Tips and Analysis
Fri 27 Mar 2015

Forum Theatre's Role in Communication Subscribe Email Print

Written by Richard Matthews. Categories: Communication Skills Tags:

Talking centre stage

Forum theatre is proving a useful tool to help independent practitioners improve their communication skills. Actor Richard Matthews shows how

Doctors who are effective communicators will always have a head start in independent practice: from winning the confidence of patients and colleagues, to asserting themselves with colleagues when required.

At the same time, poor communication is such a common factor in complaints and workplace disputes that practice owners are effectively sabotaging their business if they do not prioritise interpersonal skills when recruiting or promoting front-line staff.

But it is not just about hiring smooth talkers.

Even the most articulate employees can struggle in a confrontation with an angry or distressed patient, perhaps because the other person&s reaction is unexpected.

And, occasionally, practitioners' body language and tone of voice let them down.

In short, it is one thing to know the principles of effective communication but applying them in real-life situations can be more challenging.

Rehearsal time

The best communication training therefore includes opportunities for participants to put what they have learned to the test. Traditionally, this has been done through role-play exercises.

This approach has much to recommend it – it is quite straightforward, quick to organise and participants can receive useful feedback from their peers. But it does have some drawbacks. 

Role-plays can make people feel cripplingly self-conscious and they rarely feel realistic to observers because those taking part know each other and are familiar to the audience. This means the learning points can be missed.

But here I want to look at another interactive training technique which engages participants through their imagination.

Unlike role-plays, forum theatre brings scenarios to life by using professional actors to perform, challenge audiences and facilitate audience participation.

From conducting an employee’s performance review to giving bad news to a patient, the technique can be used to explore, in a more credible way, a range of sensitive situations that might arise in independent practice.

Scene setting

Forum theatre is not new. It emerged in the 70s and 80s from the work of renowned Brazilian theatre director, Augusto Boal. Boal was a political figure who sought to break down social barriers by encouraging audiences to get actively involved with his productions. 

In a 1997 article about his work, Boal explained his philosophy: "We aren’t content, any of us, to be just actors and spectators … We also want to write our own scripts for every scene we are involved in. We are in charge of the wardrobe… We are also the directors who stage our own actions."

And he recalled how he and his colleagues devised Forum Theatre in Peru as part of a literacy programme: "It was here we first came up with a play in which the main character didn’t know what he was supposed to do or else made wrong or unsuitable decisions. So I asked the audience what they would have done instead."

Forum theatre has caught on as a way to engage new audiences with the dramatic arts, but the interactive format has also become popular with businesses as a learning and development tool for staff. Indeed, type the words ‘forum theatre’ and ‘business’ into Google’s search engine and you will get over 40m results.

The next act

 In recent years, the healthcare sector has also begun to appreciate the potential of forum theatre. Notably, the technique has been used on a number of occasions by the GMC, both as an educational tool for healthcare professionals and to spark debate. 

In 2008, for example, the GMC collaborated with the Royal National Theatre, Alzheimer’s Society and other patient groups in a series of forum theatre events around the country. These were intended to generate discussion with patients in the early stages of dementia, and with carers and doctors about how best to reach treatment decisions. This process was used to inform the GMCs 2008 Consent Guidance.

The council’s Learning Disabilities website currently features a specially commissioned play about a patient with Down’s syndrome, and the problems that she faces when trying to access appropriate healthcare. 

This play was performed in a UK tour of forum theatre events during 2010 to an invited audience of doctors, people with learning disabilities and their carers. Each performance was followed by a discussion exploring how a change in the doctor’s behaviour could affect the outcome, and audience members were encouraged to step onto the stage. 

And, in 2013, the GMC commissioned a forum theatre element to its Welcome to UK Practice Pilots, an induction programme for doctors new to UK practice about the ethical and professional standards they were expected to meet. 

In this instance, the plays about dementia and domestic violence covered ‘the themes of team-work, communication, consent, respect for patients and ensuring equal access to care 

Forum theatre techniques are also being used to train the doctors and healthcare professionals of tomorrow. 

For example, a presentation on the use of forum theatre at Southampton University was included in an Educating for Excellent Care Workshop organised by the Council of Deans of Health in 2014, which showcased examples of innovation in health higher education.

Stage directions

My company, Pitch to Perfection, has been providing forum theatre training for corporate clients for the last two-and-a-half years, alongside my acting work. 

In the last year, we have been working with Dr Mike Roddis, of MJ Roddis Assoc­iates, to deliver sessions in healthcare settings, usually as part of a more extensive professional development course. 

The process usually works like this:

  • Verbal briefing – Mike and I discuss the type of organisation and its communication needs.
  • Draft scenario and script – I work up a short scenario in collaboration with Mike and review this with the client. In most cases, there will be a script for the actors to work with, but sometimes the session is wholly improvised. 
    The most important requirement is that the scene will be familiar to practice employees; for example, explaining to a patient that a procedure has not gone to plan.
  • Casting – To keep costs to a minimum, the cast is very small. I tend to use actors that I know well and have some experience of the process because they need to be able to adjust to performing in different environments and relate to people in different professions. 
    It is also important the actors can listen, involve the audience and respond to suggestions – this is not the place for ‘method-actor’ debates about character motivation. 
  • Staging – The simplicity of forum theatre is part of its attraction. Very little preparation is required; the action takes place at clients’ workplaces and the actors do not need a real stage – just a table and chairs, at most. The audience can be as small as four or as large as the space allows. The most important thing is their willingness to get involved. 
  • Performance(s) – Before the action begins, I will set the scene for the audience and explain that their role is to watch what happens and think about what the lead character does well in terms of his/her communication and the mistakes he or she makes. The scene is played once so everyone can form an opinion about what happens and why.
  • Audience participation – Once the scene has been performed, we encourage the audience to get involved, point out mistakes and suggest ways the outcome might be improved with a different approach, sometimes working in groups to devise the alternative dialogue for a critical moment.
    Some audience members are prepared to take on the role of the protagonist themselves to demonstrate how it should be done.
    An important element of audience participation is analysing what the character says, as well as non-verbal communication such as the way the character makes their entrance, facial expressions, tone of voice and other nuances.  
    It is also essential that the actors in the scene are asked how they have been made to feel, both the original version of the scene, and in the subsequent versions changed by the audience (see below). 
    This helps raise the audience’s awareness of the effect that different approaches to communication can have.
  • Encore – These suggestions are used when the scenes are replayed to see how a change of approach can influence the outcome and which is most effective. 
    We might replay the scene two or three times, depending on the level of participation. By the end of the session – which typically lasts up to 1.5 hours – the audience and actors have usually reached a consensus about the most appropriate and effective way to communicate in that scenario.
  • Feedback – As with any training, we always ask people to complete evaluation forms following forum theatre sessions. To date, I’ve been delighted by the enthusiastic response from participants.


The use of professional actors and realistic situations is key to the potential of forum theatre as a useful and cost-effective training technique in independent healthcare. 

As its creator intended, it is a process which breaks down barriers and promotes better understanding. 

Forum theatre draws the audience in and helps them focus on the unfolding drama and their response to it – rather than worrying whether they are making a fool of themselves in front of their boss. But it also means participants can be challenged by people with a different perspective, rather than fall back on lazy assumptions; for example, a patient is being difficult or unreasonable if they do not accept what the doctor is telling them.

Today's independent practitioners appreciate the importance of communication within a successful practice. Forum theatre is a very powerful tool to demonstrate what this means in reality.

Fri 16 May 2014

Difficult Conversations Subscribe Email Print

Written by Richard Matthews. Categories: Presentation analysis Tags: Conflict,

Having difficult conversations in the workplace is something we all find hard to do. The context can vary, from telling someone they’ve lost the promotion they’d worked hard for, breaking the news that a subordinate has lost their job, to making a colleague aware their behavior is having a negative effect on the rest of the team.


The good news is that there are a number of steps that can be taken to make this process a lot more constructive and manageable – not only for the person initiating the conversation, but also the one on the receiving end.


I spend a lot of my time watching business managers in a wide range of sectors making the same mistakes handling these types of conversations. My approach to helping them comes from a thirteen year background in commerce, managing trading relationships in the FMCG and airline sectors, combined with ten years work as a professional actor. Key to all good communication is the theory behind drama training: – listen, think, respond.


So here are five vital steps you should follow to ensure success:


Prepare!  - who is the person you are meeting? What do you genuinely know about them? Consider how they are likely to react to what you have to say. Then work out how your behavior may need to change to accommodate this and steer the conversation successfully.


Empathise! – empathy is important in any difficult conversation, but just evaluate to what degree. If someone is losing their job it is vital; if you have to pull someone up for negative behavior, you may judge it a smaller - though still relevant - tool in your strategy. But don’t be put off: we tend to find it hard to empathise in a business context, but there are many rewards of doing so.


Body Language! – be as open as possible. Minimize physical tension by trying to relax. Nerves are often one of the biggest reasons why difficult conversations are handled badly. So inhale and exhale slowly and deeply. Ensure good eye contact, and keep the pace of your delivery slow – this will calm you, and if the other person gets upset or angry, is a vital tool for calming them too.


Ears and Mouth!  - you have two ears, one mouth, so use them in that ratio! Let the other person into the conversation and don’t deliver a monologue. It happens so often, and always because of tension, and lack of preparation. Excluding the other person will likely raise their frustration and can lead to resentment.


Change your strategy! – managers tend to think out how they will handle the conversation in advance and exactly what they will say. And they stick to it, come what may! But difficult conversations rarely run to plan, so if your strategy isn’t working, acknowledge that and be ready to change it in the moment.


Genuinely effective communication is a tough art to master, no matter how well we think we do at it. Follow these five steps, and your business will be spending less time on the conversations it doesn’t want, and more on the ones it does.

Wed 24 Jul 2013

Mastering Communication in Business Subscribe Email Print

Written by Richard Matthews. Categories: Communication Skills Tags: Communication Skills

I was recently working with a client - a very experienced professional in his field. We were working on communication skills and had been running a "role-play" scenario involving handling a difficult situation, with myself playing the rather difficult "superior". We had gone through the scene time after time. After each run, colleagues were giving suggestions - "ask this question", "ask that question" - all of which were convoluted and very technical. The questions kept coming, more and more elaborate by the minute. But still the problem could not be resolved.

Good communication - the skills set that really help businesses overcome obstacles and realise new opportunities - is a multi-faceted beast! But it's something we can never truly master until we've learnt how to "know" the person we're dealing with. And by that I mean knowing them from the outset, from the moment of stepping into a prospective client's office for the first time. What is it that makes that person tick? And how do I need to change to get the results I want?

How to actually achieve this is one of the key competencies actors bring to communication skills training, and fortunately, one in increasing demand! If you're interested to know why, have a look at the "Why use actors?" page on this site. And if your business could benefit from it - get talking to us!


Sun 07 Apr 2013

Presenting - outside the box Subscribe Email Print

Written by Richard Matthews. Categories: Presentation tips Tags:

It constantly surprises me how often I meet people who think that presentations are typically about two things:

  1. Going through an elaborately designed, probably overlong, series of Powerpoint slides
  2. Taking questions at the end

On that basis, so they tell me, they don't actually "do" presentations, since they don't work in the traditional corporate sector, or they get their business through meeting and getting to know people at networking events.

This is a head in the sand mindset.

In actual fact, standing up at a networking event to introduce yourself is a mini-presentation.  And the product is you.

I've recently been working with a global organization, specifically with some of their newest intake.  Really bright people.  But it hadn't occurred to some of them that the simple fact of walking into a room, shaking hands with a prospective client, and making a brief introduction about themselves and what they can offer is actually a presentation. The audience may only be one. There may be no overhead projectors in sight.  There will almost certainly be no handouts. But it's still a presentation!  If I am on the receiving end of this type of introduction, I'm looking at body language, eye contact, vocal clarity, whether the person is relaxed or tense, if they are well groomed, can they use humour successfully and - do I like them?  If the score on these counts is low, there's little point the person saying "let me just get out my Powerpoint slides".

A poor introduction will heavily influence prospective clients. We present far more than we realise. So think outside the box and of your "introduction" as the first stage of your presentation.  Decisions to engage are made in seconds.  And you might have just blown your chance.

Tue 05 Feb 2013

Scared to learn your presentation? Subscribe Email Print

Written by Richard Matthews. Categories: Presentation tips Tags: quicktips, improvisation, mind mapping

When did you last see a business presentation where the presenter spoke without notes or auto cue ? Probably not for a long time. If at all. Speaking without a script is often shunned: it's just one step too far, too much to deal with on the day. Better to leave it to professional speakers used to the glare of an audience and don't have to worry about nerves.

That's the easy way out. Speaking without notes is a highly desirable way to present, and perfectly achievable to even the first time public speaker.

Here's an easy first step. I've just been in a play at London's Old Vic. On the first rehearsal day, we read the play and discussed it. On the second, we were given ten minutes to improvise a physical gesture and title for each scene. Quite a challenge. But it proved a brilliant way of getting a strong mental picture of the structure of the play, effectively a mind map,which really facilitated learning the text.

It's perfectly translatable to the business world. Have a solid and clear structure. Create some simple titles for each section, and if it works for you, have a visual image for each one. If you worry you will forget your train of thought if speaking without notes, this will help you. But over time, it will help you talk freely around your "structure" titles and release you from having to learn a script.

It's a useful first step on the road to impactful public speaking

Thu 11 Oct 2012

Cameron at conference 2012 Subscribe Email Print

Written by Richard Matthews. Categories: Presentation analysis Tags: Cameron, Political presentations

David Cameron's speech to the Tory conference in 2012 showed once again the difficulty in delivering the two "c" s of public speaking - content and communication.

David Cameron

Content-wise, this was a very impressively structured speech. It mixed a sober assessment of the state of the country with an underlying positive message that said, effectively, the only way had to be up. And this was through aspiration and providing the right social and economic climate in which aspiration can thrive. It gave the right amount of time to each of the pillars that would do just that. Cameron set out why he believed his party were the ones to deliver this - backing up each point clearly. The message was simple - and therefore effective - essentially that of personal and national fulfilment. In terms of length, it was well judged.

Communication-wise, Cameron is a mix of the comfortable and uncomfortable. He can be very effective and convincing. He has a seriousness that at times borders on intensity, but that can work to his advantage. His diction is excellent. Yet he's weak on humour - he delivers it almost as an apology, as if - in this speech - he was coerced into it. Number one rule in a speech and a presentation - don't use humour unless you are absolutely certain you can pull it off.

For a speech which essentially sought to raise morale, Cameron's initial delivery was markedly under-energised, apologetic almost. He seemed inhibited, tense, staring fixedly at the cameras before, eventually, making eye contact with his audience. Maybe the audience were already in thrall. But for the television viewer, he had yet to draw us in to what he was saying, In a strange way, he over-compensated in the last third of the speech: his energy was at times too much, so that he rushed key high points of the speech, losing impact as a result, almost as if he was in a hurry to get to the final punchline. It felt a strange and uncomfortable imbalance. As uncomfortable as the final, open embrace gesture was to watch.

Cameron's performance underlined that it really isn't as common as you might think to find great content matched by great delivery. So, what's the key? Rehearsal is crucially important - not just in drafting, re-drafting, and re-drafting the text again, but also in the delivery. And when you are rehearsing the delivery, you shouldn't be tempted to be something that you are not. In Cameron's case, he's great looking serious - so don't have him cracking jokes. He's a little awkward physically - so keep his body language as neutral as possible and avoid overt gestures: they look scripted and sometimes embarrassing, especially if you finish with one. Above all, know which are the key lines in your speech or presentation that you want your audience to recall - and make sure they are heard properly.

Thu 04 Oct 2012

Miliband, Liberation, and Structure Subscribe Email Print

Written by Richard Matthews. Categories: Presentation analysis Tags: Miliband, Political presentations

A speech is like a presentation - it's a performance. And Ed Miliband certainly delivered that at the 2012 Labour Conference.

Ed Miliband

First impressions are key, and I was struck by the confidence in Miliband's walk onto the stage and his apparent ease. He seemed almost liberated. Much has been written in praise of his delivery, but let us trumpet the fact that he did not hide behind a podium. Hugely impressive - as well as the sheer memory feat, and an example to millions of us.

So, what was there to like in his delivery? Vocally, he could be conversational. He made good use of inflections. He made eye contact with every part of the audience. His energy level was varied - but heightened at the key points, the start and close. Physically, there were no outward displays of tension. And he used humour - and just about handled it right.

Not all plain sailing though. A really good speaker must ensure they adopt the appropriate body language to match their words. Miliband's team was plain wrong to advise him to have his hand in his pocket whilst delivering key points of the speech. This diluted the impact of his words, giving them an unintended casualness which undermined their impact. Great for the jokes - not the serious stuff! Like so many politicians, Miliband needed to explore his vocal range too. There were too many chunks of his speech delivered on the same note, which became tiring and lost him impact.

But any speech or presentation is content as well as communication - both have got to be great. So in this instance, much more could have been made of the structure of the content. And that didn't mean being policy-heavy. Miliband had a great line: "this is where I stand, this is who I am, this is what I believe, this is my faith", which he could have used to properly structure the speech. But one third of the way through, he borrowed from Disraeli the idea of "one nation", which then became the speech. It seemed highly cynical, especially as he could not properly justify why his was the only party that could create just such a nation. It lost the speech authenticity at a critical stage. I think Miliband would have gained much more by using his "stand, believe, faith" idea as the framework for his speech, allowing us the audience to understand him and his party through that lens, Repeating those key words - stand, believe, faith - throughout the speech would have been extremely powerful. And politically powerful too, if his conclusion was that everything that has shaped him and inspires him, makes him the leader of a one nation party.

Success for a public speaker and presenter is when the audience goes away and remembers at least one thing you said. So, Miliband succeeded - because everyone was talking about "one nation". But he missed a trick. Yes, the rehearsing paid off hugely. But he could have gained much from a clearer, tighter structure. More impact? Definitely. Less cynicism - quite possibly!