Playing in Class: Role Play in Training

What’s so bad about role playing? If you ask a group of adults to find a partner and role play a situation, they will most likely balk at the task. People shift in their places and look uncomfortable. There is deadly silence. Then there’s usually someone who has to return an “urgent” call or use the rest room. Suddenly everyone has something better to do than role play.

We don’t like being uncomfortable, and role playing puts us in a place we’re not used to. We’re not accustomed to pretend play as adults. In fact, we’re not used to playing at much in our business lives. It’s all so earnest and serious. Asking an adult to role play a situation is about as foreign to them as asking them to sing or recite a poem in front of their peers. (Except for those who are singers or actors!)

Role play has its place in training though, and especially in sales training. It’s one way an instructor can evaluate whether the learners have understood the material that was presented. By having learners engage in applying what’s been taught, the learner can begin to internalize the words and use and evaluate facial expressions and body language. Also, it’s nice to practice on someone who is not a client or prospective client!

So how do you get people to agree to role playing? Or perhaps more importantly: How do you get your learners to engage in role play? I believe there are five points to consider and implement for a successful in-class role playing exercise:

  • No pressure Participants need to understand that this is practice and anything can (and does) happen. There is no expectation of perfection. All they need to do is try.
  • Clear instructions Make it easy to understand what participants need to do. Break it down into bite-sized chunks.
  • Keep it short and simple No role play should go on and on. Very few people can remember what to say beyond a few questions or topics. The role play should focus on a discreet topic or line of questioning and be short enough that participants can change partners once or twice during the role playing exercise.
  • Sample script Have a sample script available either on a screen or in print that participants can refer to. Let them take the script with them or reference it as they practice with different partners in the class. No one needs to memorize a script to be able to role play. In fact, emphasize that participants should use their own words during the role play. This encourages them to adapt language so that they don’t sound “scripted” when talking to a prospect or client.
  • Self-evaluation Let participants evaluate their performance. Alternatively, have the partners in the role play give their evaluation. This should be as objective as possible. The instructor should not ask for these evaluations. They stay with the participants who know instinctively and immediately what they need to do to improve.

What do you do as the instructor through all the mayhem caused in a full classroom by role-playing participants? Wander around. Listen in to the conversations. If something is challenging all of the participants, you may wish to stop everyone to mention it. If things are going fairly well, let them continue. You may need to prompt students to move to another partner to practice again. Determine before you start how long you want the role playing to go on and end it promptly. Participants should have had the opportunity to role play with at least one partner, if not two.

Role playing can be an effective option in the trainer’s tool box to help learners understand how to communicate particular ideas, ask questions of prospects, gain appointments, and present information. By using role playing intentionally, keeping it short and to the point, and letting learners evaluate their performances, you’ll find that people don’t run for the door when you announce that “now we’re going to role play.”

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