I have a confession to make — I’m a terrible student. I don’t mean that I got bad grades in school or can’t learn what is being taught; what I mean is that I get bored easily while participating in training classes. I tend to pick things up quickly, so repetition bores me, and my mind starts to wander. As a student, this can lead me to miss important parts of the course. As an instructional designer, these experiences help me approach course development with the intent to engage my fellow “terrible” students.

Pay Attention

How do I get my learners to pay attention and stay engaged? I’ve found success through storytelling. I craft a story around the learning. When I want to kick it up a notch, I make the story funny.

We, as humans, love a good story. They reach out, grab our attention and hold us in place until the story is resolved. Why do you think binge-watching has become a regular thing in our society? We want to experience a complete story from beginning to end. And when it comes to comedy, we love it!

So, if we all like a good story, why are we not already using storytelling elements in training? Often, more emphasis is placed on getting all the information from subject matter experts (SMEs) to our learners. And while that is an important part of learning, it can result in a learning experience that is nothing more than a firehose of information. We overload our learners with a ton of information and expect them to retain and apply it successfully on the job.

Our job as instructional designers is to frame the information in a manner that is easily digested and retained. That is where telling a good story comes in.

Making it Memorable

Think back to the last learning event you attended. Can you remember word-for-word what the trainer or voice-over in eLearning said at any point? Seems unreasonable, right? Who can remember exactly what another person says?

Now, what if I said, “I am the one who knocks?” Many people will have a mental flashback to that particular scene in the television show “Breaking Bad” and remember Walter White uttering this famous line. And that is not the only one. How many people remember Joey’s classic pick-up line from “Friends” — “How you doin’?” These quotes were crafted to be remembered. They are rooted in a story; when you hear them, they invoke hours of storytelling, and all the information instantly rushes back to your mind. And while things like making methamphetamine or using pick-up lines are not usually included in training materials, the stories surrounding those famous lines are what make them memorable.

In my projects, I have found that using humor is the best way to tell a story. We don’t have hours and hours to build a dramatic story that will culminate into a scene like Walter White’s discussion with his wife in “Breaking Bad.” But, if we lean into the humorous side of life or even the tasks we are training for, we can make memorable moments for our learners. Humor is the trojan horse of training — it gets us in the learner’s mind and grabs their attention so our content can sneak in while they aren’t looking.

But how can we use humor in something that is not inherently funny?

I’ve used many methods to incorporate humor into training, but there is one that I use most often to bring the humor and tell a relevant story at the same time — character development. Characters give your learners something to project themselves onto and someone to relate to, creating a link in their minds to the training.

These characters should be based on exaggerations of the actual people in your learning audience. Don’t be afraid to lean into the ridiculousness of the character. You can’t just add a stock character and have them read the default voice-over lines. That’s not telling a story. Stories have a beginning, a middle and a resolution. Create a situation that puts the character in peril, introduce the tools to get out of it, and then have them work on solving the problem.

Don’t forget to give your characters a voice and a personality. Are they super excited about the training? Or are they just getting started, have no idea how to do their job, and are constantly messing up, and whoops, there’s a fire now? How did that happen? When creating characters, make them as extreme as your stakeholders will let you. Craft the most outrageous and ridiculous character you can think of and write a quick backstory for them — one or two sentences is enough to start.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Trina is a newly hired employee who is nervous about starting her new job because she can be a bit accident-prone.
  • Tim is an existing employee who has been around for a while but is overly confident— which gets him into trouble.
  • Antonio is a long-term employee who has been in their role for years, speaks with a southern accent, and gives advice no one understands. [Disclaimer: The author is a native of North Carolina and totally resembles this comment.]

The whole point is to make your characters memorable. The humor will come in as you integrate these characters into your learning. How would they react to the information that is being presented based on the character persona you have created? Would they love it, hate it, make fun of it, etc.?

Introduction Time

Once you have your characters and have thought through how they would react to your new instructional information, present them to your stakeholders. This is the final hurdle for creating humorous characters in training. They will help you put the finishing touches on your characters. How extreme can they be? Does Trina set fires everywhere she goes? Is Tim hated by everyone he talks to? Does everyone love Antonio, but no one can understand what he says? This gives your stakeholders a chance to become more invested in the training and can lead to more adoption when it comes to implementation.

Storytelling and humor have been used for as long as humans have been communicating to ensure that content is remembered. From medieval bards to TV shows, we have always been more likely to remember something if it comes with a good story. So, from this terrible student to all the other terrible students (and even the not-so-terrible students), I advise you to use storytelling and humor as much as possible when designing your courses. Not only will this help your learners remember your content, but it will also keep you from going crazy the next time you have to make yet another compliance course about email phishing.