Both of us at Message Glue have theatre backgrounds, and we use them in our creative strategies as well as our executive presentation coaching.
My wife Anna has a class called “Acting for Everyone” that teaches executives basic acting skills they can use when presenting or meeting one-on-one. She specializes in making lawyers more compelling in the courtroom.
I come from an improv background and taught an improv class for about 4 years. In corporate communications, an improv background comes in very handy.
One of the cardinal rules of improv is to commit. To say yes and dive in with both feet. Even (and especially) when you’re not sure it’ll work. The example I used to give went this way:
Two actors begin a “scene from nothing.”
As audience members, we don’t know where they are or what they’re going to do. That first line sets the location and hopefully some dramatic tension.
The first actor shivers and says, “Wow…it’s cold here on Mars.”
The second actor says, “We’re NOT on Mars.”
And the scene ends abruptly. By refusing to go along, the second actor has deprived us of what might have been an enjoyable and compelling scene. It’s disappointing and creatively stifling.
Recently, we produced a big opening number for a keynote. Our executive was willing to be self-deprecating and was excited to do something creative. We wrote and produced a song that she would pretend to sing, but would lip-sync. There were lavish costumes, lighting and fog effects planned. All we needed was the chorus to do simple choreography and sing back-up (they would be lip syncing, as well). For us, this was a low-risk theatrical way to present specific messaging and introduce the tone of the keynote. We therefore suggested that her chorus should be composed of her 14 direct reports. We would give them simple movements and feature them so that the audience could see they were also self-deprecating and approachable leaders.
All but 2 refused. They saw it as too big of a risk. It would make them look foolish, they didn’t like the song, they thought it was hokey…their objections went on and on.
This made our executive doubt whether we should do the number at all. Having the experience we both have in the theatre, Anna and I knew it would work, but certainly not if 14 people scowled and effectively said, “We’re NOT on Mars!”
So we suggested that instead we use 14 people from “the field.” We would have the company’s global leaders pick their best, brightest and most outgoing employees who would jump at the chance to appear with such a high-level executive in front of their peers.
To keep the song from “leaking,” there was one 2-hour rehearsal. Anna taped out the stage, gave each participant a stage plot with their movements drawn in, an mp3 of the song and a lyric sheet. In less than 2 days they had to not only learn their movements, but many who didn’t speak English as a first language also had to commit the lyrics to memory.
A day and a half later, there was a quick run through before the keynote began. Each participant had done his/her homework. They arrived ready and were slipped into matching tuxedo jackets, each with their country’s flag sewn on the back.
The lights went down, the fog rolled out onstage…and the song began. The audience was on the edge of their seats and there was thunderous applause following the song. Each participant got to pose with his/her leader for a cherished photograph and keep the jacket. The song went on to be used in internal communications for the rest of the fiscal year.
Commitment. That’s all it takes. People only perceive our insecurities when we go out of our way to display them. Would it have been a disaster with the direct reports? Quite likely, especially if even one of them didn’t participate fully.
The song was the topic of many conversations and touted as a huge success. The keynote was very highly rated in evaluations and we were asked to return the following year. And for the field people, a cherished memory was made that day.
And for the audience, the messages in the song got through…and stuck.