How Popcorn Can Ruin a Good Training Video

A human resources manager recently contacted me to discuss some options for customer service training.

Her budget was limited and the small team of people she wanted to train worked in different locations. It would be logistically difficult and potentially cost prohibitive to get everyone together for an in-person class.

Naturally, I suggested video.

The HR manager told me that her organization had tried e-learning and video-based training in the past, but it wasn't well received. Participants thought it was boring.

I immediately recognized the popcorn problem. This issue causes learners to get bored with training and ultimately limits the new skills they implement on the job.

Here's an overview of the popcorn problem and what you can do to fix it.

The Popcorn Problem

Many people enjoy going to the movies.

Popcorn is a quintessential part of this experience. You get a bucket of popcorn to share with a friend, grab a favorite drink, and sit down to enjoy the movie. It's a relaxing form of entertainment. 

People often sit down and watch a training video the same way they'd watch a movie. This is not how people should try to learn valuable workplace skills, but they do.

It doesn't work out well.

The most obvious issue is it's boring. Even the most exciting training videos aren't great entertainment. You certainly wouldn't watch them just for fun.

(Side note: Here's where some readers will say, "But, I saw that video with John Cleese or the FISH! video and it was fun!" Ok, if you doubt me, then try inviting some friends over to watch a training video. Or, ask that special someone if they'd like to training video and chill this weekend. Good luck with that.)

The less obvious issue is employees learn very little by watching a video straight through. They implement even less back at work. The challenge is caused by something called The Forgetting Curve

People quickly forget what they learn in training unless they actively process it and apply it. This is necessary to move information from short to long-term memory, but this rarely happens when employees passively watch a training video.

That's not to say that training videos don't work. Blaming training videos for a lack of learning would be like blaming a hammer when you hit your finger and not the nail. There's nothing inherently wrong with the tool, but you'll get less-than-desirable results if you don't use the tool correctly.

The good news is there's an alternative approach to using training videos that's much more effective.


Bite Sized Learning

You can overcome the popcorn learning problem by breaking the training into bite-sized chunks with short assignments in between.

Here's an example using the Working With Upset Customers training video on

The course is organized into short video segments that are each two to five minutes long. They're further organized into sections like "Introduction" and "Serving Angry Customers." This design makes it easy to dissect the course into small learning bites.

So, you might have your team watch the video this way:

  1. Watch the three Introduction videos
  2. Complete a Learning Plan and discuss with supervisor (there's a downloadable worksheet)
  3. Watch "Understanding Our Natural Instincts" video
  4. Go back to work and identify situations where you experience the Fight or Flight response
  5. Watch the next video, and so on.

The key is watching a short segment of the course, applying those skills on the job, and then returning to the course to continue learning.

Let's look at some of the advantages of using this approach:

  • Participants apply their new skills as part of the training.
  • Applying lessons helps make off-the-shelf training more relevant.
  • It's not boring!

That last one is key. The entire Working With Upset Customers course is 55 minutes long. There are no explosions, car chases, or sappy love scenes to spice things up. It's simply too long a video to enjoyably watch all in one sitting.

But, watching a five minute segment is a breeze. That's roughly equivalent to just three cat videos.