I suck at role-playing exercises — can I get out of them?

A reader writes:

I’m hoping you can help me with a development situation I have encountered recently. At a recent annual divisional meeting, my company had account managers give a faux-presentation to directors regarding one of our products. We were to pretend the directors were our clients and deliver the canned (leadership-approved) presentation to them. Supposedly this was an exercise to test the new presentation content and to make sure we are delivering strong value messaging to our clients. Using this presentation and feedback from the directors as a baseline, there is an expectation for another such exercise in the coming months.

I have always been awful at role-playing scenarios and it showed. The feedback I received was terrible and I’m afraid I left a very poor impression on two directors who may have input on my future career progression . However, I know and my own director knows that I do well with presentations in front of clients. She has even commented on my ability to convey the value of our service in these discussions with my clients. So, I know the feedback from the artificial presentation is not a true reflection of my abilities and skills. The setting for this presentation was in a hotel room suite with two directors. Typically, my client presentations are by web meeting/conference call, but sometimes in person at the client’s location. My director is often in attendance or participating in these meetings.

I don’t want to be the whiner saying “I’m awful at role-playing,” but I am. I believe it would have served the purpose of the exercise more effectively to have had these directors listen in on actual client call/web meeting. Can I offer this as an alternative way to test the presentation content and value messaging skills the next time this exercise is planned? Otherwise I am tempted to try to bow out of the exercise all together, but I am afraid this would only damage my reputation more if not as much as another poor role-playing performance.

I just received an exceptional annual review and merit increase, and that sets the bar higher for me this year. Also, at that same annual meeting, I received an award which made me visible to leadership for the coming year. Failing in these role-playing exercises would be a huge black mark on me for the coming year.

What are your thoughts on role-playing as a developmental tool or testing tool? And how can I gracefully get out of these types of exercises?

I hate role-playing too; it’s awkward and uncomfortable, and it never feels like it goes quite the way things would go in real life. But I do think there are times when it can be really useful, like when you’re training people to do something that’s new to them or trying to get someone more comfortable with particular types of conversations. I don’t love it as a testing tool, though, because so many people are more nervous and much stiffer when they’re role-playing and —as in this case — it’s often not an accurate representation of how someone performs in real situations.

And I suspect you’re right that listening to an actual client call would give your directors more useful information about how things are really playing out. What would be the logistics of making that happen? If it’s complicated, you’re more likely to encounter resistance. But maybe you could get your manager’s okay to bring an already-recorded client call with you next time.

You could frame the whole thing to your manager by saying something like this: “It sounds like they want to get a sense of what this sounds like when we’re talking to clients. As you saw, I really struggle with role-playing — and I think I’m very different in real client scenarios. So that they get an accurate picture of what that really looks like, what do you think about me recording an actual client call covering X and Y, and bringing that to the next meeting where they might want to do this?”

But if she doesn’t go for that, or if the directors don’t, then I think you’ve got to suck it up, unfortunately. I wouldn’t try to bow out altogether — that risks looking worse than giving it a good faith effort.

For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure the key to a good role-play is mindset. If you can suspend disbelief and force yourself to believe that you’re in a real client conversation rather than a fake one, you’ll probably do better (and feel less silly, too).

{ 109 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. TotesMaGoats

    I’d hazard a guess that you aren’t going to be able to get out of this. As Alison said, just imagine it’s a real presentation. Go into it like that and I bet you’ll do much better. I’d say that while people don’t love doing these, they are pretty standard practice across a lot of industries. Especially when rolling out a new product with reps. If this has been a practice for a long time, I’d say there is less of a chance to change it than if it’s a new idea.

    Reply
    1. Lana Kane

      I’d say it is a real presentation at this point – just not a presentation for clients, but a presentation of the OP’s skills to the directors. Maybe framing it that way in your mind, OP, would help you prepare for the next time.

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      1. KarenD

        Also, I know this sounds stupid but I role-play at role-playing. My boss and I run through it a few times. (For the OP, isn’t it grand to have a good, supportive boss? It makes all the difference in the world!)

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          1. KarenT

            If you’re feeling judged and not supported, try to keep in mind that your directors want you to succeed. They want to know that they’ve got great employees who are delivering the message they want to get across. Go into it thinking about all of the clients you’ve wowed and that this just your chance to show your directors your stuff. I do disagree with Alison about trying to pretend it’s a real presentation. In my own experience that’s what makes it weird. Go into it thinking it’s a weird little thing you have to do to show your directors your skills. You said you do well while practicing; use that mind set in your director meeting!
            Also, depending on how rigid your directors are, they may be okay with you slipping out of character to say things like, “If a customer said X to me I would reply and remind them about awesome thing we do that addresses this.” If you get the sense that that’s not okay, do it after the presentation and feel free to throw in a real story about a successful real presentation you’ve done. It will help reinforce you know your stuff.

            Reply
  2. Savannnah

    I’m a medical simulation educator and we here these types of complaints a lot. Simulations take a lot of time to prepare and can go very wrong if the setting and limitations of the simulation are too much for the learners to overcome. Facilitators must also be training in giving feedback, esp. as a summative assessment. But the real key here for you is something called a fiction contract- the mindset that Alison was discussing. Without group consensus on a fiction contract simulations or role playing will be disastrous. A simulation is only as good as the framing around it and it sounds like this was a poorly constructed assessment- the worst kind of simulations.

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        1. OP-ME

          Yes it could be a bad simulation. I don’t think this type of division-wide exercise has been done previously. At least not in my short tenure in the role. I can only try to encourage change or alternatives in the exercise, and just suck it up.

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          1. Savannnah

            It was! The facilitators providing the feedback should not be in the simulation- they should be observing it! If its an assessment, you need to know before had the standards you will be assessed on. You should be in an environment that is at least an 80% match to what ‘real life’ would be and the feedback needs to be constructive and actionable. Additionally learners attitude plays a huge role in role play or simulations and we often tell people they are only getting out of a training what they put in- if all you are doing is thinking ‘this isnt real this isnt real’ then you wont perform to your real standard either.

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            1. Anon 2

              Well said. This sounds like a very poorly designed simulation, which is more typical than not. I really only find that medicine manages to get this right. Perhaps because so much rides on an OSCE, or that you have to pay standardized patients, but what I’ve experienced working in healthcare for this type of thing is drastically different than what I’ve experienced outside of healthcare.

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            2. Annonymouse

              I do this at my work for training new staff on phone answering (we have a script) and sales tours/talks.

              I’m assessing them but it’s no risk – they don’t get fired or anything impacting their future. An in the moment correction and try again.

              That said, if I was to asses them I would observe how they handle real calls / tours etc and not make them do it on me.

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        2. nhbillups

          I don’t have anything to add here, but I love your username, Kowalski! Options! “Just smile and wave boys, just smile and wave…”

          Reply
    1. Marillenbaum

      This is so true. In college, I used to work as a standard patient for the counseling program, where I would play a patient and go through counseling with students (so they could practice without hurting a “real” person if they screwed up), and it makes such a difference if the simulations are well-prepared.

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        1. Savannnah

          All medical schools and most academic hospitals have a standardized patient program and are often looking for new hires. These types of positions are what I like to call part time part time, they are project based and hours vary greatly week to week or not at all but very interesting and pay is usually decent-good.

          Reply
  3. animaniactoo

    I’m sure a role playing suggestion is the last thing you want to hear….

    But if you can’t get out of it via the recorded call, it might be very useful to grab two willing friends to sit through your presentation.

    The reason for grabbing friends (or co-workers) is that you want to replicate the artificial feel of it. And you want to practice keeping your composure and acting your way through it in front of people who you know aren’t going to be interested in actually buying your product, and with whom you have to damp down your level of willingness to engage off-script. Potentially practice the suspension of disbelief and compartmentalization that Alison suggested, and see if that works for you, but if you remain too “present” in the moment and can’t quite hit that stride then practicing faking it will get you closer to where you want to be when you hit prime time.

    Reply
    1. Mabel

      A role-play for the role-play – I like it! I think this is a great idea.

      I, too, am uncomfortable doing role-play exercises, but as Alison mentioned, they really can be helpful for getting more practice with doing something new or getting more comfortable having new kinds of conversations. This suggestion from animaniactoo is perfect because it wouldn’t be used as a test; you would be doing it to get more comfortable and familiar with the actual role-play.

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    2. Marisol

      I think this is the perfect suggestion. The OP needs to suck it up, and let herself fail until she gets good at fake presentations. There’s no downside to practicing in front of friends, except the temporary discomfort the OP will feel, which is exactly what she needs to get used to.

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      1. OP-ME

        I truly appreciate the feedback & suggestions. I may have to wear a “Suck it up, Buttercup” t-shirt under my professional attire when I present again.

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        1. Jadelyn

          I’m fond of the “nevertheless, she persisted” thing that’s gotten popular after the Elizabeth Warren thing. I wear a “nevertheless, she persisted” bracelet every day – it’s super thin, 3/8″ silver stamped with the words. They were filled in black when I got it, but have worn off – so I’m going to add some color with tiny droplets of alcohol ink to fill in the grooves. It helps remind me that I’ve made it through so far, so just keep on persisting.

          Similar message to “suck it up, buttercup” but I feel like it’s a little kinder, and I need help being gentle with myself sometimes. :)

          Reply
  4. Scott

    Role playing may feel really awkward and uncomfortable but it really can be helpful. Even though it’s not real life if you treat it the same way you’d treat practicing for an interview you may find that it gives you some glimpses into how you can do better

    Reply
  5. TCO

    Could you approach this with your manager as a both/and situation instead of either/or? Rather than trying to get out of the role-playing, what if you asked your manager, “I know these role-playing exercises are important, but given that they don’t bring out my best skills, are there additional ways I can be demonstrating my skills to these directors?” If I were your manager, that comes across as less “whining” (because you’re not trying to get out of anything) and more strategic about helping your team look its very best.

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  6. HMM

    I think it’s also worth noting that your own ideas of being a terrible role-player are probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. Can you look at this not as the directors testing *your skill* as a role-player, but, as you say, designed to test the *content*? I think if you can accept that you’re not going to be perfect at this and stop trying to be perfect at it, you may relax and do better. And it sounds like you’re a top performer already – one bad presentation isn’t going to be the be-all, end-all to your career progression, especially when your current manager can vouch for your quality of work already. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. AnonEMoose

      I think this is a really good point. If you can think of this as a “real” presentation, and not a “role play,” that may help.

      I don’t know if this suggestion will work for you, it is, admittedly, maybe a bit out there. That said…have you ever thought about trying an actual role playing game? There are tons out there – Dungeons and Dragons is the best known, but there are hundreds, in all kinds of different settings, including fantasy, science fiction, super heroes, and even some based on properties like Game of Thrones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, Star Wars, the Dresden Files, etc., etc.

      If you have a game store near you, they sometimes have events aimed at people who just want to give gaming a try. But the basic point is, it’s a way to practice getting into “what would my character do,” and just getting more comfortable with the idea of role playing.

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      1. OP-ME

        What a fun and scary idea! I have often said that maybe I should have taken acting classes to help become comfortable with awkward situations. Humm….maybe.

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        1. AnonEMoose

          One of the advantages is that you can practice the skills in a low-stakes environment. Which makes it way less scary, and helps you feel more comfortable. Because, if you mess up, it’s still a game.

          Since I took up gaming and have spent several years volunteering at the local Renaissance Festival, my threshold for public embarrassment has gone WAY up. For example, my response at the Ren Fest, when a teenage boy’s mother looked at him, looked at the neckline of my costume and told him “don’t look,” was “‘Tis a Renaissance Festival, my Lady. He might as well get used to it.”

          The key is to find an event or a game master (referee) who’s willing to teach. Ask around your geekier friends/acquaintances, or do some looking for Facebook groups or meetups in your area.

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        2. Anon attorney

          There’s nothing like a few improv classes to get you used to making a fool of yourself and realising it doesn’t matter!

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          1. AnonEMoose

            Yes, this – getting over that fear of looking foolish is huge. I mean, it still sucks to feel like that, but eventually you realize that everyone else is too busy agonizing over their own mistakes to be too focused on yours! It’s freeing.

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          2. Anon for This Improv Suggestion

            +1,000 to the improv suggestion! Many years ago, I took a few improv comedy classes and ended up joining a troupe, then forming my own troupe. All because I wanted to get better at speaking off the cuff in work situations.

            It improved my confidence, and I’m a much better and more natural speaker now.

            Also, it might help if you relax if you understood better the goals your leaders have for the role-playing. They might be trying to draft the commentary & speaker notes for the PowerPoint, or develop training for the sales team, or decide the order and wording of the main selling points. Evaluating your presentation skills may not be even a focus of the exercise. Emphasize to your director that you hope you are evaluated overall on your actual sales results.

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          3. Halpful

            This is what I was thinking.

            OP, I’m far beyond “awful” at roleplaying. I go mute, and if I’m pressured it gets worse, often to the point of a full meltdown. It is horrible and involuntary and whatever causes it is very deeply-rooted in my brain. I tried a D&D-like thing in university and it went… badly. Everyone was nice, they just didn’t understand, and back then I didn’t even have the skills to explain it afterwards.

            If I needed to work on that today, I would join an improv group, explain in advance what might happen and what “helpful” things make it worse, and ask if they’re still willing to help me practice.

            Maybe you don’t need the disclaimer, though, since you don’t risk losing the ability to communicate. :)

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        3. pomme de terre

          Seconding anon attorney’s suggestion of an improv class. Plenty of those beginner classes are geared towards people who are trying to improve public speaking skills and thinking on your feet.

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    2. Mabel

      As HMM says, they are asking for your help to test the content. It might make you feel less uncomfortable to think of the role-play exercise as helping your company evaluate the new presentation content.

      (I know there’s a component of them evaluating you, but maybe you can push that part out of your mind for the duration. After all, you know that you do good work, and your manager knows it, so that part is kind of taken care of.)

      Reply
  7. Important Moi

    ” I believe it would have served the purpose of the exercise more effectively to have had these directors listen in on actual client call/web meeting. Can I offer this as an alternative way to test the presentation content and value messaging skills the next time this exercise is planned?” —– In evaluating the culture of your company, would this be appropriate or well received? If you’re not certain that it would, I don’t think you should offer an alternative.

    I’m sympathetic to your not liking to do something you don’t do well, but the second half of your letter make it clear you know what the ramifications of not doing what you’ve been requested will be. Sometimes, when the boss says do it, you do it.

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  8. regina phalange

    Is there a local Toastmasters that you can join? I have found it to be extremely helpful with this type of thing – you learn to communicate better as a whole and think on your feet, becoming more comfortable in situations outside of your comfort zone.

    Reply
      1. regina phalange

        true, but it does sound like she was forced outside her comfort zone and I have found TM to be helpful with that. just a suggestion.

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        1. OP-ME

          We do have a Toastmasters chapter within our company. Admittedly, I’ve avoided joining. Will explore that opportunity.

          Reply
  9. Persephone Mulberry

    So it sounds to me like the issue is not so much the “pretend the directors are my clients” aspect of the roleplay as it is that the “canned” presentation is different from how you usually present the material to a client, and that is making you feel stiff and awkward?

    I’m wondering if rather than lobbying to bring in a recording of an actual client call, you could instead talk to your manager about presenting the material the way that is natural and effective for YOU rather than “sticking to the script”…?

    Reply
  10. yarnowl

    If this were me, I wouldn’t even think of it as a role-playing exercise. I would just think of it as me giving my presentation to the directors so they can see what it’s like. It doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but re-framing it that way in my head makes it less intimidating. If it’s the role playing part that is tripping you up, then thinking of it just as “I’m giving this presentation so they can see how I work,” might help. Good luck!

    Reply
  11. Snarkus Aurelius

    There’s good role playing and bad role playing. OP, I immediately knew yours was a bad one when I read this, “We were to pretend the directors were our clients and deliver the canned (leadership-approved) presentation to them.” Reading off a script and displaying required traits are going through a check list. There’s no independent thought required, whereas in real scenarios, we do that all the time. But hey at least they know you can read. :)

    Here’s a good example. My brother has an MD. During his training, he had to learn to deliver bad news to (fake) family members. Worse, he had to do it on camera so the video could be played to his entire group and critiqued. (Everyone had to do this.) My brother wasn’t given an exact script. He was told to convey X, Y, and Z in a specific manner. He didn’t know the diagnosis or the patient/family situation in advance. On purpose. Because that’s as realistic as you can get. Although there were plenty of wrong answers, there was no one right way to do it. The idea was to achieve a specific goal (effectively conveying complicated medical information to a grieving layperson) rather than a cookie cutter script and outcome.

    Here’s a bad example. During a staff retreat, my coworker and I were given a script and told to recite it to the group. We didn’t know the topic in advance, but it was pretty clear after the second sentence that this was an exercise about using abstract terms and why it’s bad. Oh but we had to “guess” the point of the whole thing and act out confusion for the boss’s sake. The whole thing was so condescending and insulting, especially because there was only one acceptable answer to the problem. (Side note, when I use the term “in the near future,” I’m doing it on purpose for a reason, not because I don’t know that’s not a specific time frame.) Waste of two hours!

    If your company thinks this the best way to spend time, very well, I guess. But you’re smart to offer realistic alternatives because that’s what they really want to know, yes? Not you reading off a script in a hotel room.

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    1. Detective Amy Santiago

      Yeah, role playing is supposed to be spontaneous. If you’re reading/reciting a prepared script, that’s rehearsal, not roleplay.

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    1. OP-ME

      Part of the problem I think was that it was practice for me, but the directors viewed it and judged it as if it were real-time scenario.

      Reply
  12. Retail HR Guy

    I’ve learned the easiest way to handle role-playing that you’re not really into is to make something like a dumb dwarf or brutish half-orc with a big axe. You don’t need to learn all the complicated rules for spellcasting and no one will expect you to do the talking with the NPCs. Plus, it’s perfectly in character for you to start fights the group can’t win by charging a sleeping dragon or something like that. If the whole team dies then the game ends early and you can all go back to playing X-Box.

    I hope that helps, OP!

    Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      This almost literally describes my last D&D character. I was basically the I Like Swords fighter and just ran at everything sword first. Then I got us all vaporized by a sleeping dragon. It’s the special alignment we sometimes let people use: Lawful Stupid. You pick a few things you want to do and you do those in the face of all reason and sanity.

      Reply
  13. Emac

    Not that this is anything you can probably change, but I was wondering how the directors you were presenting to were involved in the role play – were they actively pretending to be clients or just watching? I had both experiences while doing teaching demonstrations as part of job interviews. I interviewed for 2 different teaching jobs at the same organization in two different departments. In one, the group of interviewers were very committed to pretending to be real students. And even though they were pretending to be difficult students, it felt very natural. I ended up getting the job and it was one of the best jobs I’ve had.

    In the second, there were two interviewers who just sat there not even looking at me most of the time but looking down to take notes and not engaging with me at all. I was somehow supposed to demonstrate how I would connect with students, without anyone in the student role. It was probably the most uncomfortable interview I’ve ever had (and hopefully ever will!), and led to the manager giving me the feedback that I just don’t have what it takes to make a connection with students. This was after I had been working at the first job at that organization for almost a year and getting great feedback from my manager, coworkers, and students. I had the same thought as you – that it would have made a lot more sense for them to observe a real situation instead of a badly done fake one.

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  14. AthenaC

    I don’t have anything helpful to offer, but I feel you. We tend to use “simulations” as part of our training, but I really just can’t get excited about a simulated client with simulated complexity and simulated work. I have enough real clients and real complexity and real work to worry about.

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  15. Sunshine on a cloudy day

    I have no advice just sympathy… I’m also horrible at role-playing. There’s just something in my brain saying over and over again “this is fake! this is fake!”. I can’t shut it off and I can’t “unknow” it. It distracts me and makes me say/do things that I wouldn’t normally say or do.

    I get what people are saying about there being good ways to set up role playing scenrios and bad way to set up scenarios. But seriously, I’d be awful at even the scenarios set up properly.

    I feel for the OP, and I do like the suggestion of asking to be observed during a real presentation (or to have a recording presented) in addition to the role-playing exercise rather than instead of.

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    1. Lily in NYC

      Me too! And I’m a total ham who is not remotely afraid of public speaking – it’s just the fakeness of it that makes me awkward. One of the most humiliating work experiences I had was when I worked at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and we were being filmed by some talk show (I think it was Sally Jesse Raphael) – I had to pretend I was on the phone with a parent of a missing child and it was impossible for me to fake a phone conversation. I sounded like a mentally slow robot. I have a VHS tape of it somewhere; I should burn the evidence!

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    2. paul

      Do you watch Star Trek: DS9? There’s a scene where a Romulan ambassador realizes he’s seen a forgery, and does a really hammy “IT’S A FAAAAAKE” to the starfleet captain.

      Every role play for work, ever, I’ve wanted to do that. Even down to his inflection

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  16. Rocket Roy

    I am sure other posters are able to give much better feedback on how to actually improve on your role-playing skill. I just want to offer my best wishes – I suck at it too and have trouble not thinking this isn’t how life works to be comfortable with it.

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  17. Amber Rose

    All jokes aside, this was why I initially didn’t like D&D. I hate describing my thought processes and pretending like what I’m saying matters when it doesn’t. Role play makes me feel ridiculous and embarrassed.

    You gotta shut off that part of your brain. Be the scenario. You’re not selling your product, you’re selling yourself by means of your product. Now, the directors in front of you are no longer your bosses, they literally are customers. They want to buy your skills at presentation. Sell hard. Play some D&D, see if it helps. ;)

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  18. Trig

    If you can’t get them to back out of these ‘simulations’ completely, maybe they will still alter it a bit in a way that would work better for you? Could you deliver the presentation by web conference/phone instead? That way you aren’t in a completely different context (a hotel suite? Eugh), looking right at them, and it might be easier to suspend disbelief/forget exactly who you are talking to.

    We do all web conferences all the time at my work, and though I kinda hate the phone, I MUCH prefer giving a presentation that way! I don’t have to look at anyone, no one looks at me, and I can hide the participant list, so it’s almost identical to when I rehearse it.

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    1. OP-ME

      Love this! And yes, the next “opportunity” for me will be a web/phone conference.

      Also, thank you Sunshine on a Cloudy day & Lily in NYC, and Paul and Rocket Roy for the empathy. It helps to know the struggle to perform in the fake worlds is not my own. I have those same screaming thoughts in my head and I will have to learn to squelch them.

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      1. AnonEMoose

        Some advice I saw on another blog (I think it was Paging Dr. Nerdlove) is that trying to squelch those thoughts outright can tend to just make them stronger. It might work better to just briefly acknowledge the thought, but then redirect yourself.

        So, instead of putting energy/attention into trying not to think “This is FAKE!”, do something like “Yes, it’s fake, but that doesn’t matter right now.” Or “Yes, it’s fake, but I need to do a good job anyway, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

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  19. Elizabeth West

    If it’s a matter of stage fright, I find it’s much worse for me when I’m performing in front of people I actually know, like coworkers or friends. When I was skating and way back when I did theater, I never wanted to know if they were in the audience. It was especially bad when I knew anyone was taping. This is going to sound completely mad, but I had a go-to that helped me relax a little bit. I would press my big toe down in my shoe REALLY hard (enough to hurt), and at the same time I imagined the audience members sitting on the toilet.

    The old saw is to imagine them in their underwear, but the toilet is much funnier and when I do this, I can’t help thinking how much worse for them that would be than it is for me! If you’re meant to smile during the encounter, such as when greeting clients, it seems really genuine because you’re actually laughing. If the people you’re facing are intimidating, it reminds you that they’re not, really. Everybody poops! ;)

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    1. Lily in NYC

      Yes! I would rather perform in front of 1000 strangers than 2 people I know. And I like to imagine people wearing speed-skating outfits when I need to distract myself. No one looks good in head to toe spandex!

      Reply
  20. Kitkat

    Out of curiosity, how were you bad at it? Just a bit awkward? Made technical errors? Went way off message?

    I use role-playing to practice with staff, and I would never expect them to be completely natural with it, but would be concerned if I saw them go way off track with it, so I wonder to what standard you’re being held with these.

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    1. Kitkat

      Also, I concur with the surprise that you’re using a canned script. When I’m training new staff, they start off with a script because they don’t have a “bank” of language to talk about our program, but over time, they naturally adjust it to be consistent with the way they speak. I’m curious about why someone with a good amount of experience was handed a script, rather than a scenario to respond to, which might eliminate some of the awkwardness! I’m someone who has done a lot of roleplaying and public speaking, and even I am awkward working from a script someone else wrote, rather something that I put together.

      Reply
  21. LisaLee

    Ugh. I also hate roleplaying. I once had to roleplay a scenario with another interviewee as part of an interview process (it was a very particular situation where this sort of made sense), and this dude just would not work with me. He deliberately made his side of the roleplay as difficult as possible, which really screwed up my ability to respond and my evaluation suffered. I’ve strongly disliked them ever since.

    Reply
      1. LisaLee

        Yeah. It was sort of a pre-interview training seminar for a sort of public safety position, so having roleplays made sense, but they should have had us do it with an interviewer. That said, everyone but me seemed to be paired with someone who respected the rules of the game and responded with normal answers, so maybe they hadn’t encountered the issue I did before.

        But I think it highlights one of the issues with roleplaying–if not everybody buys in, the difficulty factor goes way up.

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    1. Detective Amy Santiago

      People who make things deliberately difficult in these situations are the worst. I mean, yeah, you’re going to have difficult people to deal with, but that’s going to be a very small percentage.

      Reply
    2. Kayaker

      I had a similar situation though with a training workshop on persuasion so the stakes were far lower. My role was to convince someone not to resign for another job. I ask my fellow role-player what is drawing them to this other job and they say “it pays $50,000 more a year, I get four weeks vacation more than I do here, they are going to pay for me to get my master’s and I get to work from home whenever I want.”

      Me: yes, you should definitely go. Best of luck! [turns to the group] Ok, who’s next?

      Reply
  22. shep

    I’ve had to roleplay once for a mental health training seminar. My partner and I got great feedback, but the whole time I was thinking, “This is NOT how this situation would play out at all.” Everyone kept saying how powerful the roleplays were, but I thought they trivialized the subject matter as something easily fixed, like you could just throw a bandaid on the issue and call it a day. It all felt utterly fake and waste of time.

    Which isn’t quite the same thing, but still. I’m no fan of roleplaying.

    Reply
  23. NW Mossy

    I’m not surprised to find that this particular form of role-playing is hard, because it forces you to pretend that individuals who have major influence over your career are actually people who have substantially less influence. That’s a really difficult mental leap to make for many of us – it’s like trying not to think of an elephant!

    One alternative you could pose is the exact same scenario, but using other account managers or same-level individuals in another part of the organization in the part of the client. That removes the cognitive dissonance of the original scenario and arguably gives a more representative picture of how you present to a client. You could float the idea that you want to work on your presentation skills to higher-ups separately, under the thinking that it’s a useful skill too but requires a different approach to be successful.

    Reply
  24. Decima Dewey

    I also dislike roleplaying, and it’s become the go to for staff training.

    At a recent meeting, one of our guards participated in a roleplay, casting herself as sweet reason. Which amused several people at the meeting who’d worked with her, since they knew that “sweet reason” was not the way she came across in real situations.

    Reply
  25. Ribbe

    I always hated role-playing when I worked retail. Managers would pretend to be customers and you’d sell them something and they’d just go along with it. I needed more situations that were reflective of real life.

    “Sir, would you like to purchase a loyalty card? You’ll earn 10% off every–”
    “THAT’S HOW THE GOVERNMENT TRACKS YOU! LOYALTY CARDS!”

    Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      “Ma’am, would you like to try a complimentary sample-”
      “STOP TRYING TO SELL ME STUFF!! I’LL HAVE YOU FIRED!”

      Reply
      1. knitcrazybooknut

        “Well, we don’t have that in your size in stock, so…”
        “HOW DO YOU KNOW? YOU HAVEN’T CHECKED IN THE BACK YET!!!”

        Reply
    2. AGeekNamedBob

      I came here just to respond about awful retail role-play.
      Never go the way actual customers act, even good ones.
      During my 2 months of awful work at Office Max – one of the business specialty ones they were trying (mine failed… hard) we were supposed to grill the customer on why they are in and what work they did and all that to try to get them to use our extra products, stuff you would research first like payroll and employee data programs – something you would’t just be “oh hell yeah, I’ll do it” when a minimum-wage staffer tosses up. Of course the role-play has the customer wanting to answer all the questions and wanting to talk about them, never asking questions the staff wouldn’t know.
      Actual interation: “welcome to Office Max, are you here for personal or business?” “Where’s the paper?” “over there. what do you need it for.” (not looking at us) “I’m out.” (rushes off) End of interaction. District managers called us failures when we had to fill out a sheet for every customer, name, job, contact info, why they were there, what projects we hawked. They simply couldn’t understand why we didn’t get all that “when we were trained to with the role-play”

      Reply
  26. Former Employee

    This sounds dumb to me, too.

    If you can’t suspend disbelief, then perhaps you can think of this as more of an internal interview. Doesn’t everyone fake it in interviews?

    Reply
  27. La Revancha del Tango

    OP – I would think of it more as practicing a presentation vs. role playing. Maybe that will help? It’s always good to practice presentations, especially if that’s not your strong suite.

    Reply
  28. Whats In A Name

    OP, I understand what you are going through. We had an outside consulting company come in and we had to role play with them – I got the lowest marks from the observers despite the fact that I was top recruiter in the office (this was in higher education days).

    What helped me in future situations was practicing rolling questions, specifically the rolling “why?”. I also switched to close-ended, more specfici questions for the role paly “Do you participate in any extra activities?” “What do you enjoy about them?” “What is most important for you in X?” “Why?” ….instead of “tell me about activities you like?”,

    This was not how I approached my one-on-one interactions but it made subsequent role playing evaluations more successful.

    Now that you know what they are expecting is there a way you can practice, cramming like you would for a test essentially, based on what you learned at the last role play?

    Reply
  29. Faith2014

    I suppose the biggest challenge is that it’s fake. But just because it’s fake to them doesn’t mean you should accept that as your goal.

    Perhaps seeing it as a challenge to get them to be impressed with your style is a better approach. When you present something to a client, you have a general script in your head, but you tailor your tone, gestures, facial expressions based on the given situation and how it enfolds, rt? So instead of looking at this as a way of being evaluated for role playing using someone else’s presentation, look at it as a means to make them think that you took it and made it better than what they thought!

    Reply
  30. Pwyll

    I too hate roleplaying. And I especially hate roleplaying where the organizers become displeased with behavior that they weren’t expecting, because frankly isn’t that the point?

    Back when I was in training at a different company, we did departmental “sensitivity role playing scenario.” In the scenario, every person got a card. You were allowed to read the back, and then had to tape it to your head so the front showed to everyone else. The front had a number from 1-10 based on your “location” in the sim hierarchy (1 was described as “the most undesirable person ever” and 10 was “a very influential, powerful leader”), and the back said your general demeanor to roleplay. As a part of the sim, we were supposed to act things out and then at the end try to guess what number we were.

    My card said “You have an absurdly high opinion of yourself, and a correspondingly low opinion of others”. At one point, the person with #1 came up to me, and I physically turned away from her to #8 and said, “I can’t believe they even let her in here.” #7 agreed wholeheartedly. At the end I discovered I was #10.

    Afterwards, I had a formal coaching that my behavior was inappropriate and that even in a training simulator I am not expected to be rude and that I had seriously damaged my relationship with #1, who was a senior-level director. Another trainee was told she was also inappropriate because she was so nervous by the exercise that she literally didn’t talk to anyone (she was #5) and that showed a lack of professional courtesy. Which literally made no sense, given WE WERE ROLEPLAYING and the point of the scenario was to bring greater awareness as to how people in different levels of the chain interact with one another. Sigh.

    Anyway, I like the idea of trying to direct the exercise into an avenue that would provide the right kind of feedback, like actually listening in to client calls or otherwise running through the decks without the roleplaying aspect.

    Reply
    1. paul

      Reason 10042 roleplays need to be treated with caution by all involved parties (to the point that it detracts from their usefullness).

      We use *some* role plays in training new people at work. Have one of us act as a client/caller, etc, but mostly to familiarize them with protocols and how to do things while someone’s actually there (this is what you do if they’re suicidal, here’s how you do lethality assessments, here’s how note and record XYZ). But it’s a limited context and very specific, not open ended stuff like what you’re describing

      Reply
    2. CM

      This is a weird exercise in the first place, but that is seriously messed up. Your roleplay trait is that you’re a terrible person, and then you get spoken to for acting like a terrible person during the roleplay??

      Reply
    3. BizzieLizzie

      OMG THIS. This is almost exactly what happened a team role play last year. I had to play a rather cold/nit picky character which I did, saying stuff ‘can you please move on now to point X’ and, ‘why are you 10 minutes late, we are busy people’ etc. Nothing worse that that. (so A) I wasn’t too bad, actually nothing worse that I’ve seen real customers do, and B) I wasn’t being ‘me’ I was ‘role playing’ according to the instructions.
      BUT – I was berated by a few colleagues for displaying ‘bullying behaviour’ during the role play & people thought ‘see, she must be somehow showing her true colours’. It took months to rebuild relationships. I will never ever role play to spec again.

      Reply
  31. MissGirl

    I’m a ski instructor of small children, and once a year I’m evaluated on my teaching and skiing. So I’ve literally skied with supervisors who could ski off a cliff without missing a turn, and I’m saying things like, “Pretend you’re hugging a panda bear,” or “let’s be little mice and make tiny steps across the hill.” The trick is to lean into the role-playing.

    Reply
    1. Whats In A Name

      OT: I have to commend you for being a children’s ski instructor. Bonus points for saying things like “pretending you’re hugging a panda” and “let’s be little mice…” you must be amazing at your job. And insanely patient.

      Reply
      1. MissGirl

        It’s fun and crazy. One day we played cops and robbers. I was the robber and I had kids skiing behind me—one yelling I’ll catch you, one making the siren sound, and another barking because she was the police dog. They had no idea but their ski turns were the best of the day, and they picked up speed and confidence.

        Reply
        1. AnonEMoose

          That sounds awesome! And a great way to get them to practice skills without getting in their own way by thinking about it too much.

          Reply
  32. Mrs.House

    I had the same problem.
    I had a melt down(crying) in front odoor the team I manage in a mock lessons learned presentation where I present our teams accomplishments for the year.

    The advice I was given was to imagine my team as the actual VPs I’d be presenting to and to not think of it as a mock run.

    This helped and I killed it during the real deal.

    Reply
  33. Cassandra

    So is there any kind of immediate post-RP discussion between you and the observers? If not, I’d ask for one, with language like “It really helps me to discuss the situation in the moment.”

    What this will let you do is sneakily shift the focus away from you toward a) the script, and b) the artificiality of the whole thing, and how you handle matters differently in Real Work(tm). “Well, the script makes me talk about the teapot-spout curve here, but the last clients I worked with weren’t interested in that, so what I did was thus-and-so, and we landed the account.”

    So they walk out with your Real Work(tm) uppermost in their head, not so much the way you read a script. (I put my students through public-speaking assignments because it’s an important part of job interviews in the professions I educate for. I tell them up-front “you have a 90% chance of sounding stilted and boring if you read word-for-word from a script; 100% chance if you write the script like it’s a term paper.”)

    Reply
  34. jojo mcscroggles

    This isn’t “role-playing”, this is practice. Role-playing is being in training having to conduct a fake interview or pretend like you’re giving someone coaching feedback. This is giving a presentation on a product your company actually makes. How hard do you have to pretend?

    Reply
    1. OP-ME

      Sure practice. In front of someone who knows more about the product than I do. With clients, I do know more. I’m learning about the product – that is also ever-changing – but the presentation is still in front of better experts. Yes, I need to fake it till I make it.

      Reply
  35. pomme de terre

    Interesting parallel to a non-work situation that arose recently: I am involved in a local arts group and we were divided on how to handle auditions. On one side was Team All or Nothing. If you performed poorly in the audition, your general reputation and class performances didn’t matter. On the other side was Team Holistic Picture, which weighted teachers’ reporting more heavily and was in favor of coaching up people who performed poorly at auditions but had shown promise at other times.

    I was on Team All or Nothing. Performing under pressure is a central part of what we do, and if you choke or make a major blunder in an audition, there’s a good chance it will happen on stage. I know auditions are not a 1:1 correlation to a performance but it’s as close as you’re going to get. And I’d been burned too many times in the past by being talked into admitting people with “potential” who ended up not pulling their weight. Those people on the bubble might be able to occasionally perform well, but they lack consistency. Also while I do understand that teachers who’ve seen people over the course of a few weeks have a value perspective, it can create the perception that the audition process is a farce and the “teacher’s pets” just get railroaded through. That’s compounded when we encourage unsuccessful auditioners to take more classes (ie, give the org more money).

    For the most part, Team Holistic Picture won out. Teachers could push favorites at least through to the callback phase, although it’s still tough for them to install someone permanently. We were also encouraged to see student shows to get a better sense of what a person’s regular performance is like without the added pressure of being judged in slightly artificial circumstances. I’m still a cold-hearted purist who prefers going into auditions blind. :)

    Actually, the system has evolved a little more beyond that. After people get through auditions, they have to spend a few months on a “farm team” and then may be promoted to one of the more permanent groups. It’s kind of a mix of both approaches. It’s not as “all-or-nothing” as a few minutes on stage, but if you can’t prove yourself over the course of a few months, you aren’t invited into the org permanently.

    Reply
  36. Mina

    I agree that role-playing is good for training but bad for testing. I’ve learned a lot from role-playing during training sessions. But I remember at one company where I worked, at our annual conference they would have role-playing that seemed more like a test. It was awful. It wasn’t a learning experience because everyone was on-edge. It was one of those environments where you felt like you’d have a target on your back if you didn’t do well in the role-playing, even if the same managers accompanied you to real client meetings where you did a good job. I do agree that sometimes you just can’t get out of it. It’s probably best to just take a deep breath and pretend that you’re at a real client meeting.

    Reply

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