Psychodrama in CEE/NIS Advertising Sales Training

(Special Report, February 7, 1996)

An innovative training methodology suited to the special challenges of Central and Eastern Europe and the New Independent States.

By William Dunkerley

February 7, 1996 A Bulgarian woman stood on a chair shouting “Maly tirazh! Maly tirazh!” meaning in English, “small circulation.” Next to her, with his feet firmly on the floor stood a burly countryman, his hands having pulled inside out his trouser pockets to gesture that he had no money. And before the two of them sat a rather perplexed-looking advertising director of a weekly newspaper out of Burgas, a resort town on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. She just sat there looking momentarily speechless.

What’s going on here? Were these people losing it? Or were they portraying some peculiar ethnic ritual? Actually, it was neither. All three — and an audience of thirty — were participating in a workshop I was conducting in Sofia for newspaper and magazine publishers from all across Bulgaria. The ad director was “trying” to sell advertising space to the two others. They in turn were telling why they wouldn’t buy! This play acting constituted a situational “sculpture” of reallife experiences in selling advertising space. The objective was to go beyond merely giving the participants facts and information about selling advertising, to create an experiential learning adventure.

A Message in the Method

One thing I’ve learned about teaching others how to sell advertising space: It’s not simply a cognitive process. In the U.S., “how to sell better” seminars are ubiquitous. Sure, you can get a few good ideas from one. But ideas alone won’t cut the muster. Creating a significant improvement in sales requires a change in one’s fundamental sales behavior.

The methodology of psychodrama and situational sculpturing facilitates that kind of change. It works on the emotional and intuitive dimensions of learning. It helps the participants to really internalize the material that’s being presented to them.

How is this different from traditional sales training? Once a colleague of mine observed a subordinate trying to use some new sales ideas. He turned to me and said, “Fred’s got the words, but not the music.” And that’s where the difference really is. Indeed, Fred had learned some successful selling ideas. But he hadn’t turned them into successful selling behaviors.

For years I’ve used role plays to accomplish that with my American clients. It wasn’t until I started working in the CEE/NIS that I began to incorporate psychodrama into my workshops. Role plays presented a problem. You see, I don’t speak Bulgarian or Hungarian or Romanian or any of the other languages in the countries where I’ve worked. I do speak some Russian. It’s good enough to get around on the streets, but not sufficient for leading a workshop. So I’ve used interpreters. And whether it’s been simultaneous or consecutive translation, it just didn’t seem there would be enough spontaneity in a role play, having to go through the translation process. I observed other Western presenters try it. But what I saw was the English speaking partici- pants in the group becoming highly engaged. Others seemed far less interested.

A Different Approach

The psychodrama technique I developed overcomes the drawbacks of the role play. Instead of a continuous dialogue made laborious by the translation process, the presentation is divided into a series of four modules. They are:

One — The Warm Up. My goals here are to familiarize the “players” with role playing, to build an atmosphere of trust, to enhance spontaneity, and to create a sense of involvement for the audience.

Two — The Action. Here a true-to-life, complex sales situation is sculpted using the physical position and demeanor of the actors as the clay. The roles? One advertising salesperson, two or more prospective customers. Instead of the typical non-stop dialogue of a traditional role play, this psychodrama invokes the use of thematic messages. That’s why the woman on the chair was repeating over and over again, “maly tirazh.”

My role at this point is just to coach the actors. For the audience, the entire discourse is in their native language. The psychodrama begins by illustrating a sales approach characteristic of an untrained seller. (Indeed, this invariably turns out to be exactly how the participants have been trying to muddle through their jobs back home.) Not surprisingly, the salesperson doesn’t get the order.

Now, I engage in an exploration and interpretation of what happened with the actors and the audience. The salesperson and the prospective advertisers all describe how the experience felt to them. I explain the problems that were involved. And we all explore solutions. By now, everyone is working together to solve dilemmas and to devise strategies for achieving results.

Scene two then demonstrates the alternative approach. It shows effective selling. And, voila, the salesperson gets the order!

Three — Group Sharing. We explore the ways in which the two scenes contrasted. Individuals react to what they experienced. They relate it to stories from their own experiences. They raise concerns about the relevance to their own situations of the sales methods they just witnessed.

Four — Analysis and Planning. In this final module, I do a wrap-up of essential elements of successful selling. Participants are asked to write a brief implementation plan telling how they expect to use what they’ve learned. Each then is asked to describe his or her own plan to the group. Then, after some last sharing of reactions by the group, the session concludes.

Participant Impressions?

At the end of the Sofia workshop, the once beleaguered advertising director from Burgas came up to me. She thanked me profusely for the workshop and exclaimed that she would remember the lessons she learned for the rest of her life! I’ve since used the psychodrama methodology in subsequent workshops in Riga, Latvia, and in the Russian cities of St. Petersburg, Samara in the Volga region, and Rostov on the Don. The results have been so encouraging that, you know, I think I’ll start using the psychodrama in place of role plays with my American clients, too!