The class that helped me the most in business and the “role”​ it played

I am often asked to talk with high school and college students about career options, the world of work and the lessons I’ve learned. That may be because I am really loyal to my alma maters. Or my alma maters assume I have gained a sharable wisdom through a career of bumps, bruises and multiple achievements. Or I just enjoy the opportunity to offer a few drops of advice that students might file away for a rainy day. Or maybe all of the above.

In one of my classroom visits, a student asked, “what class helped you the most in your career?” In a split second I flipped through the file cabinet in my brain for a good answer. All of the usual suspects popped into my head…science, English, math (nope, not math…hated math), French, art, finance (yep, nope, never really got that time value of money thing). In a nano second, “acting” is what came out of my mouth. “Whew!” I thought. “That awkward thinking silence was over.” But, oh…now I have to explain why acting. Did I have to put on a show to make my point? I think the show already started at that very moment.

What I explained to this curious mind is that I had just demonstrated why acting class and improv was so valuable. Plus I got to brag about some of the parts I played on the big stage…in the high school auditorium. :)

  1. One definition of improv is, “the art or act of improvising, or of composing, uttering, executing, or arranging anything without previous preparation.” The phrase “without previous preparation” is the essence of improv. Acting and improv classes created a forum that “forced” me to think on my feet and to very quickly connect the dots to develop a thoughtful response in any situation. How many times have you seen a job description state “ability to think on your feet” as one of the key criteria for the position. The ability to think and act nimbly positions you as a problem solver or at least a superhero who swoops in and has something witty, interesting or pithy to say until you can think through a more substantive response or solution. But in order to do so, you have to be actively listening in the process. Acting and improv is a sport of flexibility, spontaneity and picking up on the “cues.”

2. Acting also taught me that at any given time the “reality” is that you are playing a role. Whether you are interacting with an employee, boss, or client, you are performing “in character” regardless of the circumstance. Perhaps, you are a manager and your role at one point in your day is “motivator.” Who do you respect as an effective role model for this character? Your boss? Tony Robbins? Oprah? No, you won’t get an academy award nor the opportunity to give away cars, but emulating these types of folks can help you to foster characteristics which are very often a means to a positive end. For instance, job satisfaction increases when employees are motivated. Clients are more loyal when inspired by their business partners.

As a qualitative market researcher and moderator who interviews physicians and patients about some of the most sensitive and often life threatening diseases, I think about interviewers I’ve observed who have posed questions in the most compassionate and trusting of ways. I think about Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer who have demonstrated great empathy when addressing a sensitive topic with a guest. You must, however, always be genuine and authentic in your words and intentions. You can take on a character but the character is only the channel by which you deliver your message.

3. And sometimes you just need to simply entertain and delight a client, a team or a boss. Acting has taught me to be a chameleon in many different situations that at times have put me out of my comfort zone. Taking on a character or a role can make interacting with people easier until you get more comfortable in different scenarios. We are experience creators and storytellers, and that’s what makes us memorable and has our audiences asking for more!

Since “all the world’s a stage,” I encourage you to take an acting or improv class. It will open your mind to new ways of thinking about communication in everyday life. Here in Chicago, we have the luxury of having Second City Works in our backyard. I have never been a student of Second City, but I am a fan of how they are using acting and improv as a way to improve communication, innovation and profitability. There are also local community theaters that offer workshops regularly as well as community colleges. Learning this skill is well worth the time investment and it’s a lot of fun!

What role will you take on today? What character do you or can you emulate within the context of your authentic, genuine self? What are some of your “think on your feet moments” that you’re proud of? And what class helped you the most in your career? Give yourself a hand…you deserve the standing ovation!

Happy Day! Laura

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