Using role-playing to unleash team member creativity when designing short-list interview content
In the short story, “Who am I This Time?” by Kurt Vonnegut*, Harry, an awkward, yet theatrically gifted hardware clerk falls in love and ultimately marries his romantic lead. Challenged by the social norms of everyday life, he ‘becomes’ his character, learning through the role how to communicate emotion in a way he couldn’t as himself. As his bride, Helene, says at the end of the story, “I've been married to Othello, been loved by Faust, and been kidnapped by Paris. Wouldn't you say I was the luckiest girl in town?”
A lovely story, Vonnegut highlights the potential role-playing might have for breaking through common communication blocks. And, there’s application for short-list interview teams. Like Harry, many team members are so caught up in the here and now that they can’t see the possibilities of a project pursuit, nor can they muster the creativity necessary to come up with compelling content.
When working with teams preparing for interviews, I’ve found many Harrys – team members who are uninspired by the requirement to participate in the presentation, lacking the imagination to come up with interesting answers when asked, “What does any team need to prove to win this job?” Few go beyond “Experience, the right team, commitment.” While their answers may be technically correct, once short-listed, few teams are truly differentiated by their experience. I have to assume that most firms have fielded ‘the right team,’ and even if not truly committed, most speakers will say they are.
Over the years, I’ve struggled to get more meaningful, meaty content from potential speakers. Finally, I’ve come up with a strategy that works – and I’m happy to share. For several months, I’ve been going back to my theatrical roots, using role-playing to engage teams in detailed exploration of selector needs and expectations. Far from being an uncomfortable exercise, I’m finding technical professionals of various ilk not only willing, but enthusiastic in their response to ‘becoming’ someone else for a short period of time. It appears I’ve got multiple Harrys on my teams, just waiting for the chance to be Othello, Romeo, Faust, or Paris.
I start the role-playing process by asking a short-listed team to list all the real and potential selectors, seeking to understand the role and responsibilities of each relative to the project and the selecting organization. Then, I talk the team through the basics of character acting: understanding the motivations and needs of the character, feeling his/her physicality, and speaking/acting with the other’s voice. I typically demonstrate this with the team, showing them how a middle-aged female coach can ‘become’ someone different in speech, mannerism, and perspective.
I then ask each person to choose a character. In some cases, the team member will know the person s/he selects. In others, the team member will have to make up important details based on exposure to similar selectors on previous selections. I ask each to ‘go deep’ – really trying to act, think, and speak like the role/person s/he selects. I list the names and the roles on the board. Now the real fun begins! For about an hour, we discuss the project while in character, listing needs, expectations, and requirements on the board. I prompt the ‘selectors’ with probing questions starting with “Why?” “Why not?” “How much” and “Give me an example.” I’ve found that team members not only perform well in this process, but they seem to enjoy themselves.
By freeing team members up to ‘become’ someone different through role-playing, I’m helping them see the project through new eyes, removing the blinders many bring to presentation preparation from their real responsibilities or current projects. An added benefit is that I’m also getting more and better participation from team members earlier in the process. While previously one or two team members were more engaged than others, spouting answers readily and with vigor, this process engages the entire team and strips away the hierarchy of the organization and replaces it with the relative safety of being a selector.
What I’ve found is that teams who participate in this process come up with better answers to the question, “What does any team need to prove in order to win this job.” They think more deeply and answer more specifically. The information teams gather through this process helps them develop more focused presentation content and communicate clearer differentiation.
For teams having more time to prepare, I continue the role-playing to encompass the competitor analysis. I ask team members to stay in character and to ‘build a case’ for selecting a competitor’s team. I exhort them to be specific in their recommendation to try to convince their fellow selectors to vote for that firm’s team. Then, I ask them to switch to making a strong argument against that competitor’s team. I list the detailed answers on the board, using content to fuel our own team’s development of differentiating content that lays ‘land mines’ for our competition.
In training circles, role-playing sometimes gets a bad name, and many trainers and coaches think that technical professionals intensively dislike role-playing of any kind. I’ve found the reverse; when role-playing is relevant and applicable, my technical teams embrace it wholeheartedly, engaging in robust discussions while in character and revealing truths about projects, competitors, and projects that we might not have seen in normal preparatory conversation.
Try it. Let me know how it works. Push teams to be creative and have fun in the process. You may just find some hidden Harrys in your midst, just waiting to get on stage and discover who they want to be.
Note: Kurt Vonnegut started his career writing for women’s magazines and in those early efforts, created a portfolio of what I consider some of his most memorable short stories. A far cry from Slaughterhouse Five, these stories tell truths about relationships and the human experience that I come back to time and again. As an avid reader, I consider Vonnegut’s short stories among my favorites and his compilation from which this story comes, Welcome to the Monkey House, an old friend.
(“Who am I This Time” was first published in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ in 1961).