A more effective role play

I was sitting with a client last week, trying to finalize a training program, and the client said: “With all of these case studies and vignettes already in here, it seems like having people do role plays would be redundant.”

I explained that while it was true that we had a lot of case studies and shorter vignettes in the curriculum as discussion tools, but adding role plays was not redundant at all. You can talk about case studies with others. You can point out how things should be. Role plays, on the other hand, challenge participants to show they know how things should be, and challenge them to actually demonstrate how things should be.

With that, the client seemed satisfied and was ready to proceed. Putting together an effective role play, however, can be complicated. I believe there are four parts to an effective role play.

Part 1: The “Skill Card”

All role plays need at least two people – one person who is practicing the skill being taught, and one person to be on the receiving end of the skill being taught. A “skill card” is a scenario card that gives a little information to the person who is supposed to be practicing the new skill being taught.

This card is typically light on information – it gives enough context so that the person can pick up the situation and run with it. Ideally, it will only have enough information to mirror a real-life scenario.

For example, a “Skill Card” for someone practicing their sales skills may simply say: You’re heading into a sales call with an existing customer. Your customer had called you up several days ago and mentioned general frustration with your new product. Your goal in this situation will be to not only ease their concerns, but identify other potential selling opportunities.

Part 2: The “Partner Card”

The other person in the role play is typically the “partner”, someone who needs to bring life to the person who will be on the receiving end of the skill being taught. The biggest problem I see in role play scenarios is that the “partner” is never given enough direction. Too many role plays involve a partner who listens to the person practicing their skill, maybe gives the person a hard time for a minute or two, and then magically the conflict resolves itself and the role play ends up happily ever after.

When the “partner” is given some detailed information, role plays suddenly become more true-to-life. The fun part about developing partner cards is that you can also give some information with the note that it can only be revealed if the person practicing the new skill asks the right questions.

For example, a partner card may have the following information:

You’ve been a customer of this salesperson for several years and while you like her personally (you’ve even shared anecdotes about how busy life has become balancing work and youth sports and school activities), you’re growing impatient with the company’s lack of responsiveness to your concerns. You called your sales rep several days ago to share your concerns in general, but when she arrives, you’ll want to be sure you share [insert specific concern 1], [insert specific concern 2] and [insert specific concern 3].

Additional information to reveal only if the salesperson asks the right questions:

  • You have been under considerable pressure from your own supervisor to cut costs and this salesperson’s product could easily be replaced by a lower-cost alternative.
  • You’ve applied for an internal promotion, and getting the best deal possible from this company would make you look good for this promotion.

Part 3: The Evaluation Form

Another pitfall I’ve seen with role play scenarios is that the post-scenario feedback can often be general, meandering, or not even focused on the skill that was supposed to be practiced.

Having a simple checklist of skills or elements that make up a skill can go a long way to ensuring feedback is focused and everyone is looking for the same thing(s), regardless of the differences in each role play scenario.

Part 4: Video Camera

A video camera is the pies de resistance. Asking participants to pull out their phones or providing video cameras or tablets will make a world of difference. First, participants suddenly take the scenario activity much more serious because they will be on film. Second, participants cannot dispute or dismiss the feedback they receive – either it happened or it didn’t. The camera won’t lie. Third, seeing yourself on film – your body language, the verbal ticks you may have, your tone, your overall manner of being – is a powerful experience. It’s also helpful to not give feedback until everyone has watched the video once.

Every client we’ve worked with has offered immediate initial resistance to incorporating video in the role play scenarios. Once they’ve actually tried the video-recorded role plays, they say they’d never go back to anything else.

When participants hear they’ll be doing role play scenarios, they often groan. I know I still do when I’m a participant in a training program. When the role play is designed well, however, it’s one of the most powerful, effective practice tools you can incorporate into a training program.


Need an extra set of hands putting together your next role play or training session? Drop us a line, we’d love to talk in more detail about how our creative, learner-centered approach can breathe life into any professional development program – in person or elearning!

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