My cousin had a karaoke party. I had to go because he’s my cousin, but I refused to sing because this would have pained the audience even more than it would have pained me. A woman at the party, however, impressed me by engaging the crowd even though she had no apparent singing talent. It turned out that this woman, Lindy, is a Sanford Meisner-trained actress who works for a consulting firm, teaching executives how to strengthen business relationships by using acting techniques. The course costs $275 an hour. I signed up.
At our first session, Lindy explained the premise: Acting and leading are both about establishing a relationship with an audience and making them believe in you. My first assignment was to memorize a short speech — “Ain’t I a Woman,” by Sojourner Truth. I loved the speech, but I hated having to memorize it, and I dreaded having to recite it in front of Lindy. Then I remembered what Lindy’s boss said at the beginning of the course: This program is best suited to high-level executives with enough self-confidence to explore leadership techniques that might feel silly at first. I wanted to fit into this self-confident high-level executive category, so I forced myself to show up for the second meeting.
I bombed. I couldn’t remember the speech. Lindy told me to think less about the speech and more about connecting with her, my audience. Finally, when I looked at her the way I look at my husband when I need him to pick up the dry cleaning, she was satisfied.
I may have gotten the look down, but my delivery was still off. Lindy instructed me to reengage her whenever I sensed I was losing her. So I started over. She stopped me immediately. “You can’t just start over,” she said. “Leaders stick with their audience and fight to get them back.” “How do I do that?” I asked. “Take a risk,” she said. In acting, one might ad-lib; in business, one can ask a rhetorical question. So I did, and then started talking right away. She pointed out that a good leader is comfortable with a long pause, which shows trust that the audience is thinking. Speaking too fast doesn’t allow the audience to absorb or interpret, killing any chance of making a connection.
My biggest problem, according to Lindy, was wanting to appear like a cool and hip leader and not paying attention to my audience. I made it about me instead of about them. “Pretend you’re an evangelist preacher,” she said, because preachers excel at engaging listeners. I continued to give my speech, adding after every few sentences, “Can I get an ‘Amen’?” I felt more and more pathetic as Lindy sat in stony silence, ignoring my bleating pleas. Then I realized that if I didn’t care about what I was saying, no one else would. You really have to want an “Amen” to get one, and finally I did.
After this breakthrough, the sessions became easier. The principles of theater and management are the same: A director and a manager both have to lead in ways that allow for and encourage a person’s best, most creative self. Managing is about performing, which takes practice, energy, and concentration. The basics are these: Believe your material. Know your audience. Engage them, so they are invested in what you have to say. And for those of you who are not yet managers, acting like a manager is the first step toward becoming one.