The risk for software companies in a highly competitive market is that their marketing presentations must always “hit the mark” in order to inspire the customer. There is no place for losing listeners due to boring and ineffective presentations either in content or delivery. Software executives must start to break the cult of the average presentation habits. It is crucial to understand and put into practice proven communication skills of authentic presence and voice that will maximize results every time.
In the summer of 2010, the process of rewiring my own communications skills came from an unexpected source. As part of a Leadership Training at UC Berkeley, I participated in a day working with horses at a stable in Sonoma County.
My primary learning was that horses are extremely sensitive to our physical presence and respond only to very clearly expressed thoughts and intentions. It was not possible to pretend that I was confident when, in truth, I was afraid. It was not possible to pretend that I was in control when the horse moved suddenly and unexpectedly according to the unconscious messages it picked up from me. The horse simply would not respond to my communication in the way that I expected. In fact, it walked the other way or stood stock still, put its ears back and went to sleep. My carefully crafted message didn’t get through to the horse.
In today’s competitive business environment, software executives cannot risk their message not getting through to customers. For the past 30 years I have brought my theatre training into my work on Leadership Development and High Impact Communication skills in both the corporate and academic arena. In this article, I’ll explain how theatre training relates to helping software executives find their voice, rewire their communication skills and be inspiring, whether in a marketing effort or on the leadership stage.
Connecting to power in speaking
As a professional stage actress, I was expected to deliver a compelling presentation eight performances per week. Good acting is about being real, natural and authentic. Theatre is heightened communication that educates across cultures and gender. Ideas are shared, human behavior is examined, values are explored, political and provocative statements are made. The story must be engaging, thought provoking and compelling. There always is an audience, and they need to be moved, inspired to think and feel, tell their friends about it and come back for more.
These theatre skills allow leaders to stand in their message and move towards a place where it is possible to “break the cult of the average” habits. Their leadership presence and presentation skills are rewired through practice and they become extraordinary speakers.
In 2010 Meryl Streep gave the commencement speech at Barnard College in New York. In 2011 Sheryl Sandberg was the commencement speaker at Barnard College. Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. Meryl Streep is a famous actress. Both women are strong, highly successful and very much admired in their respective fields.
The differences in their presentation skills are clear. Take note that this is Meryl Streep the woman, not the actress. She is clearly very nervous – her first words are “dry mouth.” It takes her a few moments to begin to use her theatre-skills training to overcome the fear, the dry mouth, the short high breaths, and shaky voice and find her focus. Once she is on form, we hear the variety of her voice and rhythm, the specificity of each word. She uses her theatre skills to become more present, real and more grounded. It all rings true.
Her training makes it natural for her to energize and articulate each word and thought. She is authentic. She connects and touches us. Her vulnerability becomes her power.
Sandberg, meanwhile, is over prepared. Hers is the “idea” of connection, not the reality. For the Barnard students, this is their day and they are naturally very excited. However, the truth of the matter is that Sandberg has been rehearsed in a way that fails to move and does not “feel” authentic. Her performance doesn’t ring true, which causes her to become disconnected from her true passion and therefore from the audience. Her voice is husky and not fully resonant. She has not been coached to breathe and connect her thoughts authentically to the breath. She falls victim to the “falling line” – the energy falls off at the end of her thought and therefore the next breath will be shallow and therefore not authentic. Her pleasure is forced and fake. It isn’t her fault – this is not her skill set.
Her shortcomings fall into the lap of her coach, who does not know how to connect her to her true power as a speaker. Her successful career shows she has the power, but she’s unable to produce a compelling presentation.
There are other examples. In the Academy Award winning movie “The King’s Speech,” voice coach, Lionel Logue uses his knowledge of the actor’s training, specifically breathing and energized language, to transform King George into an inspirational speaker during a time of international crisis.
Margaret Thatcher’s light, high-pitched voice did not have the gravitas that suited the position of Prime Minister. Her advisors strongly recommended a makeover. It was also suggested that she let go of her pearls. She refused. She did agree, however, to vocal training from a voice coach from the National Theatre, which shifted her delivery and significantly lowered the resonance of her voice.
In addition to transforming the voice to be more powerful, software executives will benefit from following proven best practices for compelling presentations.
Six steps for a compelling presentation
- There must be a story line with a provocative beginning, middle and end, regardless of the subject matter. The presenter must know his/her audience and find ways to connect with them from the first moment.
- The presenter must use a succinct and relevant personal story to create a picture that brings an idea into focus. This will always connect them to the audience.
- The presenter must understand that they are the medium through which the message is delivered. It is their physical presence and their voice that will dramatically shape the way the entire presentation impacts the audience. A great message can be severely distorted by a presence and a voice that is weak, strident, constrained or aggressive. If they fail – as Shakespeare said, “To suit the word to the action, the action to the word” – they will literally push the audience away.
- Use the dramatic principle: if I can see it, you can see it; if I believe it, you will believe it. The presenter must connect to their passion. Visualize the journey. It is a story.
- PowerPoint should never be used as a crutch. It is an extraneous tool. The presenter is the message and also the medium that is going to make the compelling connection, not the computer screen. Shift the paradigm of PowerPoint so that it serves only to focus the salient elements of the overall story
- At the beginning of a presentation, always take a moment to “go inside in order to come out.” Connect to yourself and to your breathing with your mind. Then, look out and connect to the audience. Learning how to breathe as actors do will result in an authentic presence, phrasing, a resonant voice, a natural ability in finding emphasis, and bring music and variation to your speech.
- Always make sure that you know what the venue looks like. Is there a podium? Where are the technical people? If you can, walk around the space or visualize it and imagine that your thoughts are projecting throughout the room.
- Show up and choose to be present. Bring your energy into the moment.
- Take your time and let the thoughts land.
Breathe, breathe, breathe.
Penny Kreitzer is a founding director of Corporate Scenes, an international Leadership and Communications Training Company. She can be contacted at [email protected] Her experience covers Fortune 500 companies, international training in Europe, South Africa and the Middle East. She is adjunct faculty at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and The Olin School of Business at Washington University. Clients include speakers at the World Economic Forum, Davost, Anchor “60 Minutes,” The Economist as well as Academy Award Nominated Documentaries. As a professional award-winning actress, she has performed at the American Conservatory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. She is originally from South Africa and holds an MA in Theatre and a Voice and Speech Teachers’ Licentiate Diploma from Trinity College, London.