News and Comment

Plays as communication in dialogues

Thursday 18 December 2014

We all have our signature pieces for dialogues, our go-to techniques which we know will help stimulate debate or communicate information to participants. Plays in dialogues have become mine.

There are many ways that plays can be used in dialogues, with a range of methods to help stimulate debate and act out roles. In this blog, I am going to concentrate on plays for conveying difficult concepts to participants.

OPM Group specialises in translating complex scientific ideas into public debate. We pride ourselves on the use of a range of methods: presentations, videos, animation, stimulus cards, simulations, quizzes and Q&As with experts. Much of the time it is not an either/or but rather a case of using all of these methods together.

The beauty of designing dialogues is that occasionally one is confronted with a challenge that requires some innovation. For example, how do you explain leap seconds to a non-scientific audience? This is the sort of challenge I relish, helping people to understand an unusual concept. For this dialogue, we needed to explain the difference between solar time and atomic time in a way in which the public could recognise the two timescales as separate but related through leap seconds. What better way to do that than to have one facilitator play the role of ‘solar time’ and another the role of ‘atomic time’, the two holding hands whilst drifting apart, with ‘atomic time’ having to ‘leap’ to get back in sync with ‘solar time’? It is a simple visual showing the separate but connected elements, which then requires nothing more than a simple narrative explanation to help the ‘leap second’ make sense. Participants in the workshop agreed:

“The physical performance was very helpful. It made it very clear and easy to understand what atomic and solar time is and what would happen if leap seconds are not inserted, a really good way to remember.”
(Post-dialogue participant evaluation interview by Hopkins Van Mil)

Similarly, when confronted with the task of explaining to participants what a clinical trial process looks like, some might think of using a flow chart – but I think of Doctor Smith and his newly invented medicine for smelly feet, Pong-gone. It is how I make the information accessible in a way that participants can connect with, understand immediately and remember until the re-convened workshop. I want people to have an emotional engagement with the subject matter and be able to imagine themselves in the situation.

So plays are a useful communication tool for a dialogue provider. A presentation might provide understanding. However, it is unlikely to produce spontaneous applause, laughter or sympathy in the same way that a few minutes of a play can. Plays can be used to re-engage participants with the subject matter in that tricky ‘post-break’ time when the energy has been lost from the room. Moreover, videos and plays are far more accessible ways of communicating information for most adults, especially those who have outgrown the classroom or lecture hall. If the same information can be transferred through a play as by a presentation, then it allows it to feel more like ‘infotainment’ rather than education.

Of course, my job is not to entertain: it is to provide understanding. It was therefore rewarding to hear people using the example of Doctor Smith to explain their thoughts in the following discussion sessions. The play had brought to life a complex issue in a way people could relate to, work with and understand. It is one more tool in the facilitator’s toolbox.