11 ways trainers can create terrific role plays

Recently, I had some exciting conversations with people who are trying to create more valuable role plays within their organizations.  Talking with them reminded me of this article I wrote for the ASTD magazine Training Today a few years back.  It’s a compilation of many things Dan and I have learned over our years of creating interactive learning, adapted for trainers who don’t have professional actors to work with, as we do.  I’m reposting the article with permission.


You know that role plays are a wonderful tool for turning theory into practice.  They can answer that crucial question, “How does this apply to me?”  By giving learners a chance to try out new behaviors in a controlled setting, they can jump-start the application of new learning back on the job.  They get people out of their chairs and into action.

So why do so many learners hate role plays?  You’ve seen it happen:  participants groan when a role play is announced.  You can’t get a volunteer, so you have to force someone to come up.  The role players are too easy on each other, or they give up too soon – or they just undermine the whole exercise with joking or hostility.  What’s going on here?

It’s simple:  they’re afraid they’re going to make fools of themselves.  As a trainer, you know that most people get anxious when they have to get up in front of a group.  They’re afraid they’ll be judged.  When that group consists of their peers and co-workers, it feels even riskier.  And when they’re not sure what they’re supposed to be doing, that anxiety goes sky-high.

You can reduce the risk of role plays.  You can’t take away people’s performance anxiety, but you can minimize it through the way you design, set up, and facilitate role plays.  You can create an atmosphere of humor and experimentation, and you can ensure success for all participants – no matter what mistakes they make.

Here are 11 ways to make role plays work for you.  We’ve divided these tips into the three phases of creating a role play:  Design (how you structure the exercise), Instructions (how you explain the exercise to participants), and Facilitation (how you work with the role players as the exercise is taking place).


  1. Be specific.  Most role plays fail because they’re too general, and people don’t know what to do.  Choose the circumstances of the role play carefully.  Fill in lots of detail.  For example, if it’s a customer-service training, don’t just ask someone to play a complaining customer.  Tell the role-players exactly what the issue is:  “You’re a credit-card customer who asked last month to have an erroneous charge removed from her bill.  You just got the new bill, and the charge is still there.” And to the person playing the customer service rep:  “Two people are out sick, and you’re covering for them, even though you should have gone to lunch a half-hour ago.  The last person you talked to hung up on you.”  This level of detail helps role players believe in the action.  They’re less likely to be distracted by their own nerves or by others’ reactions.
  2. Make the role play situation important to the characters.  The stakes should be high.  (For example, a valuable employee is ready to quit because his manager never recognizes his achievements.  The manager already has been warned by her boss about too much turnover in her department.)  When the outcome is important to the characters, the exercise has more energy and interest for the role players and for those watching.
  3. Target the learning points.  Make sure the situation you choose will make the role players deal with the behavior you want to teach.  Because new learning feels uncomfortable, most role players will try to avoid acting it out.  Close the escape hatches by picking a situation that must be solved by putting the learning points into practice.
  4. Focus on a small, important piece of behavior.  Don’t try to do too much in a single role play.  If you’re training people in a process, work it section by section (for example, in sales training, focus on establishing rapport, then on asking probing questions, etc. – perhaps with different participants playing the salesman in each section).
  5. Don’t be afraid of “negative models.”  You can inject a lot of humor – and learning – into a workshop by asking people to “do everything wrong.”  For example, in the customer service situation, ask the person playing the rep to come up with three bad ways to handle the complaining customer (such as sounding bored, using sarcasm, and shouting at her), and then let the participants discuss why those approaches didn’t work – the consequences of not using the new learning.  You can generate a lot of energy with this exercise, and the humor helps break the ice for further role playing.


  1. Take role players off the hook.  Tell them, “You’re not you in this role play, you’re somebody else just like you.”  Refer to the character by another name, not the role player’s name.  Creating distance between the character and the self means participants don’t have to own any errors they make – they’re not really “their” mistakes.  Sometimes it helps to set role plays at a fictional company similar to the real one.
  2. Strive for a better – not a perfect – interaction.  Let participants know that you’ll applaud any success, even a small one.
  3. Bring a sense of fun to the exercise.  Keep it light.  People learn better through humor, liveliness and enjoyment.
  4. Share the risk.  Let role players work in teams, sharing solutions and coaching each other.  Have the team come up to the front, so the person who is actually doing the role play can turn to his team for advice.  Have team members replace each other in the role play, as in tag-team wrestling, so no one has to do the entire exercise by himself.


  1. Applaud.  Praise and validate the role players’ work.  Thank them for their contribution.  Point out where they used the learning points and how it led to a successful outcome.  Applaud them for taking the risk of role playing.
  2.  When “failures” happen, focus on the process rather than the person.  When role players don’t follow the learning points, say (for example), “Well, that certainly put him in his place.  What might be some of the drawbacks to handling it that way?”  Discuss the behaviors.  Have the role players try the same situation again, with suggestions from other participants.  Thank the role players for providing good material for discussion.  After all, the whole group will learn from things that don’t work out, as well as from those that do.

Role plays can be a great teaching tool, with your help.  You can design, introduce and facilitate them so learners

  • know what they’re supposed to be doing
  • aren’t afraid of being judged
  • feel free to experiment and have fun.

With less anxiety and more targeted learning, who knows?  Maybe role plays will become your company’s favorite learning technique.

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