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26 Jan. 2012 | Comments (0)

I do quite a lot of influential presentation coaching and training. Bringing a theatre person in to work on how to 'stand and deliver' in front of an audience makes sense and I enjoy sharing some of the things actors know about performing. But what really interests me and seems to benefit my clients most is the way we can apply things learned in the theater to strategic storytelling.

I was called in to work with a group of senior partners in a large architecture firm and Ms. Choi, who was enthusiastic about my theater-based approach, was anxious that there might be some skeptics in the workshop. Most business folk harbor legitimate concerns about training that is "alternative and fun" and a waste of their time because they aren't able to link what they learn to practical workplace tools.

And then there is the fear factor. "Is the theater lady going to make us act like melting ice or bacon frying in a pan?"

The workshop moves through five stages, none of which involve melting or sizzling but do challenge participants to get on their feet. We begin exploring the impact status and a collaborative mindset has on building rapport by playing some improv theater games.

One standard improv game has participants in pairs build a story together by beginning each contribution Yes! And... instead of Yes, but... , thus accepting their partner's contribution rather than blocking it before adding something of their own. This allows the group to experience how unproductive it can be to constantly point out what won't work rather than building upon what will. During the debrief, the architects identified how they could use what they learned playing the game in pre-presentation brainstorming sessions and when responding to client suggestions/concerns as a way of keeping conversations positive and avoiding deadlock disagreements.

The next section, Strategic Storytelling, offers a technique that actors employ to find what is driving their character in a particular scene. Simply put it is an equation: Facts relating to the character as supplied in the text of the play + what the character is literally doing in the scene you are rehearsing = what motivates the character in that scene.

I've adapted this as a tool for identifying what a client needs to feel in order to act on the message of a presentation, having participants list only facts (no opinions or assumptions) about the decision maker and viewing each of these facts in terms of the action they want that person to take.

For example if the decision maker has only been in her role for 3 months she is probably going to need to feel something very different before she signs off on major design changes, than if she had been in her role for the past 3 years.

Because it has such practical applications and because so few people even list basic facts about the person/s they want to influence, workshop participants and coachees alike find this tool offers great insights. "I have never really thought about my client this way before and it was alarming how many assumptions I had to cross of my list," one senior partner confessed.

During the final half-day participants deliver the open and close to the presentation they've chosen to work on and I offer suggestions about movement, facial expression, eye contact, etc. The inclusive, fun nature of the first day's content had participants supporting one another and nodding appreciatively when they saw how a change in posture or a warm smile shifted audience perception. They had become an ensemble, had scripted a story that was strategically designed to influence rather than just inform and were taking my director's notes and putting them into action quickly and fearlessly.

But what about performance post rehearsal?

The firm's Chair very generously cc'd me on a message he sent to his partners outside Asia: "In the last year we have totally changed the content and delivery of our presentations. Our Clients have REALLY noticed it and are REALLY enjoying it. Over 35 of our staff have been trained and have now introduced a completely different culture to our offices."

Be sure that tools are what you take outside the box!

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 1/20/2012.

  • About the Author:Teresa Norton

    Teresa Norton

    Teresa Norton ( is a management consultant, theatre-based communications trainer, and executive coach based in Hong Kong.

    Full Bio | More from Teresa Norton


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