Actors and business leaders seem to live in very different worlds. But, in fact, it’s amazing how relevant the skills that performers develop are to anyone in a leadership role at a business. That’s why for 25 years our leadership communication training company has used actors as executive coaches.
If you’re like most of our clients, chances are your first reaction to this statement is “Actors?! What the heck do they have to teach executives about inspirational speaking?”
Plenty. And that becomes clear as soon as you realize that business leaders are always on stage, and that actors uniquely understand how to shine when the curtain comes up and the house lights cast a harsh light on the performers.
Here are the six most important ways you need to emulate actors in order to become a more effective leader.
You need to get into character
The best actors don’t “act.” Instead, they become the character they are playing. And the same goes for executives. The best senior leaders recognize that they are always “on stage” and that the audience is always watching. They come to see all their interactions with employees, clients and other stakeholders—from formal presentations to hallway conversations—as an opportunity to play the part of “leader.” And they understand that it’s essential to play this role rather than “buddy,” “expert,” “naysayer” or any other character that may hold them back.
I once worked with a mining executive who had been recently promoted from director to a VP role. He felt bad that he had beaten out his peer, and spent his time apologizing for his success. The result: a loss of respect and authority. This VP remedied the problem only when he abandoned the part of “apologist” and took the role of “deserving leader.”
You need to be authentic
Everybody has seen bad actors. They’re usually bad because they don’t believe or feel what they’re saying. Only if actors believe what they’re saying will the audience believe them too.
The same goes for executives. Everyone can smell it when they parrot the company line or regurgitate platitudes. The best executives deliver powerful messages that they personally can stand behind.
You need to learn your script before you step on stage
Before actors step on stage or in front of a camera, they dig deep into their script so they know their lines and character inside and out. Executives need to know their scripts too. They need to know what the big issues people are looking to them for leadership on; they also need to know what messages they want to convey about those issues. Having this clarity of thought means executives can be ready on every corporate stage.
I remember one entrepreneur who was such a natural storyteller that he never organized his thinking ahead of time. When he raised funds, potential investors loved listening to him. But because he had no script, they got a different story about his company every time. It took a failed road show for him to learn to get with a single script—and to learn it inside and out.
You need to get nervous!
Actors embrace nervous energy because they know it can be channelled into a powerful performance. Executives often try to erase a case of bad nerves, for instance if they’re about to make an important town hall presentation. But they should instead acknowledge their nervousness as a sign that they’re invested in the opportunity to inspire their employees to help achieve key business goals.
Accept your nerves. Then channel your energy by identifying the challenging ideas you want to convey and delivering them with a heightened expression, strong gestures and vocal conviction.
I had one client who wanted a director position. But because he had a great personal relationship with his VP, he was nervous about pushing for promotion and was consistently passed over for others. He reframed his view of nerves by telling himself, “Nerves mean that there’s opportunity here¦” and asked for the job. It took many nervous conversations but he eventually got the promotion.
You need to use your full physical and vocal instrument
Actors treat their body and voice as their instrument, much like a musician would a violin. The most effective executives learn to tune their instrument by knowing what their body and voice can do to get and hold an audience’s attention. Some have a strong physical presence that can command attention, while others can use a very deliberate pacing that has their audience hanging on every word.
You need to love it
Actors are constantly auditioning for projects and undertaking new projects. Sometimes they’re chosen and sometimes not. Some pay and some don’t. Actors routinely experience rejection. Yet almost every actor lives for the experience of acting, of doing their art.
Similarly, the most inspiring executives communicate that they aren’t working for a paycheque, but instead for the opportunity to make change within their organization or the world. So embrace the passion you feel for your work and share it with everyone you speak to.
Why this is important: When Shakespeare wrote that “All the world’s a stage,” he could have been talking about executives. From town halls to phone calls, every interaction represents a leadership tool. So if you want to be a successful executive, take a lesson from the screen and stage world and act like one.
Bart Egnal is an executive coach and a Vancouver-based partner and senior vice-president with The Humphrey Group, which teaches people to communicate as inspiring leaders and express ideas that move others to action. The company has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Mexico City, and serves clients around the world.
More columns by Bart Egnal