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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > September 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 8 — September 2003
Techman's TechPage
Training: Hey, What's So Funny!?
By D. Scott Brandt

A couple of library staff members came up to me the other day after taking training from an "outsider" (another department on campus). "We didn't realize how good we have it!" they exclaimed. So I asked them to explain the difference they saw in the training. "Well, you're so much more fun!"

Suddenly, I flashed back to 1993 when I took an ARL/OMS (Association of Research Libraries Office of Management Services) training course with George Soete. I was the world's first technology training librarian, where all I did was train—no reference, no collection, no systems support. I needed George's help to make sure I got things right in this newly created job. One of his many pearls of wisdom was a warning to not become the type of "comedian trainer" where participants remembered only the jokes, and not the training.

So I gulped and asked my colleagues to explain what they meant. And then I asked a few more to make sure that I hadn't become the kind of trainer George had warned me about. And I'm happy to say that I'm not! At least not according to the people I work with and train.

I'd like to share some insights into what kind of humor trainees appreciate in a trainer. And I should start by verifying that—based on my unscientific (and quite possibly biased) mini-survey—trainees do like a little humor, comedy, levity, light-heartedness, and even a laugh or two in the classroom. But not just by telling jokes! My feeling is that when people can laugh they can feel comfortable, and comfort leads to confidence, which leads to competence. Humor helps relieve the tensions of learning yet another complicated technology. It softens the hard work that can be both confusing and frustrating.

Look at the Funny Techman!

OK, some of you might be thinking, "The arrogance of this guy! He's pretty bold to set himself up as an example." I just want to let you know that someone else has already brought this to my attention. The Person-Officially-in-Charge-of-Keeping-Me-Grounded (otherwise known as Nancy, to those who have met her), asked if I was putting myself up precariously on a pedestal. To which I responded, in typical academic style, "I assure you, this is totally legit—like research." Besides, if you've seen me at conferences or workshops, you know this is just the way I am.

As background, I have to tell you I get my sense of humor from a combination of both my father and my mother. He tells the kind of jokes that have a little bit of a setup, and then wham!—he hits you with the punch line. She tells the kind of jokes that really exaggerate things. I think I've gained a strange hybrid of both, and I'm not afraid to use it! Many people over the years have said I have a funny streak running through me. Here's an example of my sense of humor in a training class:

When I was a kid, my mother used to spout all these aphorisms and adages. Things like, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," and "When it rains, it pours." One of her favorites was, "When in doubt, go to the right." Now I don't know if she meant it in a political sense: Indiana is a conservative state, after all. Or if she meant it in a practical sense: If you come to a fork in the road, don't hem and haw—just go down the right side. But I want you to remember this adage from Techman: "When in doubt, go to the right-click." The right-click menu is a context-sensitive shortcut to the commands most likely to help you in any given situation. When you get stuck while you're working in Windows, don't sit there and hem and haw, just go to the right-click.

Another quirky aspect of my humor (or maybe just my personality) is the use of exaggerated voices when trying to be light-hearted. My musician friend Peter Janson says it's like The Muppet Show in my brain, and occasionally various voices come out whether I want them to or not! But in class, I use a voice that sounds like a cross between Bill Murray and Moe from the Three Stooges. This is primarily reserved for times when the technology doesn't cooperate. "He-ey, how did that happen?" I'll shout when I get an error message. If the error was because of a typo I made, I'll correct it and say something sarcastic like, "Ohhh, the computer's not smart enough to recognize when I make a typo!" People often smile because they're glad it's me, and not them, although they know they've been in similar situations themselves.

Who's Making Fun of Whom?

Much of the humor I use is self-abasement by self-importance—sort of setting myself up as a humble colleague by blowing my mistakes out of proportion. You see, if I'm not careful and start spouting off what I learned while working at M.I.T., or about how I've done research with a computing engineer in the U.K., people could get a little intimidated. (I was warned about this in evaluations by staff early on in my technology-training career.) So when I'm training and make mistakes I make sure to call them to people's attention. When I click on the wrong menu option I might blurt out, "Whoa! Whatdid I do there? Do as I say folks, not as I do." (By the way, that's another one of my mom's aphorisms.) My goal is to make sure they realize it was a mistake, and that it's OK to make them.

Sometimes I'll use a person who I'm sure has a good sense of humor as a "foil" for some of my levity. But you have to be really careful when you do this! For instance, I might say to a class during a complicated procedure, "Judy's giving me a dirty look over here—am I going too fast?" Or I might say, "Judy, you look like you might already know how to insert a metatag into a Web page—want to take a crack at telling the class?" This helps get the class involved. I've been told by staff not to call on them because they get embarrassed when they don't know the answer or don't want to speak up. But if they see a colleague doing it, they're more inclined to try.

I never make fun of individuals. That's off-limits in my book. However, people don't seem to mind if I attack a "straw man" or a corporation. For instance, I might say, "You know, setting permissions on a folder in XP is neither intuitive nor easy. Who's the guy who thought this up and what was he thinking?" Or, "They call this afeature?" Or, when teaching people how to set up junk mail rules in Outlook I've been known to quip, "Who are these people sending all this spam anyway? Out-of-work librarians? Don't they have anything betterto do?" (This usually elicits a collective "Amen!" from the class.)

Another kind of comic relief I use is singing. Hey, isn't music one of Gardner's eight intelligences? The best example of doing this effectively (I've been told) was when I was teaching staff to use a network folder for sharing files within the library. It had been named Louie by a sys admin who was enamored of Scrooge McDuck's nephews (yes, there was a Huey and a Dewie too). However, not that many staff members were well-versed in comic books. So, when it came time for them to learn the name of the server to access on the network, I went with the song: "Louie, Louie, oh yeah, we're gonna share now."

Inappropriate Clowning

There are lots of areas of humor that people don't appreciate. Obviously, thingsthat are related to gender or ethnicity, etc., are never appropriate. I remember a staff member who told a dirty joke in class. He found out the hard way that he had to be careful telling jokes in formal settings. Back in the '80s I made the faux pas of telling what I thought was meant to be a political joke. It was about Dan Quayle spelling "harass" (the punch line was that he was the only politician who didn't think it was two words). Whoa, did I get a lot of dirty looks for that one. There's an old saying, "Don't repeat jokes that you wouldn't hear in Sunday school." (Or is that one of my mom's adages?)

I mentioned earlier that I never make someone else the butt of a joke, in class or out. Not only does this erode the self-esteem of the individual, it often turns the whole class against you. After all, no one knows who will get picked on next. Also, don't make jokes about novice technology users in a technology class with novices. There's a terrible joke about someone calling tech support, which ends with the punch line, "Then put your computer in the box and send it back to the company—you're too dumb to use it." Trust me: Only cruel, burned-out support techies think that kind of joke is really funny.

I have had classes where the attendees just wanted to deal with the work at hand and get out of there. There's sort of a spectrum of fun, ranging from comical to humorous to light-hearted. Sometimes you can't really tell by people's faces if they like the levity or not. Just recently someone sat stone-faced through the whole course, and I just had to ask at the end how it went for her. She looked at me and said without moving a facial muscle, "It was great—you make learning fun."

Just Try to Be Yourself

Shortly after the ARL workshop I mentioned earlier in this column, I was getting some supplemental training in a "teacher's workshop" series at Purdue. We all had to be videotaped while making a short presentation, and then have peers evaluate us. When my 3 minutes were up and the camera was shut off, I yelled, "WAIT! Let me have a second take—I know I can do the scene better!" One of my peers later mentioned that I had been a little stiff in front of the camera, and that when I became animated I was much more myself. Ever since then, I've just acted my naturally comical (or goofy) self in front of classes. I've found it to be good advice.

I suppose if you weren't born with a funny bone in your body, you might feel a little uncomfortable up there in front of the class acting a little silly. But isn't there a trade-off here? Isn't it worthwhile to try to stretch yourself to make classes more fun?

Here's the bottom line: Different audiences for whom I've done training over the last 10 years have almost unanimously said that humor helps in technology classes. They like a little levity. They understand that comfort leads to confidence, which leads to competence. So, hey, laugh it up a little!


Easy Ways to Make Class More Fun

OK, maybe not everybody is naturally goofy or wants to be comical. Here are a couple of other things you can try to add humor to training:

• Go into class with the expectation that something "funny" is going to
happen, and be willing to include technology problems in your definition
of "funny."

• Funny stories make great analogies and provide reinforcement for learning;
if you don't have any, ask if anyone else does.

• Don't be afraid to make mistakes and light-heartedly point them out when
you do—people learn from this and it helps them to know that the trainer
is only human too.

• Defer the comedy by letting someone else be the class clown—you can be Dean (Martin) to their Jerry (Lewis).

D. Scott Brandt is technology training librarian at Purdue University Libraries in West Lafayette, Ind. He has won several awards and frequently speaks at professional conferences. His e-mail address is
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