Bring on the Entertainment

July 1, 1995
All around the globe, trainers are tossing out the traditional tools of their trade—lectures, flip charts, overheads—and replacing them with games, quizzes, magic, props, costumes, theatre, videos and comedy. If trainers from the old school wandered into a session today, they might think they'd stumbled into a comedy club or a game-show audience.

Some use the power of song to relay their message. Dorothy Leeds, a New York-based trainer and former actress, opens her sessions by belting out, "Let Me Entertain You." Matt Weinstein, a Berkeley, California-based trainer, closes his sessions by leading the room in the James Brown song, "I Feel Good," as participants sing and dance and toss dollar bills into the air. Gary Muszynski, a St. Louis-based trainer, distributes instruments and turns his audience into an ensemble orchestra.

But training's entertainment value isn't restricted to music. Andrea Nierenberg, a New York-based trainer, weaves a card trick into her presentations. Mary Fisher, an Overland Park, Kansas-based trainer and former stand-up comic, has audiences rolling with laughter at her humorous anecdotes. John Harper, a Battle Creek, Michigan-based trainer, explains sexual harassment through a play where audience and actors interact.

At AT&T in Lee's Summit, Missouri, sales reps practice their pitches and hone their listening skills while affecting different accents or pretending they are famous people. At New York City-based Conde Nast Publications, sales people watch films and TV clips that illustrate the speaker's points.

Many companies have even created learning games based upon TV game shows, such as "Family Feud" or "Jeopardy!" Trainers substitute questions with workplace or product information to help employees recall facts.

Whatever approach, the bottom line is that today's training is entertaining and audience friendly—for good reason. "People have a variety of learning styles. Using entertainment increases the chances of appealing to the various types," explains Francoise Morissette, an industrial psychologist with Geller, Shedletsky, Weiss, a Toronto-based HR consulting firm.

Morissette uses stories, props, music, theatre, visuals, and video in presentations to blue-chip companies and to the public sector. She believes the traditional learning process is too linear, too left brained, so she tries to involve as many perceptual processes as possible. "For learning to take place, emotions must be involved," she says.

Participation is a major advantage that successful entertrainment holds over formal, by-the-book training. For instance, many entertrainers keep attention levels high by using energizers—brief, playful activities that move people around. They may have content value, or they may create readiness for learning. John E. Jones, president of San Diego-based Organizational Management Systems and co-author of the book Energizers for Training and Conferences, created an energizer that recalls musical chairs; people scramble for seats according to characteristics that someone calls out: left-handed, brown-eyed, Democrat. This only takes a few minutes, but it gets people out of their seats and recharges their energy.

"People learn more when they are involved in doing things, rather than just listening," explains Mel Silberman, author of a new book, 101 Ways to Make Training Active, and president of Princeton, New Jersey-based Active Training. "Learning does not happen from talking."

Today's focus is on fun—but don't let just any joker train your work force.
"Lecture and learn does not work anymore," says Stephen Sugar, a training specialist with the Health & Human Services Department in Washington, D.C., and a game designer for Kensington, Maryland-based The Kensington Group. "People want to experience it, touch it, taste it. But games must be used thoughtfully. You must keep focusing on the results you want from your class."

Entertrainers agree that fun and games should not be used for mere laughs—they are to be employed as tools for instruction, as a means to an end. "There must be a point to the game. You must have clear learning objectives," emphasizes Frances Deverell, manager of workplace training for Langara College in Vancouver. "Many structured activities don't have a clear focus; it's up to the trainer to focus them. Unless the trainer does an excellent job, people don't make the connection."

Entertrainment is a serious business—it can't just be plugged into a training program as a cure-all. "Entertaining incompetence is one of my pet peeves," says Dave Ferguson, project manager, client training for Rockville, Maryland-based GE Information Services. "I think a lot of people in the training business are looking for magic bullets."

Indeed, ask almost any trainer and they'll agree that for entertainment or interactive exercises to have educational value, there must be a good match between the metaphors of the game and the real-life issues. In addition, the activity must be set up, run and processed properly. Otherwise, there's little or no learning payoff.

Any trainer will tell you that for entertainment to have value, there must be a good match between the metaphors of the game and real-life issues

"I do not believe in games for games' sake," states Annie Viets, organization development manager for Waterbury, Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, which does companywide training with managers and production workers. "Unless there is a tie back to the real world, the employees cannot make the connection."

Greta Kotler, director of core marketing for Alexandria, Virginia-based American Society for Training and Development, agrees: "If you can link entertainment back to a learning objective, a behavioral change, then it can be very effective. But entertainment must be looked at within the context of the whole instructional process."

Sugar explains the importance of properly using an entertaining approach. For instance, in game playing, the "ah-hah" of a game, the joy of discovery, only comes after the game—or maybe even after leaving class. But if not processed properly, that "ah-hah" never occurs. He also notes it's harder for a neophyte to grasp the metaphors of a game, yet with downsizing, inexperienced people are continually being thrown into training.

"Most of this is not done very well," says James Pepitone, author of a new book, Future Training, and principal at Pepitone Berkshire Piaget, a Dallas-based consulting firm. "Sometimes the trainer does not have the sophistication to get the essence out of a game. Some trainers use games because they see it as an easy day, but it should be a hard day of work."

And if trainers don't emphasize the gravity of their message in addition to the fun, employees won't take the training seriously either. "If you don't debrief the [participants] properly and make connections to the world of work, people walk away saying, 'great day away from the office, we played games.' You don't want that," says Loriann Hoffman-Ho, manager of executive and organizational development for New York City-based Metropolitan Transit Authority.

"It's the harvesting, the gleaning of the learning, that makes all the difference in the world," says Silberman. "There are inexpensive games that can be powerful, if harvested by a talented trainer. There are elaborate and expensive games, but if not harvested well, all you have is entertainment."

Silberman says that harvesting or debriefing is an art that must be interactive. A good facilitator leads people to insights by discussing, reflecting, questioning what they experienced. Rather than telling them the learning points of the exercise, an effective facilitator guides people into realizations about what occurred. Silberman believes stimulating activities can succeed with any subject matter, any segment of the work force, and even in a single, hour-long session.

"People retain things when they experience them in an unforgettable way," he explains. "Games, exercises, simulations help [provoke this reaction]." Silberman says a learning tournament, with rounds and competing teams, is a fun way to help people remember dry information.

Sugar also tries to promote healthy competition. He uses a game where he gives each group an object that looks like a cigarette filter. Each group must invent as many uses for it as possible. When reporting back, the groups divide their answers into three crazy and three conservative uses. He even gives little prizes for the most creative ideas. The purpose of this game is to open minds, get people brainstorming, and get people to start sharing ideas.

Bill Tuggle, president of Chicago-based Tuggle Consulting Group, also uses a teaming game in his training. He runs a workshop for AT&T in which participants build a bridge from parts he supplies. The exercise is part of an intervention that looks at aspects of partnering. Participants are broken into four groups, but there's only enough parts for one bridge. They have a time limit and must decide which group gets to build it.

Puzzles are also popular partnering devices. Usually done with groups or duos, they facilitate communication or build teams. Maybe team players must put puzzles together without verbal communication. Or perhaps one person is blindfolded and following instructions from a fellow employee. Or maybe one group has the pieces that belong to another group.

Survival activities such as Outward-bound also remain popular as team-building activities. Pepitone says such experiences can be effective for personal growth and breaking down barriers—but participation must be voluntary. Companies that pressure employees to sign-up can cause psychological damage if employees are not set up and debriefed properly.

Some companies choose survival-simulation games instead. Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Aviant has developed many adventure games, which take about an hour to run, including the debrief. One such game is Alaskan Adventure: Participants read a scenario that leaves them stranded in the wilderness with 10 items salvaged from the wreck. Players must rank these items and decide how to survive. They do the exercises alone and in groups; then they compare individual solutions to group solutions. Almost always, the group fares better than the individual.

Humor in training helps employees learn while laughing.
Using humor and games is a particularly effective method of training right now—today's workers are busy, stressed out, and need to be relaxed. "It's an angry work force out there," says George Takacs, a Maryland-based trainer who works with government employees, and a partner at Takacs Techniques. "People are under a lot of pressure."

A fun approach diminishes some of the distractions that many workers feel when they trade eight hours of office work for training. "Today it's more difficult to take a day off and stay focused and not think about what's going on back at the office," says Bob Sapolsky, director of employee programs for Conde Nast Publications. "When done well, entertainment gets people to relax and listen better."

Diane Walter, director of education for Naperville-based Illinois Credit Union League, agrees. "We're being asked to do more with fewer people. That magnifies everyday stresses," she says. "If people can laugh, they're better able to deal with stress, and they tend to remember more when the training is enjoyable." Besides bringing in humorous speakers to address their managers, this statewide company incorporates social activities—boat rides, dinner theatre, golf and dances—into weekend seminars.

Humor also helps to diffuse anxiety about learning new things and facing new issues. "Humor works to introduce sensitive material, such as diversity or gender differences," says Mary Fisher, a motivational speaker with Overland Park, Kansas-based Five Star Speakers, Trainers and Consultants. "Humor breaks down defensiveness, including defensiveness about learning new material. But for humor to be effective in training, it must reinforce the learning. You can't just be flip."

Like other trainers who rely heavily on humor, Fisher emphasizes that she tells real-life experiences or humorous anecdotes—not jokes, because many jokes perpetuate negative stereotypes. She collects anecdotes, has an elaborate filing system, and then choreographs her material for the audience. Fisher has incorporated skills she developed doing comedy, such as pacing, into her routines; she has it down to two or three minutes of serious material, then one minute of humor.

Fisher says humor creates visuals—"mini videos in your head"—that help people retain information. Humor can illustrate, reinforce or summarize a point. It can liven up dull or worn-out material, it helps people deal with potentially embarrassing situations, and it enables people to deal with loss due to workplace changes. "Humor works because it's interactive. It's a dialogue, not a monologue. I do something and the audience has to groan, moan, do something."

Unlike Fisher, Takacs uses jokes, but he says you have to be careful. He once told a joke about himself and his wife, assuming that was safe territory. Later, an audience member told him he'd offended the gays and lesbians in the crowd by referring to marriage.

Takacs uses stories as ice breakers to relax his audience. "People remember the story," says Takacs, "and the humor hooks the person." When training blue-collar workers, he tells a funny Mark Twain story about spelling to make the audience feel comfortable about coming up to write on the flip charts.

"A funny story should be a metaphor for the learning experience. It's like comic relief in a serious Shakespearean play," says Ferguson. "That scene is laying the groundwork, setting up something else." Ferguson follows Shakespeare's lead by weaving some of the Bard's words into his training.

Humor has truly come into its own. Many previous skeptics are touting its value. "I used to think that what I did was education—and what my dad did was comedy," says Steve Allen Jr., a family physician and associate dean of students at SUNY, Health Science Center, Syracuse College of Medicine, Binghamton Clinical Campus. "But I realized the more I include comedy, the more effective I am as an educator." Allen, who speaks with his famous comedian father on the healing power of laughter, says that recent research concludes that when a speaker is funny, audiences retain more information.

Other trainers back him up. "When used properly, the effect of humor can maximize the learning and take-home skills," notes Joel Goodman, director of The Humor Project, Inc. in Saratoga Springs, New York, and the author of a new book, Laffirmations, 1,001 Ways to Add Humor to Your Life and Work. Started in 1977, The Humor Project is the first organization to focus full time on the positive power of humor; it's also a clearing house of information on the subject.

Goodman has designed many presentations keyed into specific topics: humor and stress management, humor and team building, humor and communication. He recently conducted a seminar for doctors and nurses to help improve their communication—hardly a laughing matter.

"Playful activities provide people a shared history and better sense of how to relate to each other," says Matt Weinstein, "emperor" of Playfair, Inc., a consulting firm in Berkeley, California. He and Goodman co-authored the book Playfair: Everybody's Guide to Noncompetitive Play. "Playful activity is the key to making any meeting not boring," Weinstein states. Weinstein changes the pace as he reads his audience; he may insert short play breaks every 10 minutes.

Yet as training becomes more and more entertaining, people should be cautioned against gimmicks with no relevance—or flashy speakers who pump audiences up, but don't go anywhere or don't make connections. To have learning value, a dynamic presentation must always keep things in perspective.

"I never overpower the program on the entertaining side," says Dorothy Leeds, who drops in songs to make a point and creates characters with costumes and props. "I don't lose sight of the message." The author of three books—Smart Questions, Power Speak, and Marketing Yourself—Leeds had been giving seminars for years. Recently, she decided audiences needed more, so she integrated her singing and acting background into her speeches and created the New York-based Theatre for Learning—content-based training with a theatrical flair.

Andrea Nierenberg of New York-based The Nierenberg Group also recognizes the shift to audience-friendly training. A specialist in communication and presentation skills and sales training, she does everything she can to keep the attention level high. "I move people around or change the pace in long presentations every 20 minutes," says the former Dale Carnegie instructor.

Trainers use whatever works to grab their audience: video, CD-ROM, drama or music.
Many speakers have been influenced by the pacing of television; and TV and videos remain extremely popular training tools. Some speakers adapt videos for training purposes. "Videos are very good," says Dorene Sterne, a Lee's Summit, Missouri-based training instructor for AT&T. But she emphasizes that you can't just plop employees in front of the tube and expect results. "You have to debrief them too. They have to know why they're looking at it and what they've gained from it."

Sterne uses AT&T's current television commercials to reinforce the company's strategy. Her introduction to the videos provides an opportunity to give telemarketers more information about what they're selling.

Similarly, a trainer brought in by Conde Nast Publications showed the opening scene from "On the Waterfront" to reinforce a point about accepting responsibility; he also used clips of popular television interviewers to illustrate specific communication skills.

"We're always on the lookout for movies and cartoons that illustrate our points," says Larry Dodge, a trainer with Kansas City, Missouri-based Utilicorp United. Dodge uses the scene from "Dead Poets Society," in which Robin Williams stands on his desk, to make a point about questioning paradigms.

The Fortune Group International, an Atlanta-based management consulting firm, has been producing video-based training for more than 20 years. CEO Steven Brown cites many advantages of using training videos. For one thing, managers don't have to prepare the content of the workshop. Also, the managers know their people and can guide the discussion to their needs, pausing for discussion and replaying parts for reinforcement. "Another thing that's marvelous about video is that people will disagree with it," observes Brown. "They will not disagree with a live presenter. Video promotes dialogue and honest discussion of the material."

While video was the big innovation of the '70s and '80s, people are now looking into interactive CD-ROM delivered training. CDs can be used individually before or after a group session as a method of previewing or reviewing material. "Digital learning will become more popular in the future," says Velma Lashbrook, vice-president, global research and development for Wilson Learning Corp. in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. "This includes online training." Wilson manufactures a series of CD-ROMs on four main skills: management, sales, interpersonal and career.

"It's like being in a movie," notes Steve Bainbridge, director of marketing of interactive media for Wilson Learning Corp. On the sales CD, the users interact with the computer in various situations. Depending on how users respond, they are either encouraged or shut down. When users make an incorrect selection, they get on-screen feedback. There's even a scenario in which users accompany a sales android into outer space.

"We try to inject humor into our CD-ROMs," says Adrian LaSala, a marketing technologist and trainer with Info Source, a training software developer in Winter Park, Florida. "But the danger there is that we don't know who our audience will be. If someone does not like the humor, we could lose the customer."

Some trainers are using approaches that borrow directly from theatre. John Harper, president of Battle Creek, Michigan-based Managing Decisions, got tired of negative reactions when he spoke about the issue of sexual harassment, so he created Reality Theatre. Harper wrote a four-act play with each act based upon four real-life situations he encountered as a personnel manager. During each act, a quarter of the audience leaves the room and comes back as a multi-headed supervisor who interviews the actors to find out what happened and decide whether sexual harassment occurred. The rest of the audience watches the process. "We can actually see the learning take place," Harper says. "By the time the fourth group comes back, they are much more savvy than the first group."

A trainer showed "On the Waterfront" to reinforce a point about accepting responsibility. He also used clips of TV interviewers to illustrate communication skills.

Drawing upon the belief that music is a universal language, Gary Muszynski, executive director, One World Music, St. Louis, has created a training workshop called Synergy Through Samba. He starts by playing a recording of a precision band of drummers and asks his audience if they think they could do that. Few think they can. Then his trainers break the audience into sections, give out various instruments, and show them how to play them. By the end of the session, the ensemble sound is "extraordinary." The entire experience takes about three or four hours; the debrief is about half an hour. "It's a fun, interactive ice breaker, and I try to make it translate specifically into what they're going through in that organization," says Muszynski.

He does up-front research about the company and sets up the experience in metaphors that parallel the organization's goals. It might be learning new skills quickly, getting people to think across units, maximizing learning in teams, appreciating the value of each section or taking individual risks. In a recent workshop with fire chiefs from around the country, he focused on leadership and management. "We believe in the value of experiential training," states Chuck Burkell, executive development program director for Emmitsburg, Maryland-based National Fire Academy, who brought in Muszynski. Burkell has created his own workshop based upon the Battle of Gettysburg. The program uses film and historical presentations about the three generals; the fire chiefs then analyze their leadership styles.

Though injecting fun into training has gained quite a bit of credibility, many trainers still call for more research about the effectiveness of entertainment in training. According to statistics compiled by the American Society of Training and Development, American businesses spend $30 billion annually on formal training and $180 billion annually on informal training. Yet despite these vast sums of money being spent, little has been invested to see if this entertaining approach produces the desired outcome.

So make sure you check the results of entertrainment closely. Many consultants suggest using the four-level system of evaluation as developed by training author Donald Kirkpatrick. Level one: Did employees enjoy themselves? Level two: Did they learn the knowledge and skills? Level three: Did they apply the knowledge and skills on the job? Level four: If they applied those skills, did they get the desired results?

"Most companies never evaluate trainers beyond the first level," says Pepitone, "and entertainment draws high scores on level one. I think the training folks have let go of their responsibility to make sure that people learn," he critiques, "and management can't look after everything."

While research still needs to be done in the area of evaluation, it's clear trainers have come a long way from the days of the data dump. Whoever thought that someday employees would be singing, dancing, and playing at work—to the betterment of the company? Learning has become fun, but it's definitely not just fun and games.

Personnel Journal, July 1995, Vol. 74, No. 7, pp. 84-90.