For some of the most underappreciated lessons in workplace communication, it’s worth turning to an unexpected setting: not business schools or start-up accelerators, but drama schools. I studied at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, and even though I didn’t pursue acting professionally, my drama training has helped my career and communication skills in ways that continue to surprise me.
Even if your job takes place at a desk instead of on a stage, you’re likely already encountering high-stakes situations where you must “perform,” Michael and Amy Port, a husband and wife team of trained actors turned speaking coaches at Heroic Public Speaking, share in a TEDx Cambridge talk. Dramatic training actually gives students the tools to navigate stressful work-life situations, from check-ins with a supervisor to client presentations, with the fundamental understanding that effective communication involves so much more than the words we choose. And it’s possible to learn those skills even if you didn’t go to acting school.
Read on for a look into an actor’s mindset, and to discover some surprisingly simple tools to power your performance, no matter what your day-to-day looks like.
Define your objective
Your words and actions don’t appear out of thin air, and tuning in to where they come from — and how they’re coming across to others — is the first step to thinking like a performer. After all, if you’re not clear on what it is you want other people to help you achieve at work, and aren’t sensitive in how you convey that, your behavior may not have the desired impact, Amy Port points out. The difference is, if you don’t consciously choose and convey your intentions, you’re still making people feel things — you’re just doing it unconsciously, or even thoughtlessly.
For Agapi Stassinopoulos, meditation expert and author of Wake Up to the Joy of You: 52 Meditations and Practices for a Calmer, Happier Life, who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, this means honoring the intention, or objective, behind what we do and say. “When you communicate, what is it you really want to communicate? What’s behind the words?” she asks. The power of the objective is two-fold: It helps you hone in on what exactly you want to get across, gauge the effectiveness of your communication, and realize when to pivot to a different approach. Say you’re meeting with your supervisor about a deliverable you overlooked. Think about the impact you wish to have, and phrase it as a verb, Stassinopoulos suggests, to keep it active and compassionately direct, rather than defensive — think: “I want to reassure her,” instead of “I want to avoid responsibility.”
Trust in your preparation
One of the biggest secrets of a successful performance is letting go of all the work you’ve done to prepare. Actors are taught to preserve those precious moments in the lead-up, not to cram lines one last time, but instead to center themselves. “Five minutes before the big event is not the time to go over every detail of what you are about to do in your head,” Sian Beilock, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist and the president of Barnard College, cautions in the Harvard Business Review. “Instead, give yourself a moment to focus on something else.” Rereading your notes moments before a big call or meeting won’t do your nerves or presence any favors, so start by putting your notebook down. Trust that the preparation you’ve done up to that point has been enough to propel you through and help you communicate clearly, and instead take a few centering breaths or do a quick meditation to focus your energy.
Channel your nerves
Even the most seasoned actors can experience stage fright, but you wouldn’t know it when they’re onstage. Performers learn to channel the daily ebbs and flows of energy, like nerves, excitement, or frustration, through vocal and physical techniques so their whole body’s communication supports the words they’re saying. If you’re feeling anxious before a big moment at work, take heart: The physical symptoms you may be feeling are actually good signs, Beilock explains. “They mean you are ready for the challenge that lies ahead.”
The goal of preparing for a high-stakes “performance,” whether it’s speaking in front of a large team or presenting ideas for critique, is not to fight or eliminate this nervous energy, but to channel it productively through some simple voice and body adjustments. Pausing to take a full breath before speaking helps project your voice forward and out of your throat, which tenses up when we’re anxious, making you sound more confident. And if you’re never sure what to do with your hands, or are prone to excessive hand gesturing, give yourself something to hold onto, like a pen or a notecard with a couple of keyword cues. This will prevent unnecessary physical clutter from distracting your audience from what you’re saying.
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