Dramatic impact: drama-based training

“Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand”.

HR and training managers would do well to remember this quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius when thinking about how best to deliver training. When staff are involved and emotionally engaged in training, it can have much greater impact and a longer lasting effect. This is why drama training can be effective, particularly when it’s used to tackle tricky issues such as diversity, bullying, conflict management and change.

“Drama can bring the issues and attitudes that exist to life and give meaning to written policy,” says Ian Jessup, senior partner at drama training provider, Interact.

Audience participation

Drama training is now used in a variety of ways: live theatre, role play, workshops, one-to-one coaching, conferences and via bespoke DVDs. Audience participation varies greatly according to each programme, and they are not necessarily required to take part in role play or acting themselves. Clients can also script sessions and request that scenes be reprised or amended.

Topics that lend themselves to drama-based training range from leadership and recruitment to staff assessment. And it is useful in simulating situations where diversity issues are raised. The actors can play various roles and portray attitudes that delegates would find difficult or even embarrassing to express. This often helps to address difficult issues that delegates and actors can tackle through discussion or further role play.

Drama-based learning company Steps Drama recently ran 32 workshops for the Audit Commission under the title ‘Managing Change for Diversity and Equality’. About 30 workers attended each event.

Three actors performed a scenario in a fictional workplace, portraying staff with narrow views and negative attitudes towards issues such as work-life balance and disability. The delegates were invited to question each character, and advise them on how they could change their behaviour and look at how cultural changes could be brought about.

The commission’s head of diversity, Loraine Martins, says the approach is particularly effective because it “actively engages the delegates and gets them thinking about the issues and the underlying challenges.

“Feedback shows the workshop has been successful in raising awareness and creating a greater understanding of diversity,” she adds.

Drama-based training can provoke strong reactions, says Debra Stevens, training director at drama training provider Sold-Out Trainers.

“People are not really aware of their own biases, but good drama training makes them aware of their behaviour,” she adds. “It suddenly makes issues come to life and seem real.”

Mary Piers, a business psychologist and director at interactive drama consultancy company Oval, agrees. She says that when delegates undertake role plays with actors, they are often surprised by the feedback they receive.

“The actor can say: ‘This is how you made me feel’, which you don’t often hear in the workplace,” she says. “They receive direct feedback from the person they are interacting with, and are often surprised by their reactions.”

Drama can enable delegates to step outside of their everyday selves and look at issues in a fresh light.

Michael Woodward, director of Paradoxos Theatre, says that drama-based training is all about raising questions and encouraging discussion, not about giving answers. “It can be very controversial, particularly when dealing with contentious issues such as diversity,” he says. “It’s good for provoking debate.”

Risky business

The danger arises when HR thinks drama is going to be a bit of fun and light entertainment and doesn’t approach the training properly or commission the right provider, in which case, the impact will be compromised. The scripts and actors should reflect the values, language and culture of the commissioning organisation otherwise, the drama will have little credibility in the eyes of the audience.

One of the limitations of drama training is that it needs to be well enacted and based on solid learning and facilitation principles if it is to avoid missing the mark – although that can be said of most training.

It can also be quite costly, depending on the level and depth of the training. Most providers maintain that bespoke packages are the only ‘proper’ type of drama training. Jessup says a typical programme with a facilitator, three actors and 12 participants would cost between £2,000 and £2,500 per day.

Case study: Lehman Brothers

Financial company Lehman Brothers is running an employee relations training programme for its 1,200 managers Europe-wide, from managing directors to first line managers. “Employee relations can be a dry subject, so we wanted to make it interesting and interactive,” says director of leadership and learning Angela McDougall.

Oval Consulting produced a bespoke DVD comprising a series of scenes as part of an overall story – an employee’s appraisal meeting, a grievance being raised to HR, the employee being dismissed, an unfair dismissal case, and the ensuing tribunal.

“Participants discuss what’s happening at each stage before going on to the next scene,” explains McDougall. “We have an HR generalist and an employment lawyer who is a trained facilitator running the programmes. It runs each week with groups of up to 25.

“Using a DVD is cost effective, particularly considering the numbers going through the training and the fact that it’s Europe-wide. Plus we will use it on an ongoing basis for any new managers.”

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