Improve your career: Take an acting class!

When people learn about my professional background, I am often met with puzzled looks. You see, I have two careers; the first as a regional sales director in the group benefits industry, and the other as an actor. To many, these two pursuits seem entirely incompatible, but I’ve actually found the opposite.

I have been performing for as long as I can remember. Acting, or the process of telling a story, is my way of exploring the world, my creative outlet and in one way or another it has shaped who I am.

When I am not at the office, I can often be found on stage, on set, or in some kind of acting class. The more that I delve into my art, the more I have realized how transferable those skills are. Acting is more than just the final performance that you see. It the study of life and learning to empathize deeply with someone you have never met or something you may never have been through in order to share a story, entertain, engage and educate an audience and provoke thought. It is that process that makes me feel so strongly that not only is acting not unrelated to business, but that being an actor has in fact made me better at my job.

Still skeptical? Let me take you through the top 5 reasons that I think acting classes are useful to any serious business professional.

1. Presentation skills — This is the one that everyone thinks of right away so let’s tackle this first. One of the first things that you learn in an acting class is how to take care of your instrument and to start being comfortable in front of an audience. That includes breathing techniques, warm-ups, articulation, annunciation and just being up in front of people.

At one point or another, almost everyone has sat captive through an hour long business presentation delivered by a co-worker who has suddenly turned into a monotonous drone. Taking an acting class isn’t going to suddenly make your powerpoint presentations into multi-media extravaganzas, but it absolutely will help increase your skills, comfort level and confidence when speaking in front of a crowd. You would be surprised what a difference it can make to audience engagement if you project, annunciate, improve your pacing, and don’t spend your time wishing that the projection screen would just swallow you whole.

2. Active Listening — When you are doing the same script every night, it is very easy to just fall into a pattern of saying the same things in the same way in the same order. But if your colleague’s energy changes one night and you are reacting to how you think they should have said their line, instead of how they actually said it, the whole scene will be affected. So we practice active listening. In every class, in every scene whether we know we are doing it or not. And like any other skill, the more you do it, the easier it becomes to do.

Not all business happens in a lecture hall with a captive audience. In fact, the majority of interactions are two way conversations. Unfortunately, most of the training that takes place in this space is focused on what to say, and how to close the sale. But a lot of the great success stories that you hear about amazing deals that were made because a customer who was difficult to please was finally matched with a great solution, come out of active listening instead.

How many times have you heard part of what someone was saying and then just waited impatiently for them to stop speaking so that you could add your own thoughts; thoughts that were already formulated while the other person was talking? We all do it, but it isn’t active listening, it isn’t really even normal listening.

Active listening involves really taking in the person that is talking to you; all of them. Not just hearing the words they say but really hearing the person’s energy behind the words as well. What are they feeling? How are they saying it? What are they really saying? Taking that all in and then forming a genuine response. Your clients will appreciate it. People notice when they are really being heard, and they appreciate being understood. They may not be conscious of it, but they will remember how meeting with you made them feel.

3. Effective communication — The other side of the communication equation once you understand the problem or question at hand, is knowing what to say and how to say it. Obviously the fundamental knowledge and understanding of your product or subject matter is the first step; in the acting world, this would be the part where you learn your lines. But there is a lot more to effective communication than simply regurgitating memorized facts. You need to consider what your audience needs to hear and needs to learn and what they are taking away from the encounter. When you are performing you need to be aware of how you are coming across.

Consider your non-verbal communication as part of your process. On film it is sometimes the smallest of facial expressions that can change an entire scene, and we can communicate so much about our character through the clothes we wear, how we carry our bodies and the tone we speak in. Through acting you learn to move with purpose to convey specific emotions that can be brought to your everyday life and your meetings.

4. Facing your fears — What is the one thing that everyone fears when they think of acting or public speaking? Forgetting what you were going to say? Having your scene/presentation partner forget what they were supposed to say? Looking like you don’t know what you are talking about and having the entire audience start to boo and throw rotten tomatoes at your head?

This has happened to me several times, in both an acting and a business capacity; the scary situation part, not the tomato part. And I know that it will happen again. People make mistakes and fail at tasks, but that won’t stop me from getting on that stage or in front of that camera or walking into that important meeting. The funny thing about actually living through the nightmare, is that you realize that it actually isn’t as bad as you thought. It can actually be a positive experience when you get the opportunity to help out a colleague or you realize that they are there to support you and help you out of a jam as well. And most clients are going to be ok with you having to get back to them with an answer you might not know off the top of your head.

We build these fears up in our minds and they can stop us from trying a new activity or suggesting a new idea, but they usually aren’t as bad as we think… and people just really don’t seem to walk around with that many rotten tomatoes these days. If you are open to being vulnerable and learn to embrace the discomfort you can learn and grown from the experience, and come out of it with a stronger, more confident team.

5. Expanding your comfort zone — It is not enough to just face your fear just one time. Facing your fears is essential to helping you grow. But the catch is, once you face the same fear a few times, it will become comfortable. Doing that same thing again will no longer count as facing your fears, and you will no longer be growing. You will need to find new and different ways to challenge yourself and try things you might not be sure are possible.

One of the greatest take aways from an acting class, or the rehearsal process or being on stage, is that acting is about getting out of your comfort zone. Pushing boundaries, trying something new, failing at something new and then trying it again… You cannot succeed in acting and cling to your comfort zone. I had to give up on that a LONG time ago.

The bonus is you do not have to be on stage to do this. Most classes will do a great job at getting you out of your comfort zone and you only have to be in front of a small group. Just try it!

There are thousands of inspirational quotes on this subject out there. Here are a couple of my favourites:

  • A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there. — Unknown
  • Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone. -Neale Donald Walsh
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. -Jillian Michaels

Pushing out of your comfort zone may seem like an obvious suggestion that we hear a lot. But like so many other things in life, it takes practice to actually do it. It will feel weird and uncomfortable, that’s the whole point. But actually doing it, actually embracing this mindset of constantly pushing yourself and striving to try new things, is one that will permeate every aspect of your life.