For several years, I took part in projects for creating custom-made Digital Role Plays for large organizations. Most of the time, the need expressed by the client was that of delivering a meaningful way to practice critical conversations.
From time to time, it could be about practicing on pitching to prospects, solving clients’ issues over the phone or motivating and driving a team.
Very frequently, however, despite the client’s initial commitment to deliver a real opportunity to practice conversational skills, the outcome of the project ended up in one scenario that looked like:
- The Digital Role Play was designed with the specific purpose of instructing the trainee on a script. Rather than delivering a true experiential journey into the different nuances of how communication can develop between two individuals, the goal became that of making sure that every single detail of the sales script (or the customer-care or the management) was polished and crystal clear to the trainee, including the last minute (and not so long-lasting) slogans as well as product-related examples (which were then expected to be perfectly memorized)
- The schedule of practicing was limited to a few weeks, normally an intensive “boot camp” after the end of a 2-day traditional class on the same subject
- Trainees were asked to play either as much as possible or a certain (high) number of interviews, with the explicit goal of crossing a specific and high threshold of score to reach some sort of “certifiable” status
- The entire program was promoted as something in between an innovative follow-up and an “urgent” full-immersion in the to-be-learned selling model (or customer care or management)
- No strategy of active engagement was previewed, leaving the trainees to self-organize their own schedule of usage
At that point, almost every single time I witnessed the following, typical reactions by the trainees.
Given the freshness of the digital experience, at the beginning trainees were well engaged in the new exercise. The fact that they could see their own situations (types of clients and also references to their real context) made the initial approach even sweeter, since they saw an opportunity to try out things that they would not dare to do and say in real life with their real clients.
However, after the first few days of engagement, the following happened, almost all the time:
- Trainees started to argue about the contents of the simulation. On one side, the fact that the scenarios were designed to reproduce as much as possible their reality put them in a defensive approach and unleashed all the possible critical remarks, especially since the declared scope of the training was that of “scoring high” (read: selecting the best performers).
So, among the others, the comments were about: “There was no option for what I would have said”, “My real client is not like that”, “Why can’t I say what I really want”, “Why can’t I talk instead of choosing among written options”, “I cannot show my tone and gestures” and so on.
- At the same time, since the scope of the program was that of instructing on a given script, all the options of interaction apart the right script were very trivial and excessively easy to spot as the wrong choices. So, the trainees started to lose interest in the game very early on, since it was not really challenging their abilities.
- The mandatory nature of the program, added to the freedom of self-organization, lead to disorganized schedules. Most trainees rushed to play all the interviews near to the deadline, basically dispensing with the idea of consistency in training, which is what makes the exercise valuable because it is well-distributed in time just like training for a sport.
The results are easy to imagine.
In the best-case scenario, some trainees learned the script and performed a little better than usual, but just for as long as they could remember it and until a new script arrived to replace the old one.
The large majority of them though, did not receive any advantage from this training approach and, moreover, started to consider this solution as a waste of time. Believe me, I would have agreed with them.
However, the key design issues of such a program are not related to the type of tool/solution. It’s never a problem of the tool itself in these cases.
Rather it’s about the scope of the program, the duration, the contents stuffed inside the tool and the way it is presented and promoted among users that can turn a great learning strategy into a miserable fail.
What makes a Digital Role Play a great learning strategy?
So, let’s restart from the beginning. Let’s say you are on your first date with Digital Role Play as a trainer.
You have maybe read something about this solution on a blog or heard about it from a fellow colleague. And you are considering giving it a try for your next soft-skill learning program, whatever it is about.
Well, before dressing up for the date, let’s take a look at how you should treat a Digital Role Play in terms of integration in any learning program and what you should expect from a Digital Role Play when treated the right way.
Understanding the real nature of a Digital Role Play (DRP, for friends) is as easy as counting to three:
1) First of all, DRP it is not a way to instruct trainees on scripts. It does not make any sense for several reasons.
First, scripts change frequently, and you can’t afford to change the contents of DRP at that frequency (at least in good or very good ones, which doesn’t include the home-made, easy-branched, puppet-style ones, by the way).
Second, people hate to memorize scripts; don’t try to ask them to, it’s a waste of time.
Third, scripts never match reality: real life always overcomes fantasy, there’s no match; sorry if that sounds rude.
On the contrary, training on DRP is a way to let trainees experience different shades of communication and to let them feel the way the counterpart reacts. It’s about making an experience in communication, whatever the subject as long as the type of conversation, the key communication behaviors and the appropriate style are there to practice with.
2) It’s not about intensive practice. You don’t get fit going to a gym for two weeks eight hours a day.
That the way it end up at the ER (and it does not take two weeks). Digital Role Plays work best when they work on changing habits. To change a habit, you need consistent repetition spread over months, not just few weeks.
It’s not about quantity of repetition, it’s about consistency of repetitions at a balanced pace.
3) It’s not about scoring high, it’s about scoring wide. Much too often, I see trainers (as well as line managers involved in the training design!) setting high score thresholds to be met in exchange of “certification”.
Again, this approach involves instructing based on a script that trainees will never have the chance to pitch in full in real life. Scoring wide, instead, means experimenting with the different nuances of the conversation to gain experience with what-happens-if, whatever happens, including mistakes.
Of course, this requires a perfect design of the “wrong” side of the conversation as well, which is instead normally left out when the “script” is the focus.
So, when you start forgetting about instructing and you start focusing on real practicing, that’s where a Digital Role Play can become your best ally in delivering real conversational, actionable training.
In fact, a DRP becomes really powerful when it allows trainees to:
- Directly experience the cause-effect connections in a dialogue, especially when they reflect the real-time impact of the flow of the conversation, showing the emotions, the reactions and the way the counterparts communicate when triggered with different stimuli.
- Develop the so-called “Deja-vu” of those experiences. Each time you live one significant and emotional experience, a little bit of it gets stored in your brain (in the so-called “working memory”). And the more it is associated with basic emotions, such as fear, anxiety, astonishment, sense of reward and so on, the more any recalling of it will trigger the fast-reacting basic instincts controlled by our amygdala.
The consistent storage of different experiences, in the form of brain-digestible images, related to the same emotion contributes to the development of those Deja-vu moments that are so helpful in making us react quickly when it’s needed (more on this in a minute).
- Develop self-awareness through continuous confrontation between the self-perception of one’s own performance and the unbiased feedback provided by the counterpart. The best Digital Role Plays are capable of delivering both emotional and analytical feedbacks, thus triggering both sides of the brain (this article “Why Stimulate Self-Awareness by Using Both Sides of Your Brain?” is a great source of inspiration on the specific subject of leveraging both sides of the brain to accelerate experiential learning and develop self-awareness).
More on developing experience-based fast reactions
The recent development of neurosciences is increasingly validating the importance of training through emotional triggers. Joseph LeDoux, an American neuroscientist whose research is primarily focused on survival circuits, including their impacts on emotions such as fear and anxiety clearly says, “Fear and anxiety are not biologically wired… They are the consequence of the cognitive process”.
The concept of emotional experiences as triggers for developing faster reactions in human behavior is very fascinating.
Certainly, the recent development of neurosciences confirms the validity of the importance of developing experience-based fast reactions. It also provides several explanations about why it is not that important for the content and the setting of the simulation perfectly reflect your corporate environment and culture.
What is really important is that the simulation allows for a wide practice of different cultural and conversational approaches in front of different types of individuals, moved by different needs and acting according to different triggers as suggested by the most reputable psychometrics models.
That’s where real experience is acquired and that’s where a Digital Role Play can deliver the best ROI, by accelerating the formation of such experience and by helping to store it in trainees’ brains in the form of emotionally lived situations or “Deja-vu”.
When a Digital Role Play is well-designed, those Deja-vu moments become an immediate source of best-practice application during Critical Conversations that matter.
Now it’s time to review which ingredients are necessary to get the best results.
When Digital Role Plays become great Digital Role Plays
There are, in my experience, seven key ingredients to be included in the design, development and delivery of a great Digital Role Play training program. They are:
- Be extremely life-like. Experiences get fixed as living images when they are lived in real. A simulation gets as close to reality the more it shows reality. So, I recommend discarding puppet and 3D avatar solutions, and rely instead on professional actors.
- Rely on strong psychometric and behavioral models to ensure that the storytelling is accurate and truly delivering the real emotions, reactions, feelings and wording of those characters. Models such as DiSC, HBDI and MBTI work very well, alone and together (more in this article “Building Authentic Characters for Effective Digital Role Plays”).
- Make sure the interaction is not deterministic. You need to immerse your trainees in the flow of the dialogue. This is a very important point, please read this article (“How AI Helps Delivering a Better SkillGym Training Experience”) to get the full picture.
- Don’t work on “scripts”, but rather keep the story decontextualized. Your trainees are not monkeys, and they don’t like to be instructed.
They can learn much more by making mistakes than by memorizing your favorite pitch. What really matters is not what they say during the conversation, but how well they are prepared to face the reactions of their counterparts (and how well they can read them through the unspoken language).
More on storytelling in this article (“Why Use Interactive Storytelling in Training: Benefits of Role Plays”).
- Use both emotional and analytical feedback. Don’t rely just on one of the two approaches, make sure our brain works in full when turning experiences into lessons.
- Tell your trainees about this article. Let them know the hows and whys of their training, let them know what type of exercise will help them and how. People need a useful purpose to be motivated to learn, so please don’t go for useless (though well-hyped) things like #gamifications, #leaderboards and #high-scoring if they are not really connected to allow true (and also mistake-driven) learning experience.
- Make space. Instead of setting up shockingly intensive boot camp over few weeks where people get literally overwhelmed by practice and consequently stock all the activity at the very end, make sure they are not rushed.
Give them time (months, not weeks), give them an adaptive plan (read this article “SkillGym Digital Fitness: Pure, Adaptive Leadership Training” to learn more about the power of adapting learning) and make sure they are well engaged along the way (more on smart engagement in this article “Three Case Studies and One Strategy to Keep Users Engaged with Digital Learning”).
Awaking the giant
When those ingredients come together, the real power of a strategy based on actionable training shows up, making conversational leadership development really deliver.
This type of Digital Role Play is capable of turning the simulated experience into vivid and living images in our brains. They become powerful Deja-vus, triggering our amygdala by basic and instinctive emotions much faster than any other rational stimuli can do.
This is how we react when we drive our car and something unexpected happens in front of us. We don’t think, we just react at light speed, applying instinctively a previously stored strategy that comes from previously lived experiences.
The trick is to make sure that we store very effective experiences, and this can be done through well-designed simulation as indicated above.
It’s a totally different way, and much more effective, to reach the desired goal that many trainers still think can be reached by forcing trainees to learn scripts. It’s still about creating automatisms, however, in a way that truly works for our brains, which is that of living real (or life-like) experiences and not that of parroting a pre-cooked pitch.
The result of practicing at the right pace in experiences that allow to mistakes to be made and that generate living images in our brain (the so-called Deja-vu) is the formation of our habits. This is a key point:
- Each of us already acts on habits. We rely on our habits when we enter a learning class
- The scope of training should be that of improving those habits
- This does not happen by simply explaining how we should behave, and not even by instructing us on how we should do
- The only chance is to allow trainees to practice in a safe environment, without biasing them with pre-determined “winning” paths. Let them fail, provide them with instant feedback (more on the amazing learning triggers of best the Digital Role Plays in this article “8 Ways Your Skills Will Improve by Practicing on Digital Role Plays”) and wait for the formation of new and better performing habits
These are some of the reasons why I am a big fan of the idea of totally flipping those training strategies that don’t consider practical training or just keep it relegated at the end of traditional classes (more on the idea of flipping conversational training strategies in this amazing article “Flipping the Leadership Development Strategy with Actionable and Scalable Programs”).
Routing the learning experience
Great Digital Role Plays develop powerful dialogues by presenting ready-made options to the trainees, each carrying a specific shade of a specific behavior. And the dialogue is written in a way (we call it a meta-narrative) that the readers can imagine the entire emotional impact of such a sentence in their mind.
There are some important implications behind this strategy:
- First, uninformed trainees (and trainers as well, sometimes) claim that the Digital Role Play should let the users freely say what they want. Well, on one side we observed that when they are left to say what they want, they end up not knowing what to say.
And by the way, allow me this joke, I used to argue that, “If they were enrolled in a conversational leadership program, it is likely because what they normally say is not that effective”.
- Then, I am sure you watched a movie based on a book you loved. And I am sure your reaction was, “The book was much better”.
Why? Because the book was written in a way (meta-narrative) that allowed your brain to conjure up your own flavors and shades of behaviors played by the characters.
And, of course, it was your way, the best possible means of triggering your deep-rooted emotions. Again, when we move from fiction to training, there are ways to write the options of a simulated dialogue that trigger the right emotions and resemble in our mind the right behaviors that cause certain precise character reactions.
That’s the reason why you don’t need to talk to the simulation to express your intentions (you need to show your body language in front of the camera).
- Finally, don’t forget it’s a training, not just “free experience”. So, it is paramount to make sure that the user gets routed into a certain path of allowed experiences, allowing them to experiment without limits within that range.
Let me add one more thing. Digital Role Playing is not about learning what to say and how to say and how to gesture when saying it. Digital Role Playing, to be really effective, is about learning what happens when you do that (which, as stated above, does not require gestures or shouts).
And the more this type of learning is acquired through consistent and unrushed practice, the more it turns into living (and light-speed actionable) images in our brain.
The more the training experience alternates different situations (i.e., different plots, different types of conversations and different types of characters), the more the overlapping living images, the more the Deja-vus, the more efficient our basic and instinctive reactions during real life conversations.
This is why I always say that in a well-designed Digital Role Play there are no right or wrong options for the trainee to choose. They are all right choices because it’s not about scoring high, but wide.
The more the trainees can experiment, the more they will make of the training experience.
How long does it take?
As I wrote above, one of the key ingredients of a successful practical training on soft skills, in particular on conversational leadership, is about not rushing the trainees to complete a certain (high) number of simulations in a very short period (weeks).
However, you may argue that the time allowed for training (especially corporate training) is measured in days, weeks maximum, not months.
Let’s reflect on this. It is not necessarily true that an established practice is a good practice and you do not necessarily need to monopolize the trainees’ time to deliver effective and consistent soft-skill long-haul training:
- On the first point, can you imagine professional athletes getting trained once or two times per year in a 2-day class with some exercise at the end? How could they possibly perform at the Olympic games with such a poor training strategy? I am sure you agree with me, so far.
Now think about the Leaders in your organization (or the salespeople or the customer care staff, it’s just the same). Aren’t you (and your entire organization) calling them to win the gold medal at your Olympic games (in other words, winning the next big contract, keeping your clients loyal for life or spreading your well-designed corporate culture)?
So, why should they be prepared for that challenge with such a poor training strategy as the pit-stop learning activities? (Yes, that’s what the 2-days class + some exercise really are). Food for thought here.
- On the second point, if you really think that in the 21st century you really need to monopolize the entire agenda of your trainees to deliver effective and consistent long-haul training, please read this article (“Three Case Studies and One Strategy to Keep Users Engaged with Digital Learning”).
Scheduling effective simulation-based, actionable training is much easier than you think. Evidence shows that it takes less than one hour / month to develop and maintain conversational skills (because you need to maintain them as well). And after just 3-4 months, results are stunning (all in the case study described in the article linked above, which is worth reading).
Kudos to you for reading this far. I know it was long, but I hope it was worth it. There is really so much to do to make soft skill training great and I hope this article gave you some elements of reflection.
I would love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below or to contact me directly. Also, if you are curious about how we develop Digital Role Plays that really perform, give us a shout and book a 1-hour discovery call of our tools.
Have a great day.