Close-up of a young woman in a drama video

I’ve been reflecting upon how drama is the most adult of learning materials.  No, not “adult” in that sense, but a medium that only succeeds when we treat our learners as adults and address them as equals. 

Just do it

Imagine you’ve been asked to train people with regard to a policy or process that seems transparently to have been designed to protect the shareholders with little thought of how it will work on the ground.  Anyone can see it’s important, but compliance isn’t as straightforward as just doing it.  Training people in these contexts can be very challenging.  And it can waste a lot of resource, because however much people know what they are supposed to do, persuading them to comply is a different matter.  There is a gap between conception and application. 

Ultimately, it’s a behavioural issue.  Your people know what they are supposed to do, but at the cutting edge of practice in the real world you only get lip service and you know it.  What’s needed is a cultural change, but how to achieve it? 

Drama can’t tell people what to do

Video drama, while not being a magic bullet, can certainly be an excellent tool in your box, but of course, you need to use it properly.  To do that, let’s take a look at how drama works in learning.  Drama is completely useless at telling people what do to.  What it can do brilliantly though, is to show characters in a difficult situation and to stimulate viewers to contemplate what they might do in that situation.  Amazingly, drama can get people coming up with solutions to problems unconsciously.  Have you ever found yourself shouting at the TV with a suggestion for what a character should do?

Too often I’ve seen drama that puts the learning points into the mouths of the characters.  As soon as an audience sees this kind of content, you are back with top-down learning and people feel patronised.  Drama works with the elements of learning and culture where public overlaps private.  It allows us to talk to people we don’t know at an intimate level in a way that, if done properly, is respectful.  This is when drama is at it’s most adult-to-adult. 

People are fallible

Now think of any topic you’re trying to disseminate, but you’re failing to get traction because of behavioural or cultural issues.  Then look at the most sticky elements of application.  These are often bound up in an emotionally challenging issue.  People might know the correct procedure but when challenged by very successful colleagues who would rather cut corners, it can be hard to resist.  Or, while you may have fresh suspicions about the bona fides of a client, their track record and charm might dissuade you from looking deeper.  Sometimes we know we should speak up, but it’s not always easy to do the right thing.

The great thing about these sticky moments is that, because they involve difficult choices, they are intrinsically dramatic.  So, it’s something of a no-brainer that drama can be brought to play here.  The important next step is to investigate the sticky points of resistance as deeply as you can.  The more pain that can be mined the more dramatic the content and the more buy-in you will get from your audience as you demonstrate your understanding of their coalface issues. 

A problem shared

At the very least, sharing drama that airs these issues will get your audience to feel they are being heard.  But it can do more.  A drama stimulates people to think deeply about an issue and while we have their imaginations working on the problem, we can harness that energy and bring it to bear on the problem.  This is why drama works best in an active learning culture.  Your learners can be the source of your solution.  Ask them. 

There are structured ways to do this of course.  Workshops, questionnaires, social media.  The drama can be part of a larger campaign whereby you foster and engage with the discussion you’ve sparked.  You’ve brought the forbidden into the open and empowered good intentions. 

That well-known authority on organisational culture Julian Stodd tells us it’s wise to recognise that if you want to empower your “ambassadors” you should acknowledge that you must give away some of your power.  Your ambassadors are now doing your work for you and you need to reward them.  Reward need not be financial, but recognition is important. 

Things change

And you can now expect a further reward – as the learning materials you were getting poor traction with become a sought-after resource now that you have created a hot topic.