What's the best way to teach a generation raised on Sesame Street, MTV, Nintendo and rap music how to answer a telephone, run a register or fry chicken?

Get rock star Prince to "entertrain" them.

That, at least, is the unorthodox approach Holiday Companies in Minneapolis took when faced with the task of teaching a new customer service program to 900 employees at its food and general merchandise stores.

To get its point across, the company loaded them on buses bound for Paisley Park, Prince's state-of-the-art recording studio. There they were shown videos by Prince and business guru Tom Peters. The finale was tying customer service into Prince's song "Purple Rain" as thousands of balloons dropped on the audience.

"You can't just hit them over the head with the information," said Robert S. Nye, vice president of human resources for Holiday Companies. "The presentation has to be lively, interesting and, at the same time, you have to get the message across."

Like a growing number of companies trying to catch the attention of young employees, Holiday decided to wrap its training in entertainment as a means of battling what it considers the bad-attitude syndrome. Said Nye: "We've seen a diminishing of traditional work values and more of the, 'I'm here, I'll put in the time, give me a check' " attitude.

Nye said the program worked. Its "mystery shoppers" technique for identifying outstanding employees is turning up more candidates. Holiday has held other similar events, such as one it held in a country club which used a golf motif, food, videos and live presentations.

KFC Corp. in Louisville, which runs Kentucky Fried Chicken stores and franchises, did serious research into the likes and dislikes of its young corps of workers in putting together its "Star 2000" training program. Determining such things as their favorite cars, TV programs and commercials figured heavily into how KFC structured its program.

"It's unlike anything you have ever seen in a training film," said Richard Detwiler, KFC director of public affairs.

Why the theatrics?

It may seem like TV has left this generation with the attention spans of gnats, but training professionals say this group actually learns faster because it processes information quickly and wants to get to the point.

"They are sponges," said Nancy Friedman of the Telephone Doctor, a training company that coined the word "entertrainment."

Presentations work best when they are short and force the audience to participate, when they use computers or some hands-on activity, and when they include famous people and analogies.

Another approach is humor, not necessarily smart one-liners but funny stories built around common experiences like the customer who comes up against the rude, disinterested, out-to-lunch customer service rep who hates her job.

The master of this genre is John Cleese, the British actor of Monty Python fame, who says he turned to making "stupid training films" because he likes teaching and comedy.

He thought he would make a few films and turn a "fast buck." Instead, his Chicago-based company called Video Arts has best-selling videos such as "If Looks Could Kill," which features a customer so fed up with bad service that he throws himself into a lake.

Many of the trainees who love Cleese are the same kids who were so hooked on Big Bird that teachers found they practically had to get dressed up in feathers to get their attention.

"If you want to be effective in working with people and imparting information, you have to get at them at their attention level," said Myrna Marofsky, associate of the Professional Development Group, training specialists in Minneapolis.

That's not the approach many companies are taking, however, even though they spend some $30 billion a year on formal training, much of which goes toward further education for managers.

Take the training session Marofsky worked on with General Motors Corp.'s Oldsmobile division.

The mission was to train a group of new college graduates, many of whom still had sales tags on their suits, to be customer service advisers.

The company decided it would treat them to 20 days of training and figured it would open with a dignified spread of bran muffins and coffee.

"Nobody touched anything," Marofsky said. By the end of the day, the menu was changed to Ho-Hos and orange juice, bagels and cream cheese. Jazzercise instructors were brought in to show them exercises they could do in business attire. Breaks were taken every hour.

But Marofsky, who is as tuned in as anyone to the MTV generation as a mother and former educator, cautions companies not to get caught up in training sessions that turn out to be more entertaining than educational. To ensure greater return, she suggests companies have employees make a personal commitment to the training and that back on the job, managers monitor and reinforce their progress.