There’s a lot that acting and improv can teach businesspeople about communication – everything from how to find your authentic voice to projecting that voice in a crowded room. Linda Burden-Williams with Prostar Acting and Speaking, who has been a professional actor, casting director, performance coach and public speaker for more than 30 years, recently brought her suggestions on how to cast yourself in the role of better communicator at an Arts and Business Alliance Creative Academy seminar. She was joined by Sophia McDonald Bennett, a freelance writer, editor, communications consultant and pro tem instructor of marketing at the Lundquist College of Business.
While Burden-Williams focused on how to feel more comfortable communicating with people on a personal level, Bennett concentrated on ways to make advertising and promotions efforts more targeted and effective. Their top tips are included below. We also strongly recommend listening to the podcast from this presentation so you can hear all of our presenters’ outstanding suggestions (start around 20 minutes into the talk to skip the introductions).
Understand Yourself and Others
Succeeding as an actor requires understanding who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what triggers emotions such as nervousness or self-consciousness. It also requires gaining an in-depth understanding of the people you’re supposed to play.
“If I got a part and I had to be a really high-powered lawyer, what I do is I would shadow a high-powered female lawyer,” Burden-Williams said. “I’d see how she dressed. I’d see how she spoke and what her voice sounded like. When you do that you can pick up on the traits of someone and that’s how you create a character.”
Many people believe the appeal of being an actor is that you get to transform into another person and leave yourself behind. Burden-Williams dismissed that notion, saying, “You can never become someone else. What you can do is find the traits that are working for others and step into them. As a businessperson you can find people you really like and start bringing those traits into your life to help you be the businessperson you’d like to be.”
Any actor working to develop a character must answer four basic questions: Who am I? What do I want? What’s in my way? How am I going to get what I want? These questions are helpful for any professional working to advance their career or an entrepreneurial effort. But these questions can also help you when communicating with customers or colleagues, Burden-Williams explained.
“You can flip the questions around and say, ‘Who are they? What do they want? What is in their way and how are you going to help them?’ That’s what you’re going to do. You have a service or product that’s going to make their life better.”
“Studies show that the people who make the biggest impact in the world have a morning routine,” said Burden-Williams. She meditates every morning, and she uses that time to set some intention for the day. That practice has had an enormous impact on all aspects of her life, including how she communicates with others.
“How many people here make phone calls every day?” she asked the group. “It might be a sales call or a follow-up call. If you change the intention in your doing, it really makes a difference. You can say, ‘When I make this phone call I’m going to listen and be open to developing a relationship with this person.’ Doesn’t that sound different than making a sales call? Then you’re not trying to sell them anything. You’re trying to have an authentic conversation with them and build a relationship with them. It makes it more fun.”
Over the long term, meditation has helped Burden-Williams overcome childhood shyness and nurture her own energy, which is what helps her come across as authentic on screen. “You need to take some time to be with yourself and face the things you’re afraid of or struggling with,” she said. “If you can’t take 10 minutes for yourself you’re living in the stress of yesterday.”
Be Comfortable In Your Mind and Body
Another important part of being a better person-to-person communicator is developing core confidence. Burden-Williams defines this as “security you feel within yourself – not ego, and not security from other people or from your job.” It grounds you and guides your mind and then you can communicate a lot better,” she said.
Developing core confident requires working on your mindset. “One of the great things the mind does is gather and sort information,” Burden-Williams said. “So if I think I’m stupid, my mind is going to gather and sort information into a file: the stupid file. Your mind doesn’t know the truth from fact or fiction.
“But who’s the driver of the mind? Who can change your pathways? You can get out of those ruts and prove to your brain that you’re not stupid,” she added. It takes a conscious effort to overcome those long-held personal biases, but through activities such as meditation it’s possible to build new beliefs about yourself.
One of the things that keeps many people from having the proper mindset for effective communications – especially with people in power – is a feeling of intimidation. Burden-Williams uses empathy to minimize that feeling. “A great equalizer is that every human being suffers and has loss,” she said. That reminds her that even powerful people are people – and that she might have more in common with them than it first appears.
Feeling present in your body can also help you communicate more confidently. Actors ground themselves by feeling their feet touching the floor. Feeling present in the moment, being open to using all of your senses, and projecting that core confidence through eye contact and body language also makes communication easier and more effective.
Set Measurable Goals
“If you’re going to be successful with any of your communications it’s really important to have goals for yourself,” Bennett said, moving on to how to make a larger advertising or promotion campaign successful. “You need to understand what you want to accomplish, what you want the outcome of your communication efforts to be, and what you want to achieve with your communication efforts. If you don’t know that then you’re not going to get to where you need to go.”
Goals should always be measurable so you can quantify the progress you’ve made toward meeting them, she said. When setting those goals, be sure to record benchmarks. If your goal is to double your Facebook following, for example, but you don’t know how many people you started with, it’s impossible to prove that you’ve met your goal.
Make sure all goals are time-bound as well. “You don’t just want to say, ‘I want to get to 1000 Facebook followers,'” Bennett said. “When do you want to get there? You need a timeline as well.”
Know Your Audience
Communication efforts will work best when they’re tailored to a very specific audience, Bennett shared. “College students are an audience, but within college students there are a lot of different subsets. Are we talking about traditionally-aged student who live in a dorm or sorority? Are we talking about non-traditionally aged students, or are we talking about international students? All of these people are going to have different ways they expect to be communicated with. So the more specific you can be with your audience, the more successful you can be at reaching out to them.”
Once you know the audience you’re trying to reach, you need to learn their language. This point is clearly illustrated when considering the movies or television shows, Burden-Williams pointed out. Screenwriters and actors working on sci-fi or historical fiction pieces will use very different words (and probably different styles or patterns of speech) than those involved in contemporary shows or westerns.
Sometimes you’re the best person to communicate with your specific audience, and sometimes it’s best to cast someone else in that role, Bennett said. “If you’re not going to be able to get to know that audience and their language well enough to communicate with them, you may need to hire someone to do your communications for you, or find someone on your staff who is more aligned with your audience and their values and ask them to do those communications instead.”
If you use the same tone and language as your audience, your communications are much more likely to seem authentic. That’s hugely important in today’s marketplace, where consumers place high value on authenticity and transparency.
Clearly Define Your Message – Then Test It
Once you’ve identified your specific target audience, you need to start developing a message that will resonate with them. There are several things to keep in mind when doing this.
Sometimes talking about what you do is less important than talking about why you do it. “Your why is what connects with other people,” Burden-Williams said. “What is your intention? What drives you? What decisions do you make and why?” Oftentimes this practice of communicating the why first is rooted in talking about values, which is very appealing to modern consumers. The TED Talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action by Simon Sinek goes into this in more detail.
An important thing to convey in your message is what makes you distinct from your competitors. Burden-Williams defines distinction as “excellence that sets someone or something apart from others.” In marketing this is often called a value proposition; see this article for more details about developing one.
Once you’ve come up with one or several potential messages, it’s a good idea to test them. “You can do what’s call communication research, where you come up with a prototype of an ad or campaign and go to some of your consumers and say, ‘What do you see here? What is being communicated?'” Bennett said. “That way you can be sure it appeals to the people you want it to appeal to.” This is particularly important when you’re dealing with a culture or a group you don’t belong to or aren’t familiar with, she added.
Digital media is making it more viable to do what’s called “switch testing,” where you run several ads on a social media site, evaluate which ones are working best, then continue to use those images and ideas. “You can do this over and over again until you figure out which message is going to be the most effective,” Bennett said.
Evaluate Your Communication Efforts
At the end of every communication effort, evaluate your results using those measurable goals you set for yourself at the beginning. “As yourself, ‘Did we meet them? Did we exceed them, or did we totally fail?'” Bennett said. “Then ask yourself why. Use it as a learning opportunity to see how you can do better next time around.” You’ll find value in this whether you’re wrapping up a promotional campaign or a conversation with a person who can make a difference in your business.