To many, the very word conjures up images of improv theatre or awkward team building exercises in high school.
But, when you think about it, why wouldn't you want to practice for an important conversation or meeting? After all, we all do it in the bathroom mirror, right?
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Role-playing takes your rehearsal out of the bathroom and adds additional elements of realism, while still providing a low-stakes trial run.
Indeed, when implemented well, role-playing can be an invaluable tool for growth for professionals of all types. Chris Duprey, IMPACT's chief learning officer, explains.
Role-playing in context
John: What does role-playing that mean to you?
Chris: Role-playing, to me, is like practice. It's like those swings you take on the driving range or in batting practice before a game. Role-playing is all about how we prepare for those human interactions that are meaningful.
You're obviously not going to role-play everything, but when we take the time to practice how we want to communicate, and we go through the exercise of doing it effectively, it feels like second nature when we go and execute the real conversation.
And so, just imagine what's possible if you actually did that for those important conversations.
Then, when you go into that sales call, you’re comfortable. You’ve already done the work to understand who the other person is and what their potential fears, worries, concerns, issues might be — and how you are going to address those.
And, let’s say you complete a role-play and see that one of your approaches didn’t work well. You can learn from that, retry it, and then when you're on with the actual human that you really need to be talking to, you don't make that mistake.
Who should role-play?
John: What sorts of teams or professionals can benefit from role-playing?
Chris: I think anybody that ever has to have a conversation that's not just surface-level would benefit.
But if we're really talking about where role-playing will have the most effect, I would say sales teams first, and leadership second.
Let's just be real: sales folks are having conversations all day long. They're really the tip of the spear when it comes to interacting with clients. It's highly critical that they role-play different scenarios as they prepare for calls that are coming up.
I also believe that leaders need to be effective communicators because they have to give frequent, specific feedback. They set expectations. They tell people the things they need to do.
Really good leaders know how to give feedback and know how to have it be effective. They know how to set expectations in a way that still allows their folks to thrive and feel challenged without feeling crushed.
The ability to have those conversations is something that needs to be practiced.
Experience may have brought you to the point where you've done it so much that it's second nature, but still, the human that you're communicating with changes all the time, too. So you have to practice. You have to take those swings.
The more we can role-play those tough feedback conversations, the easier they become in real life.
John: You said leaders can deliver feedback in such a way that makes people feel crushed. They can also deliver feedback in such a way that it is full of platitudes and fluff. Getting those conversations right is so critical — and it's so easy to get them wrong.
Chris: Yeah. The more practice you have, the better you are when it's game time.
Learning the value of role-playing
John: Was there a certain time in your professional life that made you truly see the benefit of role-playing?
Chris: Honestly, I’ve got to say it was Marcus Sheridan. As I built a relationship with Marcus, as he worked with me and coached me to become a great communications coach, everything we did was role-playing.
Working with him wasn't just taking some slides and going over them. It was like, “I want you to talk to me about this,” and we would role-play for an hour.
And then, as I started coaching our sales team and started working with other leaders, it was a no-brainer. The way to really have something sink in is from having firsthand knowledge. And how do you get firsthand knowledge? You have to do the thing.
We can take the real situations and bring them into a sort of training environment and allow our brains to go through the actual exercise of that conversation that's coming up.
What I've seen is when leaders have done that, when leaders have role-played tough conversations with their employees, they've had really great conversations.
Those are two things that any business would want.
Why role-playing is not just for new hires
John: I think people sometimes hear role-play and they think, okay, well that's something I would do during the interview process before I get a job, but then not again. Is that a mistake?
Chris: I think that even more often than that, most people hear role-play and they go, well, it's such a waste of time. I hate them. They're so stupid.
John: Is that a fear-based response?
Chris: Well, sometimes role-plays aren't done correctly and they can be a waste of time. They can be cheesy. But they also can make us uncomfortable, and most people don't enjoy being uncomfortable.
So, is it the wrong mindset to think of role-plays as something that only happens during interviews? Of course it's the wrong mindset. The only place for growth is in discomfort.
And then, when we really think about frequency, I just go back to the sports analogy.
I don't think that Jordan Spieth stops going to the putting green because he's won the Masters. If anything, he goes to the putting green more.
When you talk about truly elite communicators — be they salespeople, leaders, marketers, or whomever — they’re constantly seeking to improve.
So, do you want to be great or do you want to be exceptional? Those who want to be exceptional, they're doing the work. It's just like the putting green.
The more time we spend in those practice moments, the more comfortable and confident we are when it’s game time.
The right cadence for practice
John: So what is an appropriate cadence?
Chris: I think once a month is probably a minimum. I think once a quarter is not enough. I think twice a month is what I would generally suggest, maybe even more frequently in the sales realm.
Even if you’re often having very similar sales conversations, I still think it's worth it to role-play aspects of almost every important sales call you're going to have.
If you’re selling a core product that you’ve sold a ton and you just know that conversation, then you can probably do a two week or once a month cadence.
But every conversation is different, and the more practice that you can have, the better.
Setting your team up for success
John: How do you set up an environment in which people are okay with doing role-plays?
Chris: I think it starts with debunking the misperceptions about role-plays. You've got to start with your team and address the fact that yes, we roll our eyes when we hear about role-plays.
Well, so what is it behind that? In many cases, it’s because the role-plays are not done well. Because there isn’t a clear program in place. I talk about this in an upcoming course on IMPACT+, and I'll be talking about this at the Virtual Selling Summit. To have successful role-plays, you need to have rules for how to conduct them.
You have to have read-aheads and treat it like a real sales call or like a real meeting. What would you have asked the prospect to read before the call? This provides context and allows your partner to be fully prepared. You need to have a third-party observer.
You have to be focused on a real situation or on principles that you need to work on, based on how previous real situations have gone.
Then you need to have a true feedback loop right at the end of the role-play, and then a follow up.
You have to have this whole program so that it's a real training environment where we're preparing, we're doing the thing, and we're learning from it.
And once we get all that true communication in there, there's a ton of value because there are multiple learning spots throughout.
Role-plays can prep you for all conversations — not just the hard ones
John: So, are role-plays just to prepare for difficult calls and conversations?
Chris: Here's the thing. As we become more seasoned professionals, we want to get better in all these different aspects of how we show up professionally and communicate.
As we think about how we can hone our own communication skills to have the conversations that matter, we need to role-play. It's one thing to read a book on communication. It's one thing to take a course, but it's another to bring it to action.
If you learn a new conversational tool, a new way to really connect, and you try to bring it to life in a real conversation, you're going to mess it up. It's going to be awkward and uncomfortable and weird — and you're going to learn from it.
But imagine if you just talk to a partner or a teammate and say, Hey, I'm reading this book and I'm working on this thing, or Hey, I've noticed that I don't really do this very well. I'd like to practice it.
Role-playing is how you practice it. So if you're not very good at asking questions, you should role-play asking questions. If you’re not very direct, set up some scenarios to practice being more direct.
You can intellectually know what you need to improve, but then you need to physically undertake the actions, and that's what role-playing really allows us to do. Otherwise, that skill will go on the shelf and not really be part of your repertoire of communication.