By Phil La Duke
Cowardice is impotence worse than violence. The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him, A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.”—Mahatma Gandhi
Today a watched one of the best produced, engaging and funny safety video, perhaps the best internally produced video I have ever seen; it was used by a major corporation to orient visitors to the dangers endemic to a manufacturing environment. That’s right, I said “used”. The video was killed by an executive, not because it wasn’t effective—quite the contrary, even with a running time of just over nine minutes the viewers were consistently engaged throughout the piece and what’s more they retained far more than is ordinarily the case. In fact, to this day people still talk about the video and its message.
The video wasn’t offensive—far from it—it employed the kinds of sight gags and ridiculous illustrations that Delta uses in its pre-flight safety videos. It )wasn’t offensive, anyway, to anyone who wasn’t deliberately looking to take offense, so why did the executive kill it? Because it was funny (not in poor taste, just funny) and perhaps more importantly because he was an executive and he could.
Forget for a moment the money spent to produce a polished video. Forget that it was effective and got people talking about safety. Forget that people liked it. The executive, drunk on his or her power, just said “no”.
In another post I have openly promoting Improv Training which offers the same brand entertain to retain philosophy. Gary Alexander the genius (and I don’t banter that term around lightly) behind the traffic safety school that used humor to get the students to tolerate, and in many cases, enjoy something they would otherwise dread. But Improv Training still struggles with sales of its first offering—Making Safer Decisions—and I am at a loss to explain why. I’ve seen every moment of it and admire how he has taken micro lessons to the next level. They can be used as messaging, as a course, or as elements of a course (instructor-led or CBT).
I know as I write this that many of you will cite examples of how you have used examples of humor in your safety training. Some of it will be genius and some of it will be tripe, but those of you who do have one thing in common: courage.
What kind of stupidity and cowardice does it show when one will not do something that is far more effective because someone MIGHT be offended? The essence of humor (or writing for that matter) is risking someone offending someone. And that’s what safety is all about, taking risks.
Safety isn’t for cowards, and avoiding humor because it might offend someone because a flight attendant uses a ridiculous example, Pamela Anderson gives advice on how to make better decision, or because some power drunk executive doesn’t like it is the height of cowardice. We are overstocked with cowards in safety, and before you try to convince yourselves the bad pun you made as using humor in training I say to you that unless you are doing something that truly scares you in the attempt to help people make better, safer decisions you are a stinking coward. I’ve never regretted the times I’ve crossed the line and got my ass chewed out for taking a joke too far, but I still hang my head in shame for the times that I backed down from using humor that I knew would forever prove a point but was too chicken to tell the joke because I saw the reproaching face of someone I knew was looking to take offense. For example, I once got called into the executive’s over my department (when I worked in training) who didn’t like the fact that I had named my policy book “The Training Cookbook” and had a picture on the cover. The new, sub-human puss bag of a CEO who, I later learned was brought in to gut and sell the company, didn’t think it looked professional. This pile of human excrement expressed his disapproval by writing “What’s this ‘gobble gobble shit’?” on a PostIt note and sending it to my exec. My exec apologized and said that the new CEO was a bully and a body part most people don’t want to be called. (My secretary rightly observed that he looked like a fat Hitler (Hitler was a vegetarian and very health conscious,) and he did) Anyway, my executive suggested that it would just be easier to change it. I replaced the cover with a plain grey cover with the company’s name and the title Training Procedures.) I’ve always regretted knuckling under. I was afraid I would lose my job and as it turns out it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway—had I stayed until the sale my company would have cast me away anything. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes to be sure, but being too close to the edge in terms of humor isn’t one of them.
Monty Python legend John Cleese once said that (at the National American Society of Training & Development Annual meeting) “Training Need Not Be Somber” (to be effective)—years later I saw a very tired John Cleese speak at a Training Convention where he phoned in a very important message: that if what you are doing is fresh, and innovative, and important, the establishment will try to shut it down, but if it’s truly important and worth doing, it’s worth standing up and defending.