The Power of Performance Skills in Communication Training

I have been an actor for more than fifteen years, following my three-year classical training at the Oxford School of Drama. It’s well-known that acting can be quite a precarious career, and so between acting jobs I have done my best to make ends meet by utilising acting-related communication skills in various workplaces. It has been an incredibly interesting way to observe how communication skills help individuals to maximise their potential, and organizations to increase productivity.

It is increasingly recognised that strong presentation, verbal and non-verbal communication skills are a huge asset in business, negotiation, recruitment, marketing and sales, as well as within management structures and leadership. In this article I’d like to outline a few different environments where I’ve witnessed key vocal, verbal and non-verbal communication tools being practiced to great effect.

Army

As in all military organisations, the army has a very rigid management structure that can make communication either very simple or very complicated!

On the one hand, a junior staff member is expected to follow orders and protocols without question, without expectation of pleasantries. In this case, a manager (senior officer) often will speak in a very firm voice, loudly and assertively, whilst exhibiting dominant body language (straight back, head tilted forward, direct hand/arm gestures and deliberate movements). This harmony of role (superior) and manner (authoritative) can make it very easy to transmit a message without confusion. However, if a manager lacks any of these assertive and dominant communicative behaviours, the junior staff member will implicitly feel this person lacks authority, and it may even make them doubt the validity of the order or instruction, and cause them to hesitate.  Nevertheless, for the most part, this dominant behaviour can be, and is, learned by emergent managers in the army as a matter of necessity. In a war zone, with split-second opportunities to save the lives of your team, one thing you don’t want to inspire in your staff is hesitation.

In another example, if a senior officer aims to encourage a junior team member to speak about a personal issue that is more sensitive – i.e. the manager is in ‘listening mode’ – then the aforementioned dominant behaviour – loud, aggressive, direct – is not likely to achieve the desired result. It’s not easy to open up to someone who seems to want to dominate you. Much of the work I did with the British army focused on the ability of senior managers not just to instruct and command, but to listen. Active listening is a vital part of communication, and builds trust and rapport.

TV Anchor / Interviewer

A few years ago I helped to prepare presenters for a broadcast campaign of a major international sporting event.  As an anchor of an ongoing broadcast one needs to be able to hold sustained eye contact with the audience via the camera. Eye contact is very important for building rapport and delivering one’s message, making the listener feel included and acknowledged. You can observe how newsreaders are very careful to maintain eye contact with the camera throughout a news report: when they break this eye contact, the effect is of uncertainty, disengagement and distraction, and soon the audience’s attention wanders. 

Similarly, when an anchor is interviewing a guest in the studio, they use eye contact to support the guest in their answers. They will also respond, as the guest is speaking, with positive signals: nodding, smiling and responding physically to what they say – this is another example of engaged, active listening, alongside supportive non-verbal communication (body language). We can all remember seeing examples of effective, and ineffective, interview technique, often on evening chat shows.

This kind of very controlled communicative environment also requires particular speaking techniques: measured, deliberate speech, with regular pauses. If a presenter or interviewer rushes their speech, or is not careful of their diction, they can quickly lose both their audience and their guest – in short: it’s a disaster!

The most successful members of the sports broadcast team I worked with married these three elements consistently well: sustained eye contact, active listening, clear and measured speech.

Spokesperson to the Media

Some of the most illuminating work I’ve been involved with in communication training has been preparing company spokespeople for facing questions from the media – what is often called ‘Media Training’.  Communicating a message under pressure from a very determined and aggressive questioner can expose not just the possible gaps in our argument, but the gaps in our communication skills.  In the case of some of my clients, they represent companies who may face a crisis situation and must brief the media even whilst a dramatic event is underway. Imagine for instance being a spokesperson for an oil company whilst one of its offshore rigs is on fire: any sign of panic or fear in your voice or manner is going to have deep effects on the families of the rig’s employees, who may have no knowledge of the welfare of their loved ones. In these cases one must rely on strong communication skills to send a clear message about the status of the event, without losing control and exacerbating the crisis.

We’ve all seen politicians, police and football managers speaking to a media gathering, and struggling to deliver their message under pressure. We usually notice the less effective things that happen when the pressure gets to them: stuttering, breaking eye contact, getting overly emotional, the voice becoming weak or strained, erratic body language – it makes them appear weak, uncertain and out of control.

By noticing these tendencies we can infer that keeping our speech, eye contact, emotions and body language in control and steady, gives the speaker an air of authority and calm. With practice, this calm and control can be there when they most need it.

The live Q&A of media training transfers its lessons directly to when delivering a presentation to an audience and fielding questions. A prospective client may have valid questions about your financial strategy, about your disappointing first quarter figures and how they square with your optimistic forecast for the year ahead: I would suggest that a rushed, shrill and angry response to such questions (however justified by your maths) would be less effective than sustained eye contact, nodding, and an understanding smile! With practice and development of these helpful communicative habits, no question need catch us off-guard.

Using these examples I hope that I’ve given a brief introduction to the different applications of ‘performance’ techniques within different contexts.  In reality, “performance” is simply a blanket term to describe various aspects of “self-expression” through Vocal, Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication. What actors use deliberately within the structure of a play or film, we can all use as a means of effectively conveying our thoughts. We can utilise, with consciousness and care, the tools to make ourselves understood to our audience. Of course, these tools can also be wonderfully helpful in our personal relationships, enabling us to articulate feelings and concerns with awareness, control and clarity.

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