Designing the Learning Power of Improv & Role Play into your World

Episode Two: Designing for Human Transformation

International colleagues bonding over improv games

Throughout the 20th century we witnessed a revolution in improvisation. Legendary improvisers like Miles Davis and Del Close pioneered the raw magic of improv in theatre and music. Sheet music and scripts gave way to jazz standards and calls from the audience. New modes of art and expression were born.

At the end of the century the business world began to take notice. Expert improvisers helped design improv and role play exercises targeting team problem solving skills for the modern workplace.

You, too, can design the awesome power of improv and role play to enable transformative learning in your organization. Here’s how.

Designing the Learning Magic of Improv and Role Play into your World

With role play, learners are situated in scenes that, with a little imagination, mimic real-world situations. Role play demands less time, less effort, and less complexity than full-fledged simulations. Nevertheless, role plays can create wonderful, low-risk opportunities for repeated practice and targeted feedback.

Role play can be great for:

  • Practicing for a big presentation
  • Preparing for a difficult conversation with your boss
  • Integrating into a large-scale professional development program

Let’s get started!

Icons creators: Shmidt Sergey, Jonathan C. Dietrich, and Lance Hancock (top to bottom)

Before the Role Play: Skills, Scenarios, and Commitment to Value

Before you begin your role play, write down the skills you want your learners to develop and draft a handful of real-life scenarios that target those skills. Include your learners in this prep work if possible, and verbally commit to creating value and learnings out of the role play together with your learners.

Define the skills

Before you begin, define your learning objectives. Write down the skills you want your learners to develop and share them with your role players. Your skills should be specific and framed as capabilities. Avoid general skill definitions and instead complete the sentence, “I will be able to…” for all of your skills.

Your role players should have a clear picture in their mind of what success looks like once they have acquired the skills. Allow your learners to discuss the skills, sharing stories of their personal success and struggles applying the skills in their lives. Provide examples and demonstrations of successful application of the skill, and invite the group to be open and honest about their experiences.

Set the stage

Now that everyone is clear on the learning goals for the role play, it is time to set the scene. Provide your learners with a scenario that mirrors a real-world situation in which the targeted skills are activated.

  • Talk to your colleagues and role players about challenges and successes they have witnessed in the workplace
  • Write down the experiences that best target your skills for the role play in clear, concise scenes, only including the key details
  • Share these scenes with your role players and prepare everyone’s minds to practice the targeted skills by acting them out in real time

Try only to include details that enhance the learning experience. It is not necessary to clutter your scenes with characters, setting descriptions, and technical details that do not enable better practice of the targeted skills. Your role players will fill in the details with their imagination. Not only does this make for a more fun and imaginative role play, it also taps into your learners prior knowledge and motivations as they make the learning experience their own.

You may want to warm everyone up by practicing a few improv acting scenes to get the mojo flowing before you jump into the real thing. Check out or watch a few episodes of Whose Line is it Anyway for ideas.

Commit to creating value

Now that you have set the stage for learning by defining your skills and role play scenes, it is time for everyone to commit to taking full ownership of the learning experience. Everyone must be in the mindset of getting the most learning value out of the role play. As the scene unfolds, every participant has the opportunity to either contribute to the learning experience or create distractions.

We are all in this learning journey together

Role plays can easily derail if the participants are not committed to creating value. I have seen role plays drift towards irrelevance or descend into laughter. If this happens, yell “cut!” and ask your learners, “how can we make the most of this scene to develop these skills?”

Learning is a communal experience. Everyone is responsible for cultivating an experience conducive to learning during role play.

During the Role Play: Monologue, Cast, and Time Travel

During the role play, have your players speak their thoughts aloud, bring in other characters and define the context for their interactions, and fast forward between scenes to play out scenarios over long periods of time.

Now that we have defined our learning goals, set the scene, and committed to creating value through the role play, it is time to get to work! Now how do we get the most out of the role play in real time? Below are three practices of effective role play that we fold into our daily routine for the Andela Simulations program.

Speak your mind

Monologues are key to effective role play. We select one or two people to be the central protagonists for each scene, and ask them to speak their thoughts aloud. The learners articulate their thoughts and feelings when faced with the role play scenario, and describe aloud their approach to meeting challenges and solving problems.

Sample Monologue: “I’m about to jump on a call with Oscar. I heard he was frustrated with me after our last interaction and I want to address that with him directly without making him uncomfortable. Perhaps I’ll start by saying something like, ‘I was grateful to hear some feedback the other day and I would like your perspective’…”

Monologuing is key for two reasons:

  1. It gives the group insight into the role players thought process, enabling them to give more precise and informed feedback
  2. It prompts the role player to talk out loud about their developing knowledge and skills, a practice from the science of learning known as articulation and externalization, which has been found to promote effective learning.

So have your role players speak their minds!

Cast the characters

The role player is both protagonist and director. Give them the power to bring other characters into the role play as they see fit. When they do so, they should clearly define who the new character is (e.g. “you are Rocco, the team lead”) and how they will be communicating (e.g. “you are on a video call, calling in from San Francisco”).

Remember, we want our learning experience to be communal and owned by the learner. As long as the role players are creating value and focused on the learning goals for the sessions, allow them control over how the role play plays out.

Travel time in scenarios

Your role players have super powers. During the role play they can control time. They should fast forward and skip scenes as they see fit.

Skills in the workplace play out over long periods of time. Your role players do not have to get hung up playing out one meeting or interaction for the entire role play. They have the freedom to fast forward, rewind, skip scenes, and otherwise manipulate the scene to the benefit of the learning experience.

Role plays are alternate realities that we control for the benefit of growth and development.

Perhaps you want your players to develop their relationship building skills by role playing the first meeting with a new colleagues. They can choose to fast forward to an interaction where they leveraged the rapport they had built during that first interaction to kick off a collaboration a week later. Give your role players the remote control and let them hit fast forward.

Role plays are alternate realities that we control for the benefit of growth and development. Push your learners to take the reins and manipulate the role play as they see fit for the benefit of learning.

After the Role Play: Feedback, Preparation, Reinforcement

After the role play, have your role players exchange actionable feedback, celebrate failures during the role play and help your learners prepare for future success, and plan for opportunities to reinforce the learnings in the workplace.

The scene can end when the peak learning value has been discovered and as time permits. Role players can indicate that the scene is over by breaking character and requesting feedback from the group.

Exchange actionable feedback

Have everyone return to the circle and prepare to deliver feedback to the role players. It often works best if the feedback is delivered to the fictional characters of the role play, rather than the actual participants. Have the participants stand in the circle, and allow the “ghosts” of their role play characters remain in the center. Name the “ghost” characters and have everyone offer feedback to the ghosts by their fictional names.

This takes the pressure off of the participants for delivering and receiving direct, honest feedback to their peers, and has the curious effect of enabling learners to give themselves feedback as if they were observing from the outside. This technique works well outside of role plays as well, and can be used in one-on-one conversations and work review sessions.

Exchanging feedback with a smile

As always, encourage participants to deliver feedback that is specific, actionable, and shared with the conviction that the recipient has unlimited capacity to grow and develop.

Fail, then prepare

Failure is a natural part of learning. Effective role plays should be rich with failure and performance that falls short of the learning goals. Otherwise, the role play was not necessary in the first place.

Not all failure is created equal in the eyes of learning. When a learner fails, they should come to an understanding of why they failed and how they can succeed in the future. Challenge them to embrace this failure, make sense of the feedback, and take responsibility for preparing for success in the future.

Not all failure is created equal in the eyes of learning.

Pair your learners up to discuss the key areas for improvement that came up during the session. Have them reflect and write down plans for how they will succeed in the future. Create a space where people can say “I think I know what went wrong, but I don’t know how to fix it.” Prompt the group to offer their support.

Repeat and reinforce

Deep learning takes repeated, disciplined practice. Role play is a great start to activate learning on specific skills and equip learners with actionable feedback to up their game. Ensure that learners follow up and reinforce these learnings by applying the skills in the real world, eliciting feedback, and reflecting on progress and persistent challenges.

Deep learning takes repeated, disciplined practice

A core benefit of role play is that it helps learners identify contexts where skills are activated. Identifying the when and where to apply a new skill is critical to habit formation. Encourage your learners to think through the situations in their daily lives where they can apply and reinforce what they have learned during the role play. After all, learning doesn’t stop when the role play ends.

Role play is just the beginning.

Join us next time as we dive into the principles of collaborative design for learning…