Soapbox: Lights, Cell Phone, Action!

An actor, a cell phone, and a solid storyline lead to an engaging onsite, in-person simulation to improve customer service.

By Tita Beal

What if you lack the funds, time, and software to produce a multimedia training extravaganza…but you want the excitement of a video game for your learning program? An engaging onsite simulation can be created with a cell phone attached to a talented actor and a solid storyline.

The Training Need

An industry leader was losing market share to more customer-focused competitors. Executives to lobby guards took pride in their high-quality operation. The head of Executive & Leadership Development realized it was too much pride—a “you’re lucky to be our customer” attitude had spread from the corporate office through the chain of command to the lobby guards and maintenance staff. He planned a three-day executive development seminar on self-esteem issues, then a four-day in-person simulation (as opposed to a simulation played on a computer) to practice applying the concepts, followed by action learning assignments on the job. He had a clear vision:

  • Build on concepts covered in the seminar…but get people out of their heads. No PowerPoint slide lectures and no fat three-ring notebooks.
  • Use affective not cognitive experiences. Make participants feel self-esteem issues, not just talk or write about them…but not in a punitive way.
  • Make the simulation fun. It should be like a game, even though the company did not have money for digital games.
  • Be kinesthetic, tactile—maybe team Tiddlywinks challenges…

Main Performance Objective

As a result of the four-day simulation, participants will have applied what they learned in the seminar (based on “The Human Element” by Will Schutz) to actual situations and increased their awareness of how their words and actions can support or undermine other people’s self-esteem.

Proposed Solution

I was brought on to design and write the simulation. After my first ideas were nixed as too punitive or too supportive, too much like work or too different from work, my most way-out idea was accepted: Participants would plan and create 3-D models for a museum and theme park related to the industry—with, at each stage of development, positive challenges to provoke self-esteem issues. To design the structure and sequence of interactions of the simulation, which would be played out in person over the four days, I merged seminar concepts together with:

Learning theory’s rigorous focus on answers to basic performance questions (e.g., Robert Mager’s work):

  • Why does the organization need to invest time in this simulation and how will it support overall organizational goals?
  • What do participants need to be able to decide, say, or do by the end of the simulation?
  • What knowledge, skills, and attitudes do participants need in order to make those decisions, communicate effectively, and take appropriate actions? What can we assume all participants already have? What resistance can we expect to new concepts and skills or required changes in attitude?
  • How can we measure the extent to which participants have achieved these objectives?

Gaming elements (e.g., von Neumann—or the back of a board game box):

  • Clear, challenging but fun goal
  • Constants, variables, and chance
  • Rules for achieving the goal
  • Alternative strategies for “winning”

Dramatic structure (e.g., Syd Field)

  • Initial goal/theme that forces decisions and actions
  • Increasingly complex, challenging obstacles
  • Surprise twists that re-energize interest—this is particularly important because the simulation had to hold attention for four days
  • Crisis (will the goal be achieved or not?)
  • Climax (what act/decision determines if the goal will be achieved?)
  • Resolution (aftermath/impact)

Key Simulation Events

This simulation can apply to many industries. For example, if you work in health care, participants might come up with a roller coaster ride through the nervous system. If energy: Work on an oil rig. If law: Join a jury in a mock trial. If banking: Ride the money trail from depositors through the bank’s credit department and then into new/expanding businesses. If pharmaceuticals: Create a treasure hunt through jungles for seeds and then ride through the R&D medical lab…

Day 1: Planning

  • The senior manager (the actual one) opens the meeting, distributes an e-mail from a not-for-profit organization requesting proposals for a new educational museum and theme park, and then explains why Marketing has chosen the team in the room to propose and win the bid.
  • The nonprofit’s executive director is introduced (a talented New York actor, Jean Richards, who, in addition to performing in plays, has narrated voiceover corporate training programs and, therefore, understands corporate style and cultures). She asks participants to come up with as many ideas as possible for the planned museum and theme park about their industry.
  • Facilitators spread piles of informational materials over tables, set up flip charts, give the time limit, and then leave.
  • Afterward, facilitators guide a debrief about what happened and how that affected self-esteem: How did you feel when no instructions were given and you faced a pile of literature? Who took leadership roles/who didn’t? Who gave ideas/why? Who felt left out/ignored/undercut? Did anyone notice and provide support?

Day 2: Proposing

  • Participants present their many ideas on flip charts to the executive director.
  • Suddenly her cell phone rings (our high-tech moment). She apologizes: “I know I asked for as many ideas as possible, but the head of my board just called. I can only accept three proposals. Please select your best three.”
  • Facilitators again give only time limits and then leave…and afterward, conduct the debrief: How did you feel about your decision process? Who took leadership? Who felt left out of the decisions? Whose ideas were chosen? How did you feel when your ideas were not selected—and how did others support you…if at all?

Between Days 2 and 3, participants receive assignments to explore creative museum displays and plan how to create 3-D models for the three ideas.

Day 3: Producing 3-D Models

The training room is filled with brightly colored arts and crafts materials and everyone starts creating the 3-D models, but the nonprofit’s executive director is hanging over people’s shoulders, asking nerve-wracking questions about what they are doing. Mid-way, her cell phone rings again, and she announces:

“Tomorrow, students from an impoverished high school will attend your presentation of the models. They’re interested in careers in your industry, but they are teenagers, so the 3-D models and the way you present them must be interesting enough to keep their attention. Awarding of the bids will partly depend on the quality of your presentations and students’ reactions, not just your proposals.”

Afterward, facilitators debrief on self-esteem issues related to the executive director’s hovering and badgering and the sudden pressure to create something actual teenagers will like.

Day 4: Demonstrating the 3-D Models

The real students arrive. Participants give tours of the three models. The high school students report they value the opportunity to meet with people in the field and learn in such an interesting way. When facilitators debrief, the only complaint is from a participant: “Why didn’t you tell us this was just a simulation?” (The thin workbook for taking notes on activities and debriefs was labeled “Four-Day Simulation.”)

All other comments were positive—a tribute to Jean Richards’ acting, the guidance of facilitators who knew when to let participants flail and when to support, the realism of simulation activities, and the insistence on the educational value of fun by the head of Leadership Development whose vision guided the simulation.

Tita Beal is a New York City instructional designer/writer and closet playwright. For more information, visit

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.