Why doing theater makes you a better communicator and a stronger leader

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Why doing theater makes you a better communicator and a stronger leader

Photo: Neil Magnuson and Harold Lehmann in The Resurrection of George (photo by Katie Kline)

At Bespoken, we come from the theater. Learn how theatrical experience makes you a stronger communicator, a better listener and a more effective leader. 

Before Bespoken, Jackie and I devoted most of our time to bringing theater to non-traditional places and voices. I spent years directing plays in basements of bars in Brooklyn. Jackie spent her time helping non-profits and students amplify their voices through the arts.

Theater is a great way to practice thinking on your feet and making a connection. It flexes the muscles of public speaking, storytelling, and intuition. Whether or not you intend to ever take the stage, experience in the theater makes you a stronger communicator. It can even make you a better leader.

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” – Ira Glass

Storytelling is the most effective way to get ideas out into the world. And scientific evidence backs this up. Paul Zak’s research proved that when the brain produces oxytocin (which happens when we hear stories), people are more “trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate.” Research shows that after a presentation, 63% of the audience remembers stories while only 5% remember statistics. Playwrights constantly edit their stories to make them more efficient and actors then have a daily audience on which to test it out and pivot in order to make their storytelling more effective.  Takeaway: Theater is the quickest way to hone your storytelling skills on the page and on the stage, giving you immediate feedback from a live audience—and invaluable resource.

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of you intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.” – Alan Alda

If an actor has one job, it is to explore and exert empathy. In rehearsal, actors examine and uncover a character’s intentions, backgrounds, motivations and objectives. And if it’s not immediately clear in the text, they use their imagination to dream it up. Understanding a character (even an unlikeable one) and portraying them truthfully onstage is no small feat. The magic of live theater means that actors continue to explore the limits of their own empathy with an audience in the room every single night. And because anything can change at a moment’s notice we have to listen—to our fellow actors, to the audience, to ourselves. The fate of the play depends on it. Takeaway: Practice active listening and being in someone else’s shoes to build intuition, a necessary skill for any leader.   

“Please use your voice. Refuse to be silenced. Make the work. Turn your rage into action. Find your inspiration. Find your resistance and resilience. Hold it close. Get loud.” — Leigh Silverman

In theater school, we train our voices and bodies to be receptive. Passionate emotion is available—not because it is forced but because the actor knows how to access it in a truthful way. We build our voices to be able to fill a 500-seat theater and work our bodies to be malleable, depending on a character’s needs. We know how to be heard, and how to make a point as effectively as possible. Takeaway: Work with a vocal coach or take a movement workshop to flex these muscles, grow your voice and own any room you walk into.  

“No mistakes can be made during rehearsals, only progress toward what works best.” — Jim Jarmusch

Actors practice practicing—that’s all rehearsal is. Rehearsal is where preparation meets collaboration. Actors rehearse to be truthful, so that when they get onstage (the least natural environment of all) nothing can go wrong. They have prepared for every possible scenario, and a good director makes sure of it. Takeaway: The technique of preparation and the discipline of rehearsal are transferable skills, whether you are practicing for a keynote speech, preparing for a team meeting or having a challenging conversation with an employee. 

“The only safe thing is to take a chance.” — Mike Nichols

The first rule of improv is to say “Yes”. Another improv rule is to make statements, not ask questions. Improv is about getting comfortable not knowing what comes next. It’s a safe space to practice being in charge while also being collaborative and positive. Improv helps you improve communication, self-confidence and projecting yourself as a leader. It’s why improv classes for professionals have been so popular in the past few years. Takeaway: If you have trouble thinking on your feet or speaking off-the-cuff in meetings, throw yourself in the deep-end and take an improv class. 

So, flex your theatrical muscles, even if you never intend to take the stage. Take an improv class, write a screenplay, or work with a coach. And let us know how it goes!

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