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The dramatic effect

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Does drama-based training and coaching work, or is it just an excuse for some theatrical fun? Mike Levy talks to those who use drama in training to find out.

For theatre companies drama-based training seems like a win-win: a juicy source of income for actors struggling to find work on stage. For clients, working with actors can be stimulating – especially when they present a convincing role play or simulation of the business’s issues – it can also be potentially scary as drama-based training often comes with the perceived fear of making a fool of yourself.

Research on the efficacy of drama-based training is thin on the ground though Maureen Maguire Lewis contributed an interesting article in a recent academic journal *.

Lewis teaches at Duke University in North Carolina. She has been writing and running drama-based business simulations in cross cultural negotiations for many years and is a passionate advocate of this species of action learning. She strongly believes in the efficacy of well-managed simulations. “Drama, can be an important component of a learning exercise because it engages so many senses, not just the intellect.”

“The key is good acting and skilful instruction – they have to be good at both. Learning objectives can sometimes get left behind in the glitz and glamour of working with professional actors. This is a mistake.” Pat Galagan, ASTD.


Author of several business simulations involving as few as seven and as many as 300 people, Lewis says that each simulation takes her around a year to research, write, trial and publish. Effective drama simulations must involve good story telling, she says, realistic and credible players, reality-based data and business scenarios and (perhaps most importantly) some conflict to be resolved.

Her researches point to many sub-standard drama simulations being no more than the dispensing of information to a defined problem. Exercises are often boring and lack true drama. “The key is to have meaningful interactions and an opportunity to develop good communication techniques.”

The 'Aha!' moment
Putting drama into business simulations is not difficult she contends: “After all, there is nothing more dramatic than business, just read the FT every day.” Simulations though must be thoroughly and painstakingly researched. They should not, says Lewis, be outcome based: “There should be no winners or losers – it is the process that counts.” 


The test of a good  drama simulation is when a student has that ‘Aha!’ moment – a sudden light bulb moment that can only come from sensory experience achieved either through real-life experience or very authentic real-time simulation.

Though Lewis’ work is focused on inter-cultural business negotiation, it does also have resonance for training in diversity: much of what she has observed in this field has not been well done – simulations have been poorly structured and based around giving lots of passive information. As she has written: “Lived learning, rather than just listening learning, lasts longer.”

The implication is that unless your trainees learn from real experience, well-structured drama simulations are a very effective second best.

Glamour and glitz
Pat Galagan is another cautious enthusiast for drama-based training. She is the executive editor and spokesperson for the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). She has been a keen observer of drama in the training world for 20 years.

"We have used drama to help us move from OK service, to wow service. We believe drama has helped us achieve that goal." Joanna Williamson, Stena Line Ltd.

“Using drama at the end of the 1990s was very popular especially in the area of diversity training. It was a good way for people to step back and observe behaviour in a non-threatening way. I don’t hear too much about it recently. A lot of experiential learning is happening now in the virtual world – this has displaced some of the live role play/theatre techniques.”

Galagan’s observations are that drama is most successful where any kind of behavioural learning is taking place – leadership and sales training are particularly appropriate, she believes. “Drama is very effective where you want delegates to observe and then practice some new kind of behaviour,” she says.

What are the key ingredients to making drama-based training effective? Galagan says: “The key is good acting and skilful instruction – they have to be good at both. Learning objectives can sometimes get left behind in the glitz and glamour of working with professional actors. This is a mistake.”

 
Any kind of presentation: whether a role-play or an actual play (she has witnessed some very powerful sessions on leadership using a Shakespeare play as a stimulus) must be followed up by meaningful discussion and reflection. There should be a real partnership between the theatre company and the specialist trainer.

The wow factor
Joanna Williamson, Training Manager of Stena Line Ltd agrees. The shipping company has been employing Sold Out Trainers, an actors’ company specialising in business training. For several years they have used drama-based training to deliver their strong customer service messages to staff – onshore and on ship. 

Williamson says: “I saw drama being used at a conference and was very impressed. We employed the drama company and worked with them to produce a powerful half-day workshop.”

The actors play the part of Stena Line staff involved in front line services. “The key to success was to fully brief the actors on our ‘six points of contact’ strategy. The team consisted of two actors (male and female) and a facilitator,” says Williamson whose training team were also part of the workshop – she feels that is a crucial element.

“Drama, can be an important component of a learning exercise because it engages so many senses, not just the intellect.” Maureen Maguire Lewis, Duke University in North Carolina.


The actors’ briefing was involved them coming up to the Stena Line offices in Scotland, thoroughly immersing themselves in company goals, operating systems (even the complex booking procedures) and putting themselves in the shoes of a Stena customer. Williamson believes that without this in-depth briefing, the simulations cannot get anywhere near to being convincing.

The experience, says Williamson, has been very positive. Delegates are told from the start that they are not expected to do any acting or join in. Theirs is a watching and observation brief.

“It is amazing how some staff really do want to get involved, say ‘that’s not how I would handle this situation’ or suggest fresh ways of making the customer experience richer and more satisfying. Every scenario played out by the actors is followed by in-depth discussion and reflection.

“Every front line member of the business, ship and shore, now experiences this type of training and we find it really sticks”, observes Williamson. The role-play scenarios have been extended to include internal customer service: between supervisors and managers for instance.

“We have used drama to help us move from OK service, to wow service. We believe drama has helped us achieve that goal.”

* Journal of European Industrial Training Vol 29 No 7 2006
 

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