Thursday, September 3, 2009

All the World's a Stage

Yesterday I attended a class on Acting for Executives led by Rebecca Johanssen, founder of Stone Soup Theatre Company. The purpose of the class - to show how techniques used by actors can elevate speechmaking and other verbal and non-verbal communication in the workplace from good to great.

Johanssen compared YouTube clips of speeches by Bill Clinton and George W Bush to show the impact that a confident attitude and body language, and strong awareness of audience reaction, and great timing can have. A comparison of clips of speeches by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple revealed the importance of narrative and storytelling to compelling communication.

To develop our skill in reading and reacting to our audiences, Rebecca led the class through several improvisation exercises - throwing and catching an imaginary ball of variable size and speed around the circle of participants, playing an imaginary game of tug-o'-war, and having a volunteer mime a sporting activity and inviting others to join in the game as soon as we guessed the sport.

Vocal inflection is an important factor in verbal communication. In pairs we held conversations using only two simple phrases (e.g. "I have a secret" "I don't want to know"), varying only the vocal inflection. In general mirroring your partner's inflection can work. If you are saying "no" it can also be effective to keep your voice firm and low, likewise to persuade someone, also try leaning in, smiling and lowering your voice.

Often speakers must respond to questions off the cuff and provide convincing arguments. To practise this skill, small groups were given an unusual object and challenged to come up with an application for the object and then devise and act a commercial to sell the object to the rest of the group.

Lastly everyone was asked to tell a personal story to the group, with a beginning, middle and end. Our own self is a subject we are each an expert in, so this exercise builds confidence in storytelling, that can be applied to presenting business information. Practice makes perfect.

In addition, Rebecca shared some physical exercises that actors use to prepare voice, body and mind for performing. To warm up, inhale and exhale deeply, say "Brrrrrrrrr" to loosen lips and repeat "Red leather, Yellow leather" with maximum enunciation to loosen tongues. Swing your arms and shoulders and hang loosely down from the waist to the floor to stretch muscles.

It is helpful to be relaxed when performing on stage. Rebecca led us through a visualization exercise involving deep breathing, muscle tightening and relaxing and imagining our bodies bathed in white light starting from a small ball of light on our heads. To focus, we visualized the ball of light in the middle of our foreheads and then in our minds eye, took it forward and back in front of us.

All these tools and exercises provide substantial food for thought. I look forward to applying them to my next business presentation.