Oh the Drama! What Product Managers can Learn From Actors
Sailesh Panchal, CTO at digital payments firm Orwell Group, is an unusual soul. He’s earned the gravitas he emanates from decades in software architecture and technology leadership. However, what makes him stand out is a background in dance and acting, an Equity Card [the hard-won actor’s union card], and appearances in film and TV.
This seemingly contradictory background in acting has, he tells me, helped his business leadership in many ways.
And I can see how. When I left Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I was convinced that the skills I’d acquired there, and while performing in rep, could stretch beyond the boards. Today I run Switchvision, where we focus on theatre-based training in people skills for business.
We’ve had established companies such as Procter and Gamble, as well as start-ups, charities and academic institutions such as Kent University and Cass Business School, all enjoy the benefits of using acting in business training. They’ve used the theatre-based training to boost their presentation skills, influence and creativity.
Business is as unpredictable as life itself. Acting techniques give you a solid preparation for what’s to be thrown at you.
7 Areas Where Acting Techniques can Help
There are seven key areas where I see that product managers can benefit from acting techniques. None of the tips below involve face paint or dressing up, but feel free to add these at will.
1.Thinking on Your Feet
I perform at the Free Association Improv, where we’re trained to take a word from the audience and build a scene from it. For example, someone from the audience shouts “chocolate”. An actor will spontaneously start the scene with, perhaps, unjamming a pipe in a chocolate factory. No one – actors included – knows that this was how the scene would open before the first move is made. From this sense of unknowing, a connected scene will emerge where everyone has a part to play and a story unfolds.
This applies to communication as much as innovation.The spontaneity necessary to create a scene is a quality that can become stronger with practice. Whether you’re called upon at the last minute to give a speech or respond to a conversation in a meeting, you’ll be less likely to be knocked back by the unexpected if you’re practised in thinking on your feet.
A simple exercise to develop this thinking on your feet is “gift giving”, whereby a participants exchange imaginary gifts. One person hands the other a mimed object. The recipient responds with “Oh, it’s a _______ (invent a likely object)”, and then reciprocates with another imaginary object. I’ve given exercises like this to the shipping team at Shell, as part of training on managing difficult conversations. The exercises themselves build trust, so difficult conversations become less likely to happen anyway.
2. High-Performance Teams
Sailesh states that business, like theatre, “is a team activity of creative individuals under direction, focused on a common goal”. In theatre and film, the schedules are usually tight, the roles are defined and the goal is explicit and known to all. Product managers often are in teams are made up of individuals reporting into someone else. Like a theatre director, product managers need to ensure that everyone, from designers to marketers, is committed to the vision early. The team needs to know their parameters and have the required resources.
I’ve previously used filmmaking groups to drive home the factors that contribute to high performing teams. The exercise of completing defined roles such as scripting, acting and directing of a short scene relates to the balance that is struck in effective teams: that of collaboration and autonomy as a group works together towards a shared vision. Using this parallel world highlights what’s done back in the workplace and brings best practices into play.
3. Creative Thinking and Innovation
Improvisation techniques are fundamental to building on ideas and creating a plan. In business, the analysis and sorting of ideas often comes too early. This suppresses innovation. In a recent workshop on collaboration and creativity with the product team at TES, we used a simple improv warm-up called “Yes, anding” to introduce the theme of accepting ideas and building on them. The game, played in pairs, starts with one partner suggesting “Let’s go for a picnic”. Their partner responds with “Yes, and (let’s bring umbrellas).” Then the first person continues with “Yes and (fills with a suggestion)”. We then move to the next level, where we substitute the “Yes, and…” for a “Yes, but…” The group discovered that the ‘Yes, and’ kept the ideas flowing whereas “Yes, but…” stalled the flow and impeded creative thinking. This was an introduction to the level of acceptance needed to create great ideas. The “Yes, but” is called a “block” in improv.
A partial block in business can help steer ideas. You start with “Yes, anding” then you could steer with phrases such as “How about..?” or “What if we…?” If people feel blocked they could stop contributing, but with a partial block, you can shape an idea without knocking it down.
4. Active Listening
In script work, actors are finely attuned to subtext. Much of this is given clarity through non-verbal language and behaviour. Listening sharply is key when improvising as other actors often give you clues about your relationship with them and the larger context, all of which propel the scene forward.
So, active listening combines reading subtext and body language as well as listening closely to the words themselves. It’s an important skill in handling objections and developing influence. For example, my recent work with e-payment business PPRO involved recognising verbal and non-verbal cues in influencing styles so that the team is able to react according to what they’ve heard. Observation is actually a core part of acting training – I’ve even taken clients to pubs to observe body language.
I do weekly online training in body language to start-ups on how to recognise and respond to the unsaid. In one script I use, the manager opens a scene with: “Sallyanne, can I have a word with you, please.” The manager may point at Sallyanne while saying her name, or, for a different effect, bite their lip after the word “please”. In workshops, we’ve either used actors or got some students to act, while the remainder sit as an audience and provide subtext. The audience can sometimes pause the scenes, discussing and then enacting strategies that help to steer the conversations. The participants gain through the practical and instant application of listening technique that stay them throughout their career.
Unlike some cultures, for example, Finns and Japanese, English speakers like to fill up pauses. The fact the lack of pauses in our communication makes their use all the more powerful. Actors are only too aware of how what they do in that gap can contain or leak thoughts and raise or shrink status. During training sessions, participants often record themselves reading a short text with marked pauses. They consistently remark how the pause seemed lengthy when they were reading, but not when they heard the playback. Trusting that the silence is not an endless abyss means it’s more likely to be used.
There are several situations when pausing holds considerable influence: presenting; pitching; giving feedback and negotiations. I’ve seen it used very effectively in negotiations, whereby one party proposes a fee that is greeted by silence. In the uncomfortable swell of nothingness then ensues, the proposing party then self-corrects by adding in modifications.
Using pause when presenting holds with it a certain confidence and power. You present a calm exterior that allows you to breathe, think and punctuate key phrases with silence. It also allows the audience to take in what you’ve said.
Recently I’ve been involved in storytelling slams. Here you take the stage with a five-minute true story along a theme publicised on the web before the night. Each time I’ve gone to a slam, it’s been brilliant practice in telling a story. The skill is in finding the right story to support the point, and then tell it engagingly, using expressive vocal and body language, whilst being authentic. Exactly what you need for a slam but also influencing and pitching.
Often, it takes someone else to find your story as we often miss the relevance of our own experience. Stories are the examples you bring in interviews. You pull them from up your sleeve when receiving feedback. In pitches, stories are key to your credibility. Having a strong narrative in your presentations means that you’re not depending on Venn diagrams and flow charts.
By experimenting with different identities, you’ll be more prepared to cope with a wider range of people and situations. For example, one of my clients, a CEO from a charity, won two pitches straight after presentation training with me: one for £1m and the next for £12m – that’s “my self promoting peacock” talking now.
Here’s the interesting thing: What made the difference for her was that she’d drawn on a character we’d discovered in our training session. She was able, with me as guide, to discover a resource that was already there and use it for this purpose. We had “tried on” several characters from my selection, such as the game-show host, for added dynamism, or the military leader, for increased gravitas. The selection came after filming the best persona and playing back.
We have many diverse characters within us but usually it’s the couple with the most persistent voices that we hear most of the time. You know, the one that loves to criticise, for example, or the joker. The trick is locating the right character for the right job and giving them the airtime they deserve.
It’s a Wrap
So, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal language or even something as seemingly intangible as the degree of authority you have, acting techniques are integral to embedding these outcomes. Packed into a relevant business context that’s instantly applicable to your role, you’ll ramp up your impact.