In improv comedy circles there is a saying. “Things are funny because they are true.” This doesn’t mean that all things funny are true. It means that comedy tends to work when it is based on some truth. This is an effective formula for the satirical late night talk/news shows (The Daily Show, John Oliver Show, Stephen Colbert, etc.) that are trying to shed light on hypocrisy in the world and it’s also a great formula for corporate educators who are trying to raise and maintain awareness about important corporate messaging. It’s an effective tool to accentuate some shared truth and to get people to see an issue or point of view in a fresh new way.
This is particularly important when your product or service is boring, scary or complex. Hellooo information security and compliance! It may seem counter-intuitive, but the more serious and complex the issue, the more effective entertainment can be as a tool for communication, education and employee engagement. In fact, these approaches are now being encouraged.
“Both the US Sentencing Guidelines and recent USDOJ guidance suggest that organizations must not only provide informal communication on risk topics but must do so in a form that is effective for the audience.” -Eric Morehead, Principal, Morehead Compliance Consulting
Despite this, companies still seem reticent to try new, creative approaches. Information security and compliance professionals often think that because of the serious consequences surrounding these issues, the topics needs to be addressed in a serious tone. This conservative thinking, when it comes to training, communicating and engaging employees, actually puts the organization at risk. Why? Because employees aren’t paying attention and learning.
I happen to run a creative shop that’s built on blending entertainment with learning and I’ve spent over 20+ years experimenting with fun, new ways to get people to pay attention, engage and remember boring, complex, often difficult issues. I find myself having the same conversations every day, which is why I’m writing this piece. These are the things I tend to hear.
Entertainment In Service of a Message
First off, entertainment doesn’t necessarily mean comedy and in this context, it certainly doesn’t mean “to make fun of.” That is a misnomer. Entertainment, based on truth, is simply an effective vehicle to get employees to listen. It’s a great way to hold a mirror up to what’s really happening. It’s a way to show empathy. And it’s a way to build trust.
“These issues are so important…we need to make sure our employees pay attention and remember.”
Data Privacy, Corruption, Conflicts, Antitrust, Harassment, Reporting, Phishing are all weighty, complicated issues. But remember…there is a difference between having a difficult conversation and a conversation about a difficult thing. It is perfectly acceptable and quite frankly more effective, to separate the substance of the message, from the delivery mechanism.
There are a variety of entertaining approaches that can be utilized in service of your messaging. For examples, just take a look at the way people consume information in their everyday lives. There are sitcoms, music videos, investigative reporter shows, movies and movie trailers, game shows, and infomercials. We listen to the radio and podcasts. Our eyes are drawn to GIF’s and Memes and graphics on social media channels. All of these devices can be utilized to tee up an important message in a format that people are comfortable with and will pay attention to. And these approaches tend to stand out even more in sterilized conservative corporate environments where the new beige is considered exciting. Remember, people are business people some of the time and regular people-people all of the time!
Advertisers have known this for years. Most products are boring. But most commercials are entertaining. What’s exciting about insurance or a new soda bottle design? What the hell is drinkability? Why am I still humming that carpet commercial I heard on the radio this morning.
I have no idea..but I remember it! This is the point. If you want employees to know that your ethics hotline is available for reporting workplace concerns, you can send them the policy and make them certify that they have read and understood it. Or you can write a song about it and have it stuck in their heads. Airline safety videos are the perfect parallel for successfully using entertainment to highlight a serious issues that people have been tuning out for years. They aren’t making fun of safety…they are using entertainment to ensure that you pay attention, engage and remember.
It’s Not About The Funny
It’s important to note that it’s not about the funny. These approaches are about breaking down barriers, opening up conversations, making emotional connections and winning hearts and minds. There is a halo effect. It can make these complex issues and you and your team, less scary and more accessible. If you show empathy for your audience, it helps build trust.
“In info security, we’re not always the greatest communicators. We often talk in techno-babble. We’re the office of “no.” People tune us out. Having some fun materials in our bag helps us to simplify our message and communicate more effectively.” – Chief Information Security Officer, Global Technology Organization
I’m No Longer The Scary Compliance Professional
“…people now stop us in the hallway and talk to us! Some tell me how much they appreciate the effort. Others tell me that they didn’t like a particular video very much. But these interactions themselves are invaluable because we’re getting to know each other and are building trust. They know that I care enough to try and make it interesting. I’m no longer the scary compliance professional.” -Compliance Director, Global Pharmaceutical Company
Is It Okay If We Laugh?
“I thought we were running a pretty successful compliance program and I was unsure about the idea of introducing humor, but my team really thought it was a good idea. So at my next big presentation, I was in front of 500 employees and I thought I’d give it a try. I played one of the shorts and absolutely no one laughed! They just stared at me and I was embarrassed. Then a person raised their hand and sheepishly asked, “Is it okay if we laugh?” I said, “of course!” and the room erupted! And in that moment I knew that we had a problem. There was so much angst and tension in the room that they weren’t engaged. Therein lies the value…to get employees to pay attention and listen.” Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer, Fortune 100 Insurance Company
Science and Memory
- Emotional Connections: Humor, music and other entertaining content tends to make emotional connections with people.
- Retention: Humor, music and other entertaining content tends to have a higher content retention rate. People remember things that are provocative, interesting and fun!
Employees will likely forget most of your PowerPoint presentation and your E-learning module with the voice over and bad stock photography. They will remember the fun song and the humorous video. That will stick with them. The most effective education is a blend of both emotional and cognitive approaches. When giving them the medicine, don’t forget to mix in a little sugar.
Conservative Approaches Put The Organization At Risk
Most corporate training and communications tends to scrub out all that’s interesting and fun. This is the unintentional consequence of the process which takes great pains not to offend and tries to ensure that the organization communicates in a way that all levels of the organization can comprehend. These are important considerations. But by the time a training, newsletter, intranet policy portal or corporate communication has gone through all the checks and approvals, it may have all the correct punctuation and some great information, but it’s just plain boring. And this puts your organization at risk…because no one is reading the newsletter. No one remembers the policy. No one cares about the issue. This conservative approach is what creates the conservative culture which leads to a culture of apathy and complacency. We need to raise the bar and choose to communicate like humans.
One of my favorite quotes is from the legendary improv guru, Del Close, who was a bit insane but spouted much wisdom.
“Treat your audience like artists, poets and geniuses and they have the chance to become them” – Del Close
Can You Measure That, Please?
“We were rolling out a new Code of Business Conduct and decided to use a comedic approach showing how the Code changed throughout our companies history. We had it translated into 15 languages and spent a lot of time and care rolling out a campaign to generate some buzz. We also measured the results which presented some interesting findings. We received an 88% positive response rate…Good news! However, we also received a 6% negative response rate and 6% were neutral. We have 50,000 employees so that’s about 3,000 people who really disliked it. That’s a lot of people! We decided to take the initiative to reach out to those 3,000 people to engage them in a discussion about their concerns. This took some time, but in the end, we were able to use the negative responses as teaching moments about compliance. Ultimately, we think its important to try and get a pulse out of people, positive or negative. You won’t engage the masses by being dull. Anything is better than apathy.” -Director of Ethics & Compliance, Global Technology Company
Employee Engagement – Variety is the Spice of Life – Try New Things!
There is a solid business case for using entertainment as a vehicle for raising and maintaining awareness around policies and corporate risk. If you continue to push out beige, you will engage absolutely no one. That’s risky.
I think it’s important to be thoughtful about the styles and formats you use to engage employees, but don’t get hung up on creating the perfect thing. There is no one single way to engage a multicultural, multigenerational, diverse workforce. I encourage you to try lots of different creative approaches and a variety of different entertaining formats and styles. There is no need to put all your eggs in one basket. Some will work better than others. But it’s important to try new things. You will be most successful through variety and surprise, which gives you the best chance of engaging the most people over time. It also shows that you care enough to make it interesting for them, which goes a long way toward building trust. Entertainment and learning is not about the funny, it’s all about breaking down barriers, opening up conversations, making emotional connections and winning hearts and minds. It’s not only more fun, it’s more effective.
Ronnie Feldman is President & Creative Director of Learnings & Entertainments, a network of comedians, musicians, writers, and production crew that focus on employee engagement, communication and corporate education.
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