My name is Fergus and I have a confession to make: I am a drama geek. In my three years at university, I worked on nearly 30 plays, ran multiple drama societies and took shows to festivals in London, Edinburgh and Brighton. Whether as an actor, producer, director or designer, I spent the majority of my degree in a theatre of some sort.
You might have thought that the worlds of the stage and the boardroom had fairly little overlap – certainly, the majority of my friends from university are doing very different things with their lives right now. But at Capgemini, I’ve very quickly discovered that my acting experience gives me a unique perspective on some of the challenges consultants face every day. If you want to improve your core consulting skills, you could do a lot worse than spend some time in an acting class.
Whether you’re presenting to an executive team or an audience of theatregoers, the same basic rules apply for how to hold an audience’s attention. And while there are plenty of resources available to consultants about how to structure the content of a presentation, it’s a lot harder to get detailed technical feedback on your ‘performance’ – the sort of things that a director would pick you up on during a rehearsal. In particular, there are a few ‘bad habits’ that I had to learn to avoid as an actor, but which people fall into all the time when they’re presenting:
- Don’t move your feet unless you need to; and when you do move, do it with confidence.
- Always keep your feet facing towards your audience – if you need to gesture around the room, do it with your head and your torso.
- If your audience is watching your movements, they aren’t paying attention to your message. Instead of moving constantly, try cycling through a series of poses – while making the movements between each one as smooth as possible.
- Don’t peer down on individual audience members. Instead, look upwards or ahead to take everyone in.
- Instead of speaking as if you’re holding a normal conversation, project your voice properly by imagining you’re talking to someone right at the back of the room.
If you want to learn more about these technical aspects of stagecraft, I recommend you find some time and go see a play – any play. Pay attention to how the actors move around the stage, where they look when they’re speaking, how they stand, how they move their head. It’s all super boring stuff, but it makes a huge difference to how you come across.
But even before anyone starts speaking, pay attention to something else: what do you see when you walk into the theatre? What’s the image on stage? What’s the mood like in the audience? How is the room lit? What music is playing? What do the programmes look like?
This, I think, is the most crucial lesson that consultants can take from the world of the stage. Everything that an actor does will be evaluated in the eyes of the audience through a single lens – and that lens starts to take place before anyone sets foot on the stage. A play ‘works’ when everything that the actors do successfully builds on that initial impression.
This same philosophy should be at the core of your thinking when organising a meeting, be it a sprawling workshop or a quick catch-up over coffee. Whether your ‘audience’ consciously registers it or not, everything they see before the meeting starts – the emails you send out about it, the agenda you distribute, the colour of the walls in the conference room – contributes to their initial perception of it. To create as smooth an experience for them as possible, all of those elements should be working in tandem to reinforce a singular vision.
Consulting – like many other professions – is about constant performance, always being on display. But what many people don’t realise is that a performance is only as good as the stage on which it takes place; to run a successful meeting is to be conscious of the sets you are building.