Thursday, April 18, 2013

Using Humour as a Teaching Tool

"You're a comedian?......tell me a joke! That is a line I have consistently heard over the 26 years that I have worked as a comedian. Despite the crippling 1/2 hour days, it's a rewarding job because you get to bring laughter to people and are constantly creating new ideas, but ironically, rarely are there any "jokes". There are many other things that bring amusement and laughter: stories, concepts, wordplay, sarcasm, exaggeration, body language, facial expression, but for most comedians, it's seldom "jokes". This is interesting because it points out just how little we understand about the mechanics of humour. For decades I have been taking it apart like a watch and examining all its giggling bits and it has been a fascinating process.

 It has also been a process that has been extremely valuable in the communication skills and public speaker training I do. One of the reasons that I was hired on to coach the Coca Cola Olympic Torch and Olympic Site teams in 2010 was the natural match between humour and their catch phrase "Open Happiness". Humour helps to grab people's attention, hold their attention, introduce novel concepts and leave them wanting more. It is a form of communication that lends itself beautifully to teaching and at the moment I am very interested in exploring that relationship. I want to hear stories from teachers, coaches and managers about how they have used humour effectively (or ineffectively) while giving instruction to their groups, teams or classes.

 Humour is a uniquely human process, a universal aspect of our ability to communicate that predates the spoken word. The health and social benefits of laughter and smiling, the creation of a relaxed cooperative classroom environment, the decline in authoritarian teaching methods, the ability to increase student engagement and the positive framing of the educational experience effected by humour are all well documented but there are less considered points that are of great practical value:

 1 - Humour began as a system that enabled human beings to become aware of breaks in patterns. At
it's root it is a pattern recognition system that helps us to organize our world. Fuelled by the psychological, physiological and social rewards of laughter and smiling it solidified itself as a cornerstone in the the development of our processes of learning.

 2 - While humour predates speech and the written word, it adapted to them and became a method of examination and criticism. Humour functions, deliberately or accidentally, as commentary. To look at something in a "funny" way, is to look at it from a different perspective. Humour reframes our outlook on a subject and, as a result, gives us a broader and more complete understanding.

 3 - Humour does not reside entirely in "jokes" and does not have to be a distraction or diversion from the subject being taught. It should, instead, be combined with the subject and used as a tool of examination and understanding that has the added benefits of engaging students and making information more memorable.

 4 - Humour has the potential to be instructive on the subject of emotional intelligence. To begin with, the teacher is put in a position where they have to learn to empathize with the students in order to utilize humour effectively. The assorted psychological motivators in aggressive, racist, sexist etc, humour are also more easily understood when humour's fundamental mechanisms are taught because the students are able to see the different reasons why people think of something as "funny".

 The roots of humour have a fundamental relationship it has with communication, bonding, and the organization of knowledge. By gaining a comprehensive understanding of the nature, functions, and methods of humour educators can create a more positive, productive and progressive learning environment.

So let me hear your stories!!! I would love to hear how you have used or seen humour used by others as a tool in instruction. Real life examples of the connection between HAHA! and AHA!. Comedy as revelation and revealer, as the ultimate trickster teacher. Please do pass this along to as many people as you can who you feel might be inclined to contribute.

A million tiny thanks.........Christopher

Christopher MolineuxHumour Expert / Coach /

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Do I make myself clear? - pt. 1 - pace

It's nigh on impossible to deliver a successful speech if people don't understand what you are saying and are straining to hear/understand you (I invite you to picture their squinting, confused faces) In addition your crowd will certainly not be put into a mindset that is favourable to you if you put them in this position. All the effort put into mastering your subject and organizing your materials will be wasted. There are several factors that can contribute to your clarity in a presentation but I would like to focus on jut one at the moment: pace.

Speaking too quickly is a fault that is not limited to people who are feeling nervous and pressured. Even the most relaxed and confident speakers can fall into it's trap, in fact, sometimes it is their relaxed nature that gets them into trouble. The relaxed speaker can have the habit of speaking as they would in casual conversation and social speech and presentation speech are related but they are not identical twins by any means. When you are speaking to somebody one-on-one you are very aware of the exact level of attention that you are recieving and it is generally fairly high. As a result you can still be well understood even if you speak more quickly, and in a manner that is generally more slack in it's tones, shifts and emphasis (more on those in the next blog-post). If the same technique is employed with a large group of people the results will often be less than satisfactory because you are dealing with varying levels of attention and comprehension. Then, of course, there is the tense, speaker whose nervous energy inevitably manifests itself in a quicker pace, which in turn makes the speech that much more difficult to deliver.

Now, I can hear you saying (at a moderate pace) "well then, I guess it's a good idea to slow down a little", but unfortunately that does not sum up the solution, only the idea behind it. If you know that you have a speed problem you can simply tell yourself to slow down when delivering a speech, but this probably won't be much help. Typically what happens is that people in this situation begin at a good pace but then "forget to remember" to slow down, or lose track of where they are for a moment which increases their level of stress and speeds them up. When their pace starts picking up they notice the increase and that is, in itself, stressfull, which causes them to speed up and the ugly cycle continues it's merry spin.

The problem lies in the fact that "slowing down" is just an idea and people need something more tangible and immediate to help them. If there was a screen in front of you that had your words per minute rate on it, that would be likely do the trick but I don't foresee the installation of such screens in conference rooms any time soon. Fortunately there is an internal method that you can use that is even more effective and far more portable. The trick is to enunciate just a little bit more than you do in casual speech - it's that easy. Now, this has to be done within limits. You don't want to sound like Captain Picard at every meeting. What makes enunciation different from simply telling yourself to slow down is the fact that enunciation is something that you can actually feel: it is physical. The way you shape and move your mouth is altered when you enunciate. Your mouth can set itself to work in a specific way and your mind knows exactly what this way is through physical memory.

Try it the next time you speak. Just give a pinch more enuciation as you go through your speech and you will see how it slows your pace. In fact try it right now......try at this very moment to say this sentence really quickly and with profound enunciation..... I think you will see (and hear) my point; your pace is naturally slowed. The obvious benefit that occurs along with the slackening of pace is the fact that you are actually saying each word more clearly when you enunciate, so ironically, if you want to speak more clearly you should speak more clearly. Have I made myself clear?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Down with "success-speak"

Much of the coaching I do involves helping people to learn skills and techniques to help them improve as public speakers but sometimes it happens that unlearning things shows itself to be more of a challenge than learning them. Let me explain.

There are a vast array of products and services available to people who wish to improve their public speaking ability and many of them are very good - I offer a heartfelt thanks to all those people who provide them. Much of what is available, however, is limited, misguided or flat-out bad. The main complaint I have to lodge is that these products and services create a style of presentation that while, efficient and practical, is ultimately empty and inhuman; a kind of "success-speak". This style of speaking lies somewhere between a radio dj and the stereotype of a used-car salesperson. These people know how to engage a crowd, how to put their points across and are frequently successful in business as a result. The question you might well ask is, "if it works, why do you have a problem with it?"

Alright, let's cut right to the chase. I do not coach people to help them earn more money, I coach them to give them a better understanding of what factors define the way they put together ideas and express them and then help them to take control of those factors and become better communicators. If they choose to use this power of expression to earn more money, which they certainly can, that's fine, if not, that's fine too. There are many other avenues they could explore relating to their creative aspirations and personal life as well. In fact, it may just be that by becoming a better communicator you will finally have the ability to express the fact that you truly hate the life that you live with your high paying job.

Going back to my original point of "unlearning"; I find it is often far more difficult to get people to drop the robotic "success-speak" habits than to teach them new information. A good rule to remember for most situations is to make sure that your speaking style is not that different from the way you would speak privately to good friends, not in content, but in tone and sincerity. We have enough technology to master in our lives without turning ourselves into robots so down with "success-speak" and up with the expressive person you really are.
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