     • Teleconferencing

     • Writing skills

     • Influencing without authority

While the comedic device may be…

     • Facetious

     • Dry

     • Black

Yet as CJ also noted: it’s important not to over step the mark. For me, Dilbert springs to mind. While the comedy might be champagne and the message cringeworthingly accurate, the cutting style of Scott Adams might dig a little too deep.

According to the anonymous online employee survey, you don't trust management. What's up with that? Oh. Right.

Does it matter? Yes! You can’t forget your objective, which is essentially to change behaviour. So you can ill afford to alienate your target audience.

That’s why I consider our supermarket clip such a powerful force. It’s obviously a comedy and a fictional scenario, which lets our guard down and provides a psychological degree of separation. Yet it remains unequivocally familiar, and so drives its message home.

Because we ridicule it, we feel the imperative to change.

Lest we ridicule ourselves.

15 thoughts on “Funny business

  1. What a great post Ryan. I laughed so hard at the Rockwell Encabulator and the Teleconferencing video (which I shared on Yammer but of course, we can’t access You Tube at work which is hilarious too). I love humour in our learning. I also believe that if you put your video online, it’s going to go viral. Certainly I’d share it at my work. It was brilliant when I saw it at the conference…well done for integrating humour into key messages. We’d remember that clip over any structured training program – and it would make us reflect on our practices.

  2. Thanks Helen! Yes, the Rockwell Encabulator is so dry that many people don’t get it; but if you’ve been in corporate technology for a while, it never fails. And Dave Grady’s teleconferencing spiel is pure gold. Sparky? Ruff!

    “We’d remember that clip over any structured training program” – so true. I’m amazed we don’t see more of it.

  3. Great post Ryan – I would also love to see the bread video. Please tell me that your organisation is going to have a meeting to decide if you release it to youtube ;)

  4. omg the Rockwell encabulator is pure genius – I have to use it next year in my class for PhD students on how to do a short presentation of their research to a mixed audience… Thanks Ryan, it’s gold!

  5. Cheers Emily. That’s a clever deployment.

    Lol at your plea, Joseph! Unfortunately it hasn’t even gotten that far, as making it public simply isn’t an option. But I’ll revisit it at a later date and if anything changes, you’ll be the first to know.

  6. Excellent post Ryan, Rockwell Encabulator is fantastic and like Helen I have shared the Dave Grady conference call on our yammer as well.

  7. Great post Ryan! Another vote for releasing the supermarket video :)
    I feel most of the times humour is unfortunately out of the equation given that in many interventions learners are not even considered as people but as the usual empty vessels…

  8. Thanks Ryan. I like that the supermarket video has provided a simple, cost effective and convenient way to raise a business issue. Imagine the cost, the frustration and the lost productivity had the business chosen to roll out a ‘managing meetings’ training course!

    Apart from being respectful of people’s time and needs, I’m sure the video is making it safe (and fun) for teams to call each other on their meeting behaviour and in turn, improve the effectiveness of their meetings. Imagine the impact of that across the organisation!

  9. Thanks Paul :0)

    So true, Mariano. Just because the subject matter is serious (and of course, it is), that doesn’t mean the learning experience must be boring. People are humans, not robots!

    Indeed, Andrew. Let’s move further away from courses. Sometimes a course is the way to go, but more often than not it isn’t.

  10. Hey Ryan! Finally laying down a comment on your blog! Good post on humour in learning. I think there are many reasons why it’s not used more often than it is…as mentioned in a tweet – it requires bravery in the risk averse corporate environment – both to pitch an idea and sign off on it. But it’s also incredibly hard to do humour well. So much rests on quality of the writing – and timing. The other thing about humour which can make it difficult – even when you have the writing and timing right – is that it can be so culturally specific. (Which is why it works when it does – because you can clearly relate to the experience depicted).

    And I think this is primarily where it gets tricky, especially when you have a diverse audience (ethnicity, age, experience…). Like everyone who saw it, I loved the bread meeting vid – but that’s cos I ‘got’ it. I was also impressed by the wit of the writing and pace. But that said, it’s very white, educated, middle class humour (…e.g. not sure my mum would ‘get’ it as easily as I did…although she’s been in Aus for a long time, I do find she doesn’t always ‘get’ western jokes…). This clearly isn’t a problem for your audience (and would probably well hit the mark for most corporate orgs) but could possibly have more mixed success with a different audience. But I acknowledge it’s hard to generalise across a whole population – there can still be a lot of individual difference, and particularly when it comes to humour (what I find funny, you may not…).

    But that’s also why I like that you’ve included a variety of examples (although interestingly many feature white males… – not having a dig but just a spontaneous observation: not sure if that means anything! But could be an illustration of my point: you like these b/c you identify with them…).

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Tanya. You raise some very important points.

    zOMG… I didn’t realise the white male thing. You’re right! Although I will point out that the 30 Rock one is all Tina Fey. I think that just about any 30 Rock footage could be authentically applied to the corporate sector… I love that show :0)

  12. Wonderful post Ryan and so timely! I would love to see the bread video. We’ve been experimenting with creating humourous videos in our department recently had the same response as you. Funnily enough one of videos was prematurely leaked by one of my team and ended up going viral across the organisation before we had approval. Luckily we got the approval and the video exceeded our expectations, i’ll email it to you.

    On another note, not sure if you have seen Cathy’s blog on humour in eLearning before

    thanks for the laugh :-)

  13. Thanks Connor :0)

    I have indeed read Cathy’s post. I like what she had to say about the research on humour, and I’ve also dabbled with Powtoon (which I found quite good).

    Hilarious how your video went viral. If you had wanted it to, it might not have. In any case, well done!

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