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Lighten Up! They May Get Your Message More Easily

Humor: A little mirth can help trainees retain information, get creative, maybe even stay awake.

May 19, 1997|DAVID R. OLMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gentle reader:

Kind, well-intentioned managers faced with performance problems among their earnest subordinates often respond by arranging training programs to re-educate employees and fix whatever ills have befallen their companies. In many cases, however, training is not the solution, and forcing employees to endure it is to everyone's disadvantage and displeasure. The quiz on this page will give you some idea of when training is called for and when it is not.

When training is appropriate, it can be much more bearable and even more effective if it is presented with humor and style, as writer David Olmos esplains on Page 9. Take the accompanying quiz and find out whether your training programs are suitably silly.

Ms. Work Wise

Readers of the Careers section first met Ms. Work Wise last November when the etiquette-savvy fictional character created by our readers joined real-life columnist Judith Martin (a.k.a. "Miss Manners") to address problems related to rudeness in the workplace. Ms. Work Wise returns in this issue to introduce stories on different types of training and will continue to appear as a voice in careers.

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C'mon, lighten up, laugh a little.

You might learn something.

In fact, before you read on, try making a goofy face at a co-worker or, if you're reading this at home, at your spouse, roommate, child or dog.

It might help you remember this story. And there'll be a quiz later.

The experts say a little lightheartedness helps us learn and retain information. It's what humor consultant Joel Goodman calls the "ha-ha/aha connection."

The teacher who tells funny stories to get the attention of students during math class knows about it. So does the comedy traffic school instructor. And so does the minister or rabbi who uses an amusing story to perk up the congregation during a spiritual lesson.

In corporate America, a growing number of firms, from Southwest Airlines to long-distance carrier Sprint, have learned the value of humor for training and informing employees and customers.

"Humor can capture your attention, and if you don't have attention, you don't have learning," says Goodman, director of Humor Project Inc. in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "One of the biggest blocks to learning is fear. Humor relaxes us and reduces fear."

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Beyond training programs, companies are also realizing that in an era of overworked, anxious employees, a little levity can help reduce stress, boost creativity and foster teamwork.

Everyone can recall a lecture or corporate training program in which the speaker droned on. An entire morning went by, and you can't remember one thing, except the speaker's mind-numbing monotone and seemingly endless collection of mystifying charts and graphs.

That's not likely to happen at Southwest Airlines, the Dallas-based carrier known for its fun-loving flight attendants and offbeat corporate culture. The airline's focus on frivolity also extends to its internal training programs.

When Rita Bailey, Southwest's director of employee learning and development, was leading a brainstorming session for the airline's corporate public relations department, she was looking for an "ice breaker" to begin the all-day session.

"We weren't going to just put on name tags, we needed to step out of the box," says Bailey. "We wanted people to loosen up and think outside of having to be so cautious and careful like they are in their everyday jobs."

The 25 or so employees did wear name tags, but instead of their own names, they were asked to choose someone famous or someone they admired. After picking a name, they were told they'd have to act out a brief skit to show something about the person they had chosen.

"When Rita asked us to act our names out, I thought, 'No way,' " says Amy Lyons, a Southwest public relations manager who chose fictional FBI agent Dana Scully of TV show "The X-Files." But she says she and the others got into their acting bits.

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"I tried to shoot down an alien," she laughs. "Our department vice president had always wanted to be Tina Turner, and she started shaking all over the room and singing that 'rolling, rolling down the river' song."

When Sprint opened a small business center in Louisville, Ky., last year, it asked new employees to create commercials (not for actual use). The employees then developed skits based on their commercials and acted out parts in them.

"We wanted to have fun but also have a learning experience where we differentiated Sprint as an employer," says Margery Tippen, a Sprint vice president in Dallas. "We use humor to take learning from more of a listening mode to a a more heartfelt one. We hope that when these employees speak to customers about Sprint, they will actually believe in their hearts what they are telling people."

Experts say employees are more likely to learn and retain information in a session that requires them to be physically active and includes some frivolity as part of the presentation.

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