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Sound and vision?
12 May 2009


article about choosing and using training videos,
by Angel Productions proprietor Steve Engelhard,
published online in the People Bulletin, 12 May 2009

Training and development programmes will often incorporate the use of training videos. But how can managers make these work effectively so that employees take away the right message? Steve Engelhard explains.

‘We’re in a recession; budgets are tight, so let’s save some money by reducing training for our staff. Good idea? If their productivity and morale suffer as a result, well, it’s a price we have to pay. It’s not as if they were about to leave for other jobs …’ Sadly, all too many organisations seem to be taking exactly this short-sighted view. The others, those who want to be ready to benefit when the economy recovers, are asking a different question: not how to slash their training budgets, but how to spend them more cost effectively. For many of them, using video as a training tool is an important part of the solution.

Function of training videos

There are countless training videos on the market (we’ll call them videos, even though they are usually delivered on a DVD or online these days). They deal with practical skills – how to use software, health and safety, financial management – and complex ‘people’ skills (sometimes, bizarrely, known as ‘soft skills’) – how to manage your team, how to deal with workplace bullying, how to fill a vacancy. They do not necessarily replace what you would get by hiring a trainer or consultant for a day, but unlike the trainer, they will stay in your workplace permanently, to be consulted whenever you or the team need them. And unlike the trainer, they don’t just talk to you, they demonstrate what they’re talking about, sometimes in vivid and powerful ways. The few hundred pounds it typically costs to buy a licence for these programmes can be money well spent if it provides memorable learning for hundreds or thousands of staff, as often as they need it.

Making the right choice

But choosing suitable videos needs care. All the production companies making these resources will allow you to preview and evaluate their titles before you purchase. There are also distributors online and in various regional centres which offer the same service, and can let you compare programmes from competing producers.

A video which merely lectures your team, which underestimates their intelligence or patronises them, or worse still, bores them, might do more harm than good. Our audience consists of people who, when they sit down in front of a screen, normally do so to be entertained by The Wire, Friends or EastEnders. We ignore that conditioning at our peril. Videos which lecture the audience or are bland, which make no effort to seduce the audience by entertaining them even a little bit, are unlikely to persuade.

As a producer of training videos, my job would be easy if we could take it for granted that the audience is always eager to learn and to embrace change. We would simply shoot scenes which portray best practice in whatever skill the video concerns, add some commentary to underline the key messages, and send the video out, confident that its positive message would instantly be translated into positive behaviour by the audience. But of course our audience is more complicated than that, so our videos have to be more complicated too.

Impact

Perhaps videos which deliver instruction in practical skills can get away with a straightforward demonstration of the correct procedure (and may be on safer ground if they don’t show how to do it wrongly). But videos like the ones I make on ‘people’ skills demand more subtlety. It is, frankly, boring to watch scenes portraying characters treating each other perfectly and getting everything right. It gives viewers nothing to think about if it turns them off and stops them thinking at all.

So there is a long tradition of ‘how not to do it’ scenes in training videos. They are often funny and memorable. They aim to make poor behaviour obvious and convince viewers that they would hate to be seen doing likewise. But they are risky. If you show your team ‘how not to do it’ scenes:

Will they remember the humour but forget the message?
Will they reject the message (‘the idiot on the screen might do that, but I never would…’)
Might they even miss the point completely and imagine they’re being shown how you want them to behave?
I often ask users of our videos what goes down well and makes for effective training. Keith Holdaway, an HR consultant in the NHS, warns against too much ‘how not to do it’ material: ‘It is fun to show grotesque behaviour, but it gives people the opt-out view that they do not behave like that themselves (although some of their colleagues might!)’ But the opposite view is taken by Sarah Keel, Group HR Manager at Croudace Homes: ‘From an entertainment view and capturing people’s attention it is really good to do the bad practice stuff, also people can see themselves more in this and are therefore more likely to change as they can actually see how appalling it is.’

An alarming note is sounded by Elaine Robinson of Nottingham Business School, who warns, ‘participants do enjoy the “how not to’s” but, occasionally, when faced with someone who simply “doesn’t get it” they may believe the “how not to” is actually a “how to”- dangerously worrying but sadly can sometimes be the case.’

Context

Many of the experienced trainers and HR specialists among our customers stress the importance of their own role in placing any video they use in context. Judith Rose of TMS Equality & Diversity Consultants says, ‘Audiences may receive mixed messages but it is up to those showing the film clips to ensure everyone watching understands the difference between good and bad practice. Creating the right context for showing any film clip is vital. I feel the trainer has the major responsibility for using videos effectively.’

In practice, experienced trainers (or even inexperienced ones) are not always present when training videos are used, so I believe it is important for the video to be capable of standing alone. Sue Burton, also of TMS, says, ‘for me it is balance, these are training videos aimed at enhancing learning. We would like participants to take away some learning points, not solely remember the funny bits’

My own preferred approach is well summed up by Robin Schneider, MD of Schneider-Ross consultants: ‘I think “how not to do it” has impact and humour sticks in the mind. It’s helpful. But having the “how to” alongside gives one the opportunity to leave people with clear messages about what they need to get right. So the first opens them up and the second guides them constructively. A powerful combination.’