How humor helps + Powtoon review

I recently created a funny (I hope!) cartoon to motivate people to learn more, and it motivated me to learn more about how humor can improve learning.

If you don’t see the cartoon below, you can watch it here.

(If you’re a blog subscriber and are reading this in your email or RSS reader, you should see a link to the ebook at the bottom of this post.)

The cartoon is a trailer more than a “teaching” tool, since it just touches on the main points. Its design comes straight from marketing: Remind them of the pain they’re feeling, tell them they can get the cure, and ask them to act. The same pattern would probably work in any training trailer to boost enrollments.

In a recent LinkedIn discussion about the cartoon, Megan Torrance reported that in one of her projects, elearning modules with a funny cartoon trailer had twice as many signups as modules without the trailer.

The same type of cartoon could be used when a client wants “awareness” but can’t identify any behaviors that actually require that awareness. When a “course” must be created regardless of its usefulness, a cartoon would at least be more fun than an information dump.

What research says about humor

I poked around Google Scholar and found studies that seem to agree that (relevant!) humor in teaching can increase retention, motivation, and comprehension.

The use of positive humor can also increase the likeability of the instructor. This could be especially helpful in corporate elearning, where the “presenter” is often faceless and personality-free.

The article “How Laughing Leads to Learning” offers a readable summary of some research and makes several points that are relevant to corporate training. Thanks, Matthias Herrmann, for pointing it out. My main takeaways from the article:

  • Humor appears to reduce anxiety by decreasing the effects of stress hormones.
  • It appears to improve motivation and recall.
  • It should be appropriate to the audience and sprinkled here and there rather than applied with a firehose.

I’d add that humor is surprising, and surprises are memorable. As Julie Dirksen explains in her (funny!) book Design for How People Learn, “If something is exactly the way we thought it would be, there’s really no reason to allocate mental resources to reinforcing that thought or idea.”

Finally, humor often uses analogy, exaggeration, emotion, vivid imagery, and unique sounds, all of which probably make the content more memorable.

Design decisions for the cartoon

Narration: I could have uploaded narration to the tool I used, but I thought, why? What would it add? So I didn’t add it. Plus, I’m not a fan of narration, as I’ve probably made clear in this blog (like in this post).

Pacing: The quick pacing is more marketing style than training style. Even when it’s just offering the high points, training tends to be a lot slower because … why? I actually wish that elearning developers would speed up, which is another reason for my burning hatred dislike of narration. It’s ironic that we easily digest quick messages from marketing but then design elearning that plods.

Powtoon review

I made the cartoon with Powtoon, a web app. You edit and save your work online and export the files as MP4s. Although you can upload audio and visuals, all the content of my cartoon is provided by Powtoon.


  • It’s intuitive — the timeline is simple; it’s easy to change entrances and exits.
  • The stock characters and animations inspire you to use humor.
  • There’s a decent supply of images within each “style” of images.
  • It’s easy to preview and export your cartoon.
  • Non-artists like me can easily create cartoons.


  • You can’t change music files in the middle of a cartoon or fade the audio. I had to make two cartoons and join them in iMovie, where I also edited the audio.
  • The shortest interval on the timeline is one second.
  • The range of character styles is limited but will likely grow.
  • Other users report that it’s hard to sync narration. If I wanted to add narration to the cartoon (when pigs fly), I’d record it separately while watching the cartoon and then connect the cartoon and audio in a video editor.
  • I noticed some visual artifacts when editing, and when I exported a cartoon, it often had a random audio glitch that re-exporting usually fixed.

More thoughts on humor

I think we have a bajillion opportunities to make things lighter and more memorable without offending someone somewhere, but all I hear when I mention humor is fear. I’ve got some tips for incorporating humor in this early blog post (along with the dramatic front page of the tabloid Elearning Informer).

What do you think? Is this kind of cartoon too risky? Why don’t we use humor more often?

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When do you need a branching scenario?

Elearning mini-scenario screenshot

A mini-scenario. Make your decision, see the result, that’s it.

When should you go to the trouble of designing a branching scenario? Let’s look at some examples.

First, you might not need a branching scenario. Most of the time, a one- or two-scene mini-scenario does the job fine.

In a mini-scenario, you make your decision, see the realistic consequence, and figure out if you made a good choice. You might then go to a very different scene representing a different situation.

Mini-scenarios are great for covering a lot of possible problems, but they’re not so great for getting deep into a more complex situation. For that, consider using a branching scenario.

It’s not just a series of scenes

In a branching scenario, decisions made in early scenes affect later scenes. This helps people practice such skills as:

  • Recognizing and challenging their own assumptions
  • Recovering from mistakes in a long or complex process
  • Navigating extended, ambiguous situations
  • Deciding when to stop gathering information and act

Scene from cross-cultural simulationA lot of you are familiar with the Haji Kamal scenario, in which you help an inexperienced Army officer make a good impression on an Afghan leader. You have to make many decisions in one conversation, and things you say at one point affect what happens in later points.

This wasn’t a problem for us, but it’s easy to imagine a stakeholder saying, “We shouldn’t spend all our budget on just one story! We should have lots of short scenes so we can cover things like how to deal with children, what to do when you have to search someone, what to do when someone tries to give you a gift…”

I’ve seen cross-cultural training that uses that approach. You’re tossed from one mini-scenario to another so you can practice social niceties. In one scene you accept a business card correctly, and then suddenly you’re eating in a restaurant, and then suddenly you’re deciding what gift to bring to someone’s home. This is surface training. There’s no deep change involved.

For the Army, we used a branching scenario because we wanted deeper change. Our (many!) interviews with soldiers suggested that one challenge they faced was their western perspective of “We’re here to help you, so let’s get down to business.” We wanted them to practice recognizing when that perspective was hurting local relationships and, importantly, practice recovering from mistakes.

More examples

In their “Family of Heroes” scenario (registration required but worth it), Kognito also focuses on just one conversation. Their goal is to help us see from another’s perspective, manage our emotions, and recover from mistakes. Imagine how much weaker the interaction would be if it were instead a series of unrelated one-scene snippets from the couple’s life.

In this fake language learning scenario, the branching isn’t complex. In order to make sense of later scenes, you have to choose correctly in previous ones, and the branches are just little loops to make sure you choose correctly. But because later scenes build on vocabulary learned in previous ones, your learning is repeatedly reinforced, and I hope you also gain confidence.

Part of simulation flowchart

If you want to cover different situations but also want the advantages of some branching, you might present a series of shorter scenarios. One artist’s intriguing Flash interaction uses that approach. You meet three different young people and try to talk them out of killing themselves.

Finally, at the other end of the production spectrum, the BBC helps you learn Spanish and Spanish customs with an interactive TV mystery series.

All of these use branching to some degree, because their goals include challenging our assumptions and encouraging us to build our own knowledge. While they don’t cover the variety of topics that mini-scenarios could cover, they aim for deeper change.

I’m looking for more publicly available examples of branching scenarios. There are several on my recently updated elearning examples page, but the world needs more! If you know of any, please share the links in the comments.

Upcoming workshops

Sydney, Australia, Nov. 13: Join us for “Training design for business results,” a one-day workshop for learning managers at the Learning@Work conference. There’s currently a super-early-bird discount available through the Learning@Work site. Please see more details in my workshop calendar.

Other workshops in Australia and elsewhere are in the planning stages. I’ll announce them in this blog; to make sure you don’t miss anything, subscribe to the blog if you haven’t already.

Photo credit: Signpost image used to represent this post is by The Nick Page

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Firing SMEs as Instructional Designers

I’m over it.
I’m tired of receiving 100 slide PowerPoint decks with tiny text.
I’m tired of arguing with SMEs over instructional design.
I’m particularly tired of arguing with executive SME overseers over objectives.

I’m pretty low on the totem pole – so I have only limited (very limited) leverage over what goes into our LMS.  If a higher level compliance SME mucky muck wants their 100 slide PowerPoint deck with unrelated clip art in the LMS – there is not much I can do to stop them.

Furthermore, I’m tired of hearing complaints over how long it takes to create these 100 slide PowerPoint decks with tiny text. 

Having projects on my radar for months because the “really important project” suddenly becomes unimportant – for it to reappear as a zombie project when I am slammed with 10 other things.

There has to be a better way….
What if I could just give them tutorials already built? 

But we need to customize them!  We’re special!!!!

Hmmm…what if I give you an easy-to-use customization tool?

What if you could point the executives to that baseline vs. spending the time to develop it yourself THEN having to go through the back-and-forth?

What if these were already in our LMS as scorable objects so that I don’t make you spend money for custom content licenses?

What if this saves you money because you won’t have to go out to another vendor to purchase a tutorial of unpredictable quality that may or may not work in our current systems?

Savings in time, savings in money, savings in potential grief for all parties.

We are in the process of renewing our contract for SkillPort.

As part of this – we are adding the Legal Compliance library AND the Environmental Health and Safety library.  We are also adding some SkillStudio licenses – one for my team and one for our HR folks.

I’m really excited because I see this as a potential way for us to get the SMEs out of the instructional design business, speed the process of converting from 4 hour classroom courses to eLearing courses, better track compliance training (since so much of it is spread out over paper and Excel spreadsheets in various departments), and have material that is 1000x more instructionally sound than what we currently have.

Cyndi and Sid, my soft-skills counterparts, are completely aboard.

However, I need a sales person. An executive salesperson.  One who can speak mucky muck AND has some leverage to enforce use.

My next task….figure out how to engage this sales person.  See how it can be to HER benefit….