The ID Savvy of Last Week Tonight

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I was a big fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When Stewart stepped down and Trevor Noah took over the desk I promised myself I'd give it a chance, but it just wasn't the same. It's no fault of Noah's, the show is still topical and funny, but it hasn't been a part of my weekly routine for years now. 

When John Oliver spun off into his own news/comedy show in 2014, the similarly named "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," I approached it with a hearty amount of skepticism. What I found was an equally clever show that matched Stewart's program in its balance of wry and silly while accomplishing something even greater and altogether unexpected:

Last Week Tonight was teaching me things.

Sure, the Daily Show brought things to my attention over the years, but Oliver's show seemed hellbent on educating me. The more episodes of Last Week Tonight that I watched the more I came to appreciate the writers' educational craftsmanship. That's why when asked (or whenever I can work it into conversation, sorry everybody), I'm touting Last Week Tonight as one of the most masterful examples of instructional design in pop culture today. 

I can hear some of you now, "Um, Hello?? You're reviewing a show in its fifth season. Not exactly a hot take." Yeah, ok, but hear me out. Despite being critically acclaimed, reviewed time and again, and the source of several viral videos, Last Week Tonight has yet to be reviewed for its use of solid instructional design principles (I mean, can you believe it?!).  

Here's a recent episode on cryptocurrencies. In this piece, Oliver takes on a topic that is opaque, nuanced and not widely understood. It's a 25 minute piece and at the time I am writing this post the video has almost 6 million views. 

Let's take a look at what's going on here. 

Strategic use of multimedia

Oliver's set up is simple and stays constant from show to show. He's basically a talking head, similar to what you see on the news, with a window for pictures and graphics in the upper left of the screen and cut-aways to video when necessary. If you look closely, you'll notice that the dynamic between talking head, visual, and video is a very well choreographed dance. 

When we incorporate multimedia into our instructional projects, we run the risk of the audio and visual elements competing for our learners' attention. Cognitive overload (that's exactly what it sounds like) becomes a huge barrier to learning. So while "learning with words and pictures is more effective than learning with words alone," "it is important to avoid materials that require learners to split their attention between, and mentally integrate, multiple sources of information" (Mayer, 2005, 174/206). 

Translation: Do what Oliver does. Supplement your well-crafted, concise dialogue with simple graphics that reinforce important points. Check out 3:09-3:57 in the video. Notice that Oliver uses very little words on the screen (and they are only words that he is speaking simultaneously) in addition to pictures and graphics that the audience becomes familiar with. The visuals and audio do not compete for our attention, rather they enhance each other and supplement our understanding.  

Memorable Images, Metaphors, and Representations

This is somewhere Last Week Tonight really excels. At 4:42 Oliver even concedes that the "business model" of his entire program is having people dress up in ridiculous costumes to explain complex and nuanced topics. Last Week Tonight routinely culls videos and resources from all over the world to bring to light uniquely represented information. Bitcoin man (4:20) and the Chicken McNugget Guy (8:07) are just two prime examples. 

When we present information to our audiences multiple times in unexpected ways we allow them to make connections between the representations and to their own experiences. This is a powerful way to make learning sticky (a term I borrow time and again from Julie Dirksen). 

Humor And Storytelling

There's not much more I can say on the efficacy of humor for learning that hasn't already be said. We all like to laugh. It's a no-brainer. And of course, Last Week Tonight is a comedy show.

Same with storytelling. It's a really hot topic right now in the learning design field and it's not difficult to understand why. Who doesn't prefer a relatable tale to being thrown decapitated information? 

This show elicits laughter, concern, outrage and incredulousness from its audience on a routine basis, and that's a powerful way to promote learning. The ability to captivate your audience using humor and storytelling allows you to count on their voracious desire for understanding, their intrinsic motivation to listen to your message. Would your learners squeeze the information out of you if they could?

Think your topic is too boring? Well, Last Week tonight has pulled main segments out of civil asset forfeiture, kidney dialysis, the cost of manufacturing pennies, and both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, so...

One Bottom Line

Maybe my favorite thing about Last Week Tonight is its understanding that, once the 25 minutes is over, the audience will not remember 99% of what was presented. That's OK. It's natural. And-- Newsflash!-- It's true for our content too. So we should do what Last Week Tonight does: decide on the one thing you want your audience to remember and really drive it home.

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Knowing that is how Last Week Tonight operates, I went through this episode ready for it. As the program drew to a close I scribbled in my notebook, "Usually one bottomline. This one: be careful and responsible." Imagine my delight when at 24:46 I hear Oliver say, "...alright so let's break this down. What is the big lesson here?" To which Keegan Michael Key enthusiastically replies, "Never invest more than you're willing to lose!"

Learning design isn't (always) a series of research-based Jedi mind tricks. There's no shame in spelling it out for people. Or-- in this case-- spelling it out incorrectly, and repeatedly, and making a hashtag, and dancing, and yelling it to the audience. I got the message before the #Craefulgang bit, but now I really have it. When I think of cryptocurrencies from now on, I might butcher the technical definition...but my first thought for forever will be 'caution.'  


If you enjoyed that video here are a few of my favorites:

I also cited the Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, Second Edition, by Dr. Richard E. Mayer above, so feel free to check that out too.

The picture at the top was sourced from and the inset picture is a screenshot from youtube. 

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