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Six Ways to Build a Better Training Role Play

"Role play" is a pretty dirty word in the training world... but if it's done right, it can be the most powerful training experience you can design.

Many people find the six dirtiest words in a training setting to be: “Now let’s do a role play!”

There are many reasons people don’t like role play, and many of those reasons are legitimate. Often people don’t have enough context to carry on an effective scenario. Often the role play arrives at a happily-ever-after sort of conclusion that is neat and easy to wrap up in a training setting, but not actually realistic at all. Often people don’t like getting up in front of all their colleagues… and then receive feedback.

There’s gotta be a better way.  

I incorporate a lot of role play into the training programs I design. Many of those programs revolve around coaching, presentation skills, and sales skills – all of which require practicing the words you’d normally say in order to improve your skill set.

Here are the top six lessons I’ve learned to make training role plays more effective and to help the audience embrace them a little more:

1. Market Your Training Role Play.

While I use the strategy of role play quite frequently, I never use the words “role play” in any program I design. I’ve found people are much more receptive to activities called simulations, practice scenarios or mock conversations.

2. “What’s my motivation?”

I’ve found that in order for role plays to be effective, it’s essential that people on both sides of the training role play have a clear understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing. If I’m designing a sales skill training, I will create a role play card for each actor in the scenario.

For the salesperson, the card will describe the situation, any background information they’d normally have about the customer they’re engaging with and the outcome they’re aiming for.

For the person in the role of the prospective customer, the card will explain what’s on their mind, what concerns they have. Sometimes I’ll even include a note that says: Only reveal this concern (which is a key piece of information) if the salesperson asks you a specific question.

Giving both people clear instructions help to make the scenarios, conversations and potential outcomes more realistic.

3. Lights, camera, action!

Over the past year, I’ve brought video into your training role-play scenarios. I ask participants to use their own smartphone or a tablet that we provide in order to record the role-play scenario. There are several reasons for this:

  • While it’s easy for someone to brush aside feedback following a normal role-play if they simply don’t agree with the person giving feedback, it’s much more difficult to deny what happens on film.
  • Often times people are not aware of their own body language and attitude, and the camera gives an opportunity for people to see themselves in action.
  • When the camera is rolling, people take the scenario much more seriously. Nobody wants to look silly on film.

4. Training Role Play Feedback

A key element to effective training role plays is the feedback that people receive following their performance in a simulated scenario. As I mentioned above, it’s easy for people to brush aside feedback that they don’t agree with following a traditional role play. Having an opportunity to take a moment after the live action and allow everyone involved in the role play (and anyone assigned to an observer role) to review the film, and then allowing the person in the “hot seat” (the person in the role of salesperson, for example) to offer feedback on their own performance first, allows for a whole new (and often more credible) perspective.

5. Role plays only in small groups.

Very few people like to get in front of a large group and practice their skills. In some cases, this is necessary – presentation skills for example – if they’re going to be in front of large groups anyway. However, the more we can design activities that reduce anxiety – in small groups instead of in front of the large group (for example) – the opportunity to focus on the actual learning will go up.

6. Use a specific feedback form or rubric.

One more reason many people grumble about training role plays is because of the subjective nature of the feedback they receive. Using a feedback form or rubric that ensures every piece of feedback is focused on specific areas helps to ensure more useful, objective feedback is shared.

Have you found something that works well in training role plays? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section!


I’d like to give a shout out to Liv Reed for inspiring this blog post. She read a few of my blog posts and sent me a note which led to a “virtual coffee” which led to this post.

If you have some thoughts on a future training-related blog topic or have 30 minutes to just nerd out over instructional design and training, please drop me a line at brian@endurancelearning.com.

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