A simple technique that can improve your role plays
  • sales
  • Blog post

A simple technique that can improve your role plays

Perhaps the biggest challenge in training is turning “knowing” into “doing” — getting people to apply what they’ve learned.

In sales, the classic tool for doing that is the role play. Research suggests that there’s a simple step you can add to role plays that can help make them more effective: Before you start, ask people to make comparisons.

You probably remember the ol’ compare and contrast assignment from high school. Well, it turns out that our teachers were on to something: There’s something about comparing two things that gets the brain working harder. A study out of Northwestern University found that it increases both retention and application of new knowledge.

A threefold increase in application

The study involved graduate business students. They were taught a new negotiation technique and then separated into two groups.

Both groups were given a sheet of paper with two different scenarios where the technique could be applied.

Group One was asked to review the scenarios one at a time. Students were told to study the first scenario, write down their recommended course of action, and then do the same for the second scenario. Group Two was asked to read the scenarios together, compare them, and write down the core principle or principles that the two scenarios had in common.

Then the students from both groups were asked to apply the new technique in simulated face-to-face negotiations.

Group Two — the ones made the comparisons – were three times more likely to use the new technique in the exercise.

So what happened? According to the researchers, the comparison exercise got learners to think more deeply and more critically. The comparison forced them to consider the key principles and dig for the most important information. So they were more easily able to access what they’d learned, even under the high stress of the role play.


The implications for your role plays are obvious. Before you jump in, give learners a couple of scenarios where the skill you’re teaching might come into play. Say, for example, you’re teaching an objection-handling technique. You might present two scenarios with different objections: One buyer thinks the price is too high, while another thinks the promised benefits are unrealistic. Ask reps to consider: What’s the common thread between these two objections? What’s really going on when someone raises an objection? (In this case, common threads might include poor communication of the value proposition, or a failure to understand the buyer’s situation, or the fact that the buyer sees this as a risky purchase.)

Have reps discuss their conclusions, and then jump into the role play itself.

Source: Thompson, L., et al. (2000). Avoiding missed opportunities in managerial life: Analogical training more powerful than individual case training. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 82(1), 60-75.

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