Digital Role Plays, the Best Way to Develop Conversational Leadership

Digital Role Plays are a relatively new area of development of digital learning, aiming to provide a solution to HR and L&D professionals to help employees practice critical conversations in a more efficient way than with traditional face-to-face live role plays.
Andrea Laus
SkillGym CEO
8 min read


This article explores the conceptual framework of Digital Role Play as a winning learning strategy for developing conversational leadership and describes the key elements to look at when selecting the right solution on the market.

A Digital Role Play is a digital tool, normally delivered online, designed to support a learning or coaching strategy in which the trainees are asked to play on their own one role involving a discussion with someone else on what should be considered a tough or a critical topic.


So, for example it can be a simulation of a conversation between a Leader and an employee or between a sales representative and a client, or whatever else.

The exercise is to discuss a topic which, to train the communication skills of the trainees and develop their self-awareness and their confidence on sustaining and managing critical conversations.

It’s basically an online interactive simulation that, at its best, involves the trainees in an immersive experience occurring in real time complete with genuine emotions.


There are other types of simulation available on the market that focus on making decisions and managing complex and multi-variable contexts. Those are (or should be) normally defined as “business games”.

In these games, the scope is mainly that of helping trainees develop analytical skills by analyzing one scenario or one situation and making decisions based on the available information. Business games dedicated to risk management or business management are a good example.

In this article, of course, we focus only on Digital Role Plays.


Role Plays, why you should go digital?

The first question is quite obvious. Why should you consider going digital when such a historical and well-tested learning strategy like the good old face-to-face role play apparently works so well?

Well, there are several reasons for considering a digital evolution of the classic approach. Following are the five main benefits of embracing this approach.


Let me just say that Digital Role Plays are NOT killing traditional role plays; instead face-to-face human-led role plays are still very important and effective and, in some situations, they are still the best solution to go for.


  1. Consistency of training

Much too often role plays are delivered as the peak of a soft-skill training activity, to put in practice what was learned. In our experience, this takes effort and is time consuming and thus obviously not easy to replicate over time. The result is that trainees only have time to understand the dynamic of certain techniques of conversation.

Practicing requires consistency in repeating the exercise. But of course, traditional role plays are quite an expensive activity and normally each trainee has the possibility to play too few times to turn understanding into experience.

Digital Role Plays of course let you deliver a consistent program of practical training on conversations, where each simulation can be scheduled over time to let trainees be involved in a real and recurring practice activity.


  1. Scalability

Everyone in the organization can benefit from practicing critical conversations (“How Practicing on Digital Role Play Improves Performance: a Case Study”).

But the traditional way of delivering human-led role plays is not scalable.
Digital Role Plays solve the issue allowing access to this important practical learning strategy to everyone regardless of their physical availability.


  1. Measuring

More and more Leaders expect technology to help deliver smart metrics to measure and drive their potential.

Of course, traditional role plays provide great indications, especially when mediated by great trainers and coaches. However, going digital offers the opportunity to standardize evaluations toward more objective and easier to understand metrics.


  1. Reviewing

Traditional role plays happen in real time and, unless you video-record them one by one and upload the recording online in a very accessible platform, you can’t really review a past role play and reflect, for example, about the impact of certain behaviors looking at the situation from a third-party angle.

The best Digital Role Play system not only makes available the recorded session of each single role play, but also adds extra information in the form of augmented reality, to make it easier to start a discussion on the observable action.


  1. Feeling of “safety”

Many trainees feel unsafe when playing a traditional role play. Especially when it’s done with the rest of the class being the audience.

Direct confrontation with the tutor can be embarrassing. The result is a feeling of discomfort, leading to a lower degree of genuine participation.

Most of Digital Role Play trainees declare that they perceive the tool as a much safer way to express themselves. Not to mention that, of course, they can play where and when they want.


The four key components of a Digital Role Play system

When you think about how to digitalize a role play, of course you expect a way to deal with a pre-recorded conversation reflecting, as much as possible, the dynamics of a real-life conversation.

Of course, that makes a lot of sense. However, having the conversation is just the beginning of a well-balanced training journey to develop conversational soft skills.


There are four key elements, in fact, that should always be embedded in any Digital Role Play solution to make sure that the final result is a real improvement-oriented training system.

  1. A “preparation room”. Just like for traditional role plays, trainees need a preliminary brief on what the conversation they need to face is about. Preparing a conversation is not just the first part of any role play training activity; it is one of the best habits people should nurture in real-life conversations.
    The best Digital Role Play platform gets immersive even before the conversations starts, providing the trainees with the right balance of information to understand the context and prepare their strategy.


  1. The role play, of course. The more interactive and the more life-like the better. Read below about how smart a Digital Role Play should be.
    Don’t forget that you are replacing in digital a very detailed face-to-face experience, where each nuance of the human expressions matters.


  1. The feedback. The key moment of any role play is the debrief time. A great Digital Role Play system balances emotional and rational feedback to address both sides of the brain.


  1. The possibility to review the played conversations even later on. This opens the door not only to a self-review, but also to more engaging (live or from remote) tutor-led discussion sessions as part of your strategy.


By the way, these are the four main components of a well-designed Digital Role Play. There are another three that you may want to discover reading this article (“Digital Role Play Stripped Bare”).


A fifth component who should never miss

One of the downsides of going digital is ensuring the consistent engagement of trainees (we have discussed this subject in this interesting free webinar). Make sure that your next Digital Role Play system has a solid strategy behind helping you keep trainees on track without going mad.

We know how it works: people seem too busy to train and trainers need to spend most of their precious time running after each of them to push with reminders.


The best Digital Role Play systems can do this job for you. Here at SkillGym, not only have automated all of this workflow, but we also leverage trainees’ habit of respecting scheduled appointments to boost their actual participation to Digital Role Plays (more in this article “Three Case Studies and One Strategy to Keep Users Engaged with Digital Learning”).



How smart should a Digital Role Play be?

Once trainees start the Digital Role Play, they normally face a one-to-one conversational environment where the character is sitting in front of them, resembling what would be the user experience during a real role play.

The setting can vary, and they may face a puppet (either cartoon or 3d model) or a human being filmed in video.

The way trainees interact is, most of the time, that of selecting options on the screen representing things they can say, where each sentence presents an observable behavior and allows the flow of the conversation to follow one’s own style and topics.


Two intrinsic characteristics of how Digital Role Play are designed can make the real difference in how trainees approach the exercise and, thus, on the effective improvement you can expect from this training strategy:

  1. On one side, the most important aspect you normally want to train during a role play is the skill of observing the nonverbal communication and attitude of the other person. Human communication is subtle with plenty of very small nuances. When possible, go for a Digital Role Play solution featuring video-recorded professional actors.
    Cartoons, 3D and other animation solution may be engaging, but do not reflect the real essence of human nonverbal communication.


  1. On the other side, human communication develops through a flow that is much more complex than what a classic branch-like design structure can represent. Of course, branched interaction may be quite powerful for less sophisticated tasks, but when it comes to simulating human reactions during flowing conversations, it’s simply not enough.
    This is where AI is doing great already. If you want to know more of what you can achieve through the use of strong algorithms, check out this article (“How AI Helps Delivering a Better SkillGym Training Experience”).


Your final six step selection checklist

Let me resume here with a six step check-list that can be helpful when you select your next Digital Role Play platform.

  • First of all, the possibility to flexibly schedule remote sessions in a smart way. Your trainees are always very busy, so it’s important to rely on the possibility of letting them choose when to schedule a session.
    The best is when you decide the frequency (even better, when the frequency adapts dynamically to the evolving needs of each trainee) and then the systems manages, typically through the use of doodles, the scheduling directly with the individual trainee.


  • Second, look at the library of stories. The larger, the better. And, of course make sure that each role play includes a preparation phase.
    What I mean is providing the trainees with some background on the situation to prepare the conversation. Don’t forget that the preparation of a critical conversation is an intrinsic part of the exercise.


  • Third, look for real time interaction with pre-recorded professional actors. A role play is as realistic as it is played in real time so that the trainee feels the subtle pressure of real life and can recognize the subtle nonverbal communication of the other person involved in the conversation.


  • Fourth, ensure that plenty of “branched” solutions out there. The problem? Real life is not predictable. And since you should expect that your trainees will play the conversation more than once, you don’t want them to follow predetermined paths.
    Consider, for example, those solutions introducing smart AI algorithms instead of those based on traditional branching.


  • Fifth, ensure that you have access to a comprehensive set of measures. A good dashboard will allow you to monitor progress, but also to dig inside the exercise looking for spots upon which to start a debrief discussion of the trainees’ experience.


  • Sixth, some platforms offer the possibility to remotely review the entire conversation played earlier, with a layer of augmented reality providing details about how the conversation was going step by step.


If you want to give a look around our website, maybe to figure out how a Digital Role Play system looks like and how it works, I would recommend to give a look at the features section. Also you may want to attend this pre-recorded webinar, delving deep into this subject.

I hope this article helped setting a framework for your system selection.

I would love to hear from you about your experiences and questions, so feel free to comment below and share this article if you found it interesting.

Finally, here at SkillGym we would be delighted to show you how our Digital Role Play system works in a very interactive 1-hour discovery call. Please don’t hesitate to book your session from here.

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