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Communications Exercise – something to do with Martians?


I vaguely recall a communications exercise in which participants had to communicate whilst using imagined languages.  I'm sure it had something to do with Martians - can anyone help me out?  I think the participants had to devise their own code of communication, then seek to communicate with each other.


21 Responses

  1. a vehicle……

    in response to Steve Robson’s question……

    A train the trainer course may benefit from a common subject for trainee trainers to train in…..

    I was once involved such a course where the trainees were given an articificial number system and asked to prepare to teach it to another group.  The system contained various patterns and also anomalies which the trainers needed to spot to make it easier for learners to grasp and remember.  Trainers then ran their learnign sessions with live delegates who had never come across the number system before, ie they had no prior learning/knowledge.

    The "delegates" then had to sit a test in the number system which provided an objective proof of the efficiency of the training that had been devised.

    I suspect that this Martian language system is similar

    (Steve Rouse…sorry if this is absolute codswallop….or if it steals your thunder)


    PS do you know the origin of our number system; 1,2,3,4.5 etc? or how did the Roman multiply MCMXI by LV?

  2. Why?


    The purpose is to explore communicating across cultural/language barriers and to increase awareness of the assumptions we all make about "norms" of communication, culture, etc – like that "nodding" always means "yes" (whilst, in fact, it varies from culture to culture).


  3. What is “training”?


    And, to respond to the underlying point of your reply, what would you regard as "training" that was worth the time and money?  Surely it depends on (a) what the organisation’s/participants’ needs are, and (b) the most effective way to address those.  As a trainer, I respond to the needs of my clients and use a variety of approaches, some more directly related to the "real world" than others.  

    I would argue strongly that Diversity & Equality are important issues for all organisations, whether in the public and private sector, affecting the bottom line as well as compliance.  My clients seem to agree.



  4. Odobokko/Warraburra


    I have a great exercise which involves learning new number systems which people have to then use to communicate. Perhaps this is what are you after?

    Sheridan Webb

    Keystone Development 

  5. Experiential learning



    "I am confused as to why the delegates can’t just sit and have a chat about the various cultural differences with someone who knows what they are talking about? The obsession with dressing all training up as a "game" and it must be "fun" amazes me."

    I’m not going to defend the Martian game, but I couldn’t pass over the above part your reasoning. Some people have misinterpreted (IMO) it was ‘fun and games’ but what the real focus of these exercises and simulations is experiential learning.

    These exercises can be fun, or not, but the aim is getting an emotional response and therefore real buy-in from the participants. I’m sure everyone’s had the experience of talking about something until you’re blue in the face, and all the logic and reasoning seems solid, but then heading back and continuing to do things the same old way.

    From basic change management – only if there’s a real desire behind something, will that change happen, and that emotional response comes from reflecting on an experience, whether abstract or refreshingly realistic.

    Time to run for cover….
    Alex Taylor


  6. I think I’ve done something similar?

    Hi Steve,

    I may have the/an answer for you…

    Split the delegates into two groups, each get a flipchart and a pen. One is a group of martians that have crash-landed somewhere (doesn’t even have to be earth, I suppose) and need to find something important for their survival, like salt, or water for instance. The other group have a similar brief, crash-landed aliens, need something for survival (you can kind of dress it how you want). Each group has the solution to the others’ problem.

    They come across each other as they are exploring and have to communicate what they want and how they could help the other, without using words, or recognisable symbols. They are not allowed to speak.

    It’s best if they don’t have any time to prepare a language, and if a team feels the need to confer they have to do so out of the earshot of the other team. I think the point was to demonstrate the reliance on symbols and how that sort of thing develops. I came across it on an A level Communications course (just don’t ask… *sigh*) but that was 20+ years ago and I probably don’t have all the details correct, but perhaps it’s a start.

    Good luck!



  7. martian language

    This sounds like a ‘theatresports’ or ‘impro’ theatre exercise.  good to get people’s brains moving and thinking about the ‘other’s’ experience, about the complexities of language and communication.

  8. Steve Robson – with you…but only up to a point

    Steve R.

    I’ve been in L&D for some years (both private and public). As I get older I too share concerns about certain training ‘games’ and their perceived worth. But surely your concern about your taxes paying for this is a little disingenuous. As with all learning/training exercises, games and activities the power lies in the delivery and relevance to subject and/or objectives. That’s the trainer’s job.

    Being wacky for sake of entertainment is something for us all to be careful of, if we want genuine learning to take place. But innovative and unusual ways of getting a point across should always be welcome. Surely it’s about us judeging what’s best for our audience rather than immediately ‘not getting’ anything that looks unusual. As L&D folks we’ve got be more open-minded than the average operational manager, surely.  

    Final point: The original post asked about an exercise on communications. It didn’t mention anything about a Martian-based training course. Actually, that sounds like quite an interesting idea….

    Peter M.

  9. Training or not, here I come.


    (I am French speaking, so sorry for my akward English grammar) I too wonder why you would want to make a ricochet on Mars or use creatively intricate activity framing to help with performance at a specific task or function. Personaly, the experience I had with such exercices left me with a sense of wasted cognitive efforts. That being said, I have to agree that different types of personality traits or different moments in life could make for the liking or not of the game approach to learning….and I underline "personality traits" and not learning styles which have been proven not to have a real impact on learning.

    Yes, there is a lot of money getting wasted because of colourful fads going by whether it be in the training sphere or the management one. In my years of experience in the organizational training field, I realize that as long as organizations whether public or private (I worked in both) continue to consider that:

    •  better performance systematically requires training, 
    • training systems/interventions need to be designed (developped and delivered, yes) by SMEs
    • evaluation is a question of knowing how happy participants are about the training (as opposed to how confident they are about transfering back on the job the newly acquired skills) 

    there will be a door open for non efficient, non effective and fool’s gold opportunities (not targeting games specifically) offered to create confusion with reliable methods.


  10. er…..Guys…..the word “Martians” appeared twice in the origin

    .once in the title and once in the text…..that’s where it came from!


  11. Experiential learning – not all activity is “experiential learni

    I have watched this thread with interest.

    It seems that the original poster (Steve) knew the exercise he wanted and why, but did not have the details so was asking for help finding the details of the activity – fair enough.


    Then things seems to go a little off ….

    experiential learning is not just imaginative activity – it is supposed to be learning from experience – relevant experience.

    One of the definitions on that great god Wikipedia –

    <cite>"Experiential learning can be a highly effective educational method. It engages the learner at a more personal level by addressing the needs and wants of the individual."</cite>

    For me in a business environment, this means having an "experience" that is directly relevant to the individual and their needs and wants. They may "want" to communicate with aliens" – but do they need it?

    Experiential learning is most effective when it uses real experiences related to the job.

    Sure some of the "fun" and off the wall activities have value – but mostly when we are looking at personal development rather then professional developmental needs.

    Is it a wonder that the L&D world has been so badly hit in the current climate if our purpose in life is to focus on fun rather than job performance. The reason why many of these "experiential learning " activities was originally introduced was in the days of 5 day long training courses – as much to energise the participants in amongst long slow academic sessions – is there a need in the current 1/2 1 day focused development programes?



  12. Thanks


    Thanks.  Nice that someone is actually responding to my original request – I seem to have stirred a hornet’s nest here!


  13. Thanks


    Thanks, that would be great, though I’m not sure that numbers are what I need for this one – could be useful in other circumstances though.

    Good to hear from you again!


  14. Glad someone is defending experiential learning!

     Nice that some people, at least, have time for experiential learning.  The idea that "sitting around and chatting" is the best way to learn is something I find scary.  While it has its place – one of the reasons why e-learning is often ineffective – chatting isn’t going to work with all learning styles, or illustrate points effectively.

    There’s also an interesting debate to be had around how closely learning activities need to be related to the "real world" in which the learning will be applied.  Certainly, if we’re dealing with technical training, I can see the argument for making things as "real life" as possible, but for other types of learning I’m not so convinced.  Again, to some extent, we come down to learning styles – some people need to relate things to reality more than others, some people find it more useful to look at concepts in the abstract before relating them to the real world.  Any training that only contains one approach/one learning style is likely to be less effective than training that covers a range of styles.

    I often find that using metaphors and analogies, whether in the form of exercises or otherwise, is a useful way to get learners to think about issues from new perspectives – something that diversity/cultural training often requires.


  15. Public/Private


    At the risk of opening up a second front, what’s the obsession with public money?  Surely, this is about effective training not politics?  Actually, in this case, it’s a private sector organisation that’s involved.  

    I work with organisations across sectors and haven’t noticed any particular split in terms of what’s appropriate/inappropriate or preferred/not preferred.  

    My concern, as always, is to meet my client’s needs as best as I can, and to help participants learn the things they need to learn as effectively as possible.  Though I agree that we shouldn’t be into "fun for fun’s sake", this isn’t about fun for me, it’s about finding ways of conveying learning/ideas that work for learners.  As we know, different people learn in different ways, and there’s certainly more than one way to learn most things.  One solution doesn’t tend to fit all problems, or work in all situations.  To be an effective trainer, I think I need to be flexible and imaginative.

    My approach to training/learning has long been one of "appropriate technology", ie aiming to use the most effective methods in the circumstances.  "Cincumstances" can include a wide variety of factors, such as the target population, individual learner preferences/styles, logistical issues, budget, client preferences, subject matter, etc, etc.


  16. Thanks


    That’s an interesting one – thanks.  Not what I’m looking for in this case, but certainly something that might prove useful at some point in the future.


  17. Fun?


    Good to hear from you!

    Agree up to a point – I think there is room for fun, but tend to agree that we shouldn’t be into fun for fun’s sake.  The focus should always be on "does this help people learn what they need to learn?"  I think abstracting things from the "real world" can also be really useful (especially for some learning styles), but we do have to return to the real world at some point to support learners in applying their learning to real-world problems.


  18. Experiential – Work related though not necessarily work based.

    Mike emphasises why experiential learning must be relevant to the workplace and the development issues the group faces, a point with which I would totaly agree. I would also like to make the point that experiential learning can also support and help the learner acquire and practise new skills without necessarily being work based; indeed it can be of some benefit in certain situations for it not to be. I begin with the presumption that the individuals are on the development programme because they have a shortfall in productivity based on an absence of particular knowledge or skills.

    Initialy using situations and events with which the learner is already familiar can lead to ‘coping behaviours’ being employed, i.e. doing what they have always done; coping. However with completely new circumstances and situations (but with related and clear parallels to the workplace) this can and often helps learners try new or different techniques, ‘If you do what you’ve always done you get what you’ve always got’. Faced with completely new situations (not work based but equivalent and requiring the same skills and techniques) the learner is helped to shake off old ways and start to acquire and develop new ways, old habits die hard as they say.

    Example: I was recently working with McCains (Britains Favourite Chip Manufacturer) developing their workforce instructors. Had the first thing they practised and taught been something with which they were already familiar and could probably do blind fold the issue of unconscious incompetence would have been that much harder to address. However, giving them something which was completely un work related required them to go back to square one and begin to learn the process of training unencumbered by existing issues of ‘this is how I have always done it’.

    The choice and selection of the experiential activity must be a conscious one, but it can be highly productive, a fantastic learning opportunity and an enhancement of their development. And whilst at all stages it must be work related, in the early stages it is not always helpful to be work based, in my view and experience.

    Good luck with the exercise Steve, it sounds interesting.

  19. Absolutes


    I too have worked extensively in the public sector and am aware of the "public money" issue (I was a budget management trainer with the DWP for several years, working to help civil servants understand Treasury rules, etc).  Yes, there are differences between the public and private sector, I just don’t think they’re so big in training terms – most of the behavioural skills elements are pretty generic, with contextual/cultural tweaks.  I’ve come across wide variations in organisational culture in each main sector.  I don’t like to make assumptions.

    What concerns me, I think, about your responses to this thread is the apparent certainty/absoluteness (if that’s a word) of your pronouncements, such as your assertion that "the Martian exercise is not the best use of [time and resources]", and that it’s "just not appropriate any more".  How can you know?  How can you be so certain?  – especially when you have very little information about either the exercise or the context in which it’s being used.

    I agree that "experiential" learning (which covers a very wide area and isn’t exactly easy to precisely define) isn’t the answer to everything – neither is sitting around discussing things.  I’m also puzzled by the "latest thing" assertion.  I was not (I don’t think anyone in this thread was) suggesting that anything was "the latest thing" – certainly not experiential learning, which has been around for a long time.  To me, good training methodology isn’t about the age of a technique, it’s about whether it works in the circumstances – old or new.  Yes, experiential learning is sometimes misused, as is e-learning, as is discussion, as is "tell", as is PowerPoint, as are action learning sets, etc, etc.  Equally, all are often used very appropriately.  It is the job/skill of the professional learning & development practitioner to advise on the best application of the best methodologies – and, in most cases, there will probably be many options.

    Yes, many clients don’t really know what they need (though often they do know what they want), though this too is a gross generalisation; and it is the responsibility of innovative trainers to support and advise them.  Doing so cannot, in my view, mean working from a set of concrete and inflexible assumptions about "what is right" and "what is wrong".  We need to be flexible, open minded and not be in thrall to sacred cows (and this includes creating new ones of our own).  

    Just to let you know this isn’t personal, just intended to contribute to the debate ūüôā


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