Are You Having A Laugh?

People holding smiley faces

The immortal catch phrase of Ricky Gervais' anti-hero Andy Millman in the British sitcom Extras has relevance today for us as trainers. We've all heard of the benefits that laughing has to overall well-being, but humour, especially when it leads to laughter, has an important role to play in the training environment.

Humour and learning

Paul Clothier in his wonderful book The Complete Computer Trainer says that people learn better when they laugh. He cites the example of an American university which carried out an experiment in this area by coaching their professors to use humour in their lectures. Students from the humour group performed 15% better when tested than students from the non-humour group.

Humour offers a number of benefits to training. When people laugh and smile their body chemistry changes as feel-good endorphins are released. When people are relaxed they are in a more conducive state for learning.

Another important role for humour is to build rapport not only between the trainer and the learner but between learners themselves. A group that can laugh and smile together generally has dropped barriers associate with fear of failure or looking like a fool. They'll engage in various ways and learn through this engagement.

Learners that can laugh and smile with the trainer are less afraid to ask questions, to make comments, to answer questions, and generally engage in the training.

From a trainer's perspective humour also makes conducting a class or session much more enjoyable. Imagine how dour and boring a training session would be if no one smiled or laughed. Elliott Masie who made a fortune from instructing instructors claims that a healthy and successful trainer is one who laughs a lot. Trainer enjoyment is a key ingredient to avoiding trainer burnout.

Using humour

We tend to associate humour with joke telling. But joke telling can be an absolute disaster in the training environment. Not everyone laughs at the same joke. Some jokes (probably most jokes) because of their content are going to be offensive. So as a general rule avoid telling jokes. The other problem with jokes is that they have a storyline and a punchline and unless you can really pull off a good joke then it will be an absolute flop.

One liners can work in the classroom. If you're confronted with perplexed faces when trying to explain a difficult concept pause a moment and say "Trust me, I'm a politician". You may not get a belly laugh but you'll certainly get a smile from most people. You can then regroup your thinking and try and explain that concept again. Depending upon what has happened in the news outside of the class you may also get free discussion and political comments for a while!

An interesting technique is to write a one liner on the board when the class is on break. When they arrive back they'll see the one liner on the board and (hopefully) have a bit of a chuckle. This is a great way to get back into the serious stuff. Your one liner can be about the content you are working on. For example when working with computers you could try "When I talk about computers, I make my motherboard". Or you could just be downright corny with things like:

  • "Santa's helpers are subordinate Clauses"
  • "Ancient orators tended to Babylon"
  • "Her bootlegging was illegal, but I loved her still"
  • "Politicians and nappies need to be changed often... for the same reason"

At worst the learners will think you're a bit weird. Draw their attention to the one liner and say that you're just trying to make them smile a little.

Clothier points out that trainers that try to make an effort to be funny generally fail. His suggestion is to use natural humour. This is humour that is created from something that has happened in the class. It may come from something that someone has said or done. Clothier cites the example of a class he was observing where one woman looked at her screen and said "How do I get out of here?" – meaning the menu system she was lost in. Quick as a flash the trainer piped up with "there is the door. Follow the passage to reception". Everyone laughed, even the woman.

Clothier suggests that putting yourself in the position of the learners often helps to develop your humour. "I just love master documents... Not", said in a sardonic tone while conducting a Word class is a great way to add humour to defuse teaching something that may be tricky. Some self–effacing question such as "Am I sounding like a nerd?" will often solicit a laugh. As does, "don't worry, we'll have this finished by 11 tonight!"

What not to do

It goes without saying that there are some absolute no-nos when it comes to humour. Never use humour at the expense of a learner – never pick on a learner and attempt to poke fun at them. They'll hate you for it as will the rest of the learners.

Never make comments that can be construed as sexist, crude, religious, or culturally offensive.

Don't overdue humour. You don't want your training to become a comedy fest. Too much of being the wise-guy will only get you all of the wrong labels.

Humour resources

There are lots of resources available for humour in training. There is a wonderful book by Doni Tamblyn called Laugh and Learn: 95 Ways To Use Humour For More Effective Teaching and Training.

You'll also find a wealth of materials on The HUMOR Project website ( So let's just finish with some of their corny one liners (beginning with my favourite):

  • "LET'S EAT GRANDMA. LET'S EAT, GRANDMA. Commas save lives."
  • "Irony. The opposite of wrinkly."
  • "'Tis better to have loved a short person than never to have loved a tall."
  • "I've learned so much from my mistakes, I think I'll make a few more."
  • "The first 50 years of marriage are the hardest."

I think by now you get the idea. Humour is a great stimulus to learning.