People spend their lives looking for ways to feel good – and the feel-good factor is both subjective and found in a wide variety of places, pastimes and pursuits. For some it’s a spa weekend, for others it’s a bottle of wine, or maybe even a day’s trainspotting. But the one universal constant that makes everyone feel good is humour.
Humour is a complex neurological process that, until recently, has received little scientific study. But in 2017 researchers at the University of Southern California used a group of professional and amateur comedians as guinea pigs and scanned their brains with an fMRI scanner to see what happened in their skulls when they wrote gags.
The study showed the parts of the brain where humour originated. It was located in two sections. These were the Medial prefrontal cortex, which is an area at the front of the brain associated with learning connections between locations and events, and the temporal association regions, thought to be involved in the recognition and identification of complex stimuli.
The study indicated that there are direct links between humour and neurological architecture associated with learning.
It is also known that humour activates the brain’s powerful dopamine reward system, stimulating goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory. Dopamine is what encourages us to keep going back for more of the things our brain interprets as pleasant. Humour, it seems, is addictive, which means that it can improve cognitive retention.
On an interpersonal communication level, humour also helps us get the message across because we engage more with others when they make us laugh, which is why everyone loves Michael McIntyre.
For these reasons, it is obvious to see that humour has an important role to play in learning scenarios and should be a primary focus of L&D practitioners. Yet, more often than not, a conventional, rote learning approach is taken, often backed up by a tired PowerPoint presentation and some printed hand-outs.
There is another way, and it is much more fun for everyone involved. Simply introducing humour as part of your L&D arsenal, both as a delivery style and embedded in your content, will make learning memorable and ensure that important messages stick.
What follows is a recent Laughology case study illustrating how introducing humour into L&D programmes can boost engagement and retention.
Big Chats, Little Chats
Telecoms provider O2 wanted to create a leadership-led culture based on ‘great conversations that matter’. Laughology was called upon to design, implement and embed for the company an effective coaching programme that was flexible, engaging and different.
The big challenge was that O2, like many organisations, had delivered numerous coaching and leadership programmes over the years. So, before we even got to the delivery stage, we had to find a way to overcome the people’s training fatigue that could potentially block learning and engagement before we even started. After some consultation with various teams to help us understand how people felt about coaching and training, as well as to understand various learning gaps and themes, the information gathered was used as a base to develop fun and humorous training and content. The output was a coaching programme for the 21st century called Big Chats, Little Chats (BC, LC). The programme comprised a range of bespoke, original content including face-to-face sessions, video shorts, printed material and online webinars. This included in parts imitating and parodying – or ‘sending up’ – the traditional coaching style when recording online learning introductions and films, as well as in written learning content. By sending up some of the stereotypes and observations people came up with, the people were soon talking about the online learning short films – and they became a hit. People wanted to watch them to see what others were talking about, and learning became fun.
Humour was a fundamental element of each piece of content. Sessions were delivered by experts with backgrounds in comedy as well as behaviour change and L&D. Scripts were humorous and engaging. The tone of voice was informal. People were encouraged to laugh and have fun first and the learning came as part of that. This is Laughology’s trademark delivery, which has proven to be successful time and time again.
The engagement across the organisation was clear:
Around 750 leaders from across their retail stores are successfully using BC, LC to develop and coach around 2,000 advisors across 450 company-owned and franchise stores.
Retail achieved a positive uplift in 6 out of 7 KPI measures, including footfall, team engagement and profits.
Online content performed above expectations, showing a positive engagement in the programme:
|Introduction to BC, LC:||66 (all-time views)||751 (all-time unique views)|
|Creating the right environment:||942 (all-time views)||457 (all-time unique views)|
|Growth mindset:||889 (all-time views)||466 (all-time unique views)|
|FLIP It thinking:||814 (all-time views)||426 (all-time unique views)|
For further reading on the full case study, go to:
If you want to use humour in your learning and development programmes, here are some top tips and guidelines:
- Know your audience. Use humour appropriate to the audience and the message.
- Get the balance right. Too much humour can overpower the learning.
- Ensure your humour will be understood. Some forms of humour ‘land’ better than others do. If using observational humour, make the subject of the humour relatable to the audience.
- Rather than trying to make others laugh, be creative in bringing content to life. Design fun groupwork activities in face-to-face learning so that laughter occurs naturally.
- Use fun images in PowerPoints or online learning to visually show the opposite of what you mean – this creates juxtaposition.
- Use true funny stories to animate the content.
- Rather than asking people to play out the best-case scenario, ask them to play out the worst case and have fun with it.
Humour ingredients usually comprise of:
- An unexpected twist
- Observations about real life
As workplaces and the people in them evolve and think differently, we need to think differently about learning. Rote learning doesn’t cut it anymore, people want fast paced, entertaining content that resonates. Humour has historically been used to engage people in a variety of subject matters. When the mouth is open with laughter, we can pop a bit of knowledge in there and people don’t even know it’s happening, but it is.
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