The case for theatricality in business (1)

Bloomberg Business Week recently criticized Barack Obama for lacking theatricality and failing to perform as the “Hollywood President” the electorate expects him to be. Whether you agree with this criticism or not, one thing is for sure, when you are in the lime light, you have to step up and perform one way or another.

Nobody likes a business diva, the drama queen of the office ready to throw the whole team into histrionics at the drop of a hat, yet the dull, hard worker is even more unlikely to get a look in on the leadership selection stakes: some level of theatricality is required. Setting the right tone is less about slumbering in the middle ground and more about hitting the required degree of theatricality for the situation concerned, whilst always (and this is vital) being true to yourself.

Being yourself is essential, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tweak your skills and downplay your limitations. As Susan Cain points out, in her excellent book “Quiet”, pushing someone who is more introverted towards becoming loud and gregarious is doomed to fail but because it leaves that person feeling a little less themselves. Yet studies at Harvard have found that by taking small, initially unnatural steps, such as amending body language by using a broadsheet newspaper to widen your shoulders as you wait to be interviewed or smiling even when you don’t feel like it, can actually convince your mind that you feel more confident and help you get the job or achieve the goal. This might not be big news to actors who have been warming up their bodies and voices, and getting into character before performances since the Middle Ages, but it makes a big difference in business.

So just as many of us are able to change the level of “poshness” in our accent and vocabulary when speaking with different collectives, we are able to vary our theatricality mix depending on the situation and thus increase our perceived credibility. Not that I’m not suggesting here that as a 1st year undergraduate student you don a robe and mortarboard and address your class as a leading business guru at a graduation ceremony, as this would clearly not work.

However, being aware of what your audience expects and mirroring the behavior of a respected practitioner in your field (without copying them), will help you to believe in your own abilities. This in turn, will help people to believe in you and whatever you are offering them (a great new product, yourself and a leader or your excellent research). 20th Century dramatist Konstantin Stanislavski developed an idea similar to this into method acting, still used by actors around the world today.

All good actors know their strengths and limitations. Cameron Diaz and Renee Zelberger can do an accurate English accent, while many others can’t. Robert Downey Junior is best at complicated characters requiring years of preparation, while Reece Wetherspoon is unlikely to take a serious ‘thinking’ role, while some of this is type-casting, it is also about the actors (and their agents) knowing what they are good at. As business communicators we also need to know what we can and can’t do, this will allow us to play to our strengths, not highlight our weaknesses.

In a recent class I taught, one participant was quiet and reserved, while he took part in the more dramatic activities, he was clearly not comfortable. It turned out that his strength was not owning the space and commanding attention through large movements and excellent projection, but rather through quietly connecting with the audience through personal stories and piles of empathy. He was able to motivate them to the same extent as the more larger than life members of the class (perhaps more so) because he had played on his strengths.

So now you are feeling more confident, just how theatrical should we be in our communications? A quick look at the top ranking TED talks, shows that as far as presentations go, it depends, but that you need to keep it within what you are comfortable with (in the less well ranked videos you can easily see where presenters are well out of their comfort zone) and what is expected of someone in your role. For everyday communications, a great deal of empathy is required. Firing someone with theatrical flair is unnecessary, but employing acting skills to do so elegantly may be essential. Motivating the same team one day might involve a Maori-style Hakka, but the next a demonstration that you understand their motivations (even where you don’t fully comprehend them).

As leaders we need to develop a theatricality mix. That is not just the ability to act, but also to stage direct, write, design and stage-manage our careers. All of which require a clear understanding of the audience and the journey you wish to take them on (what you want them to do). Yet theatricality alone does not make a great leader. Business Week is scathing towards Obama’s analytical approach to the various crises he has been called on to deal with, highlighting that he has often not been able to put together the type of quick dramatic response the people expected. But theatricality has to have a foundation, while we may be able to dazzle subordinates or targets in the short term, if we don’t know what we are talking about or haven’t done our research, our days as pantomime dame will be numbered.

About Katie Annice Carr

Creativity, Communication and Leadership facilitator, coach and consultant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *