Saturday, June 22, 2013

TV and Film as Guides for Presentation Skills: But Beware of What's Left Out

Naturalism in Acting

It's pretty common for people with a theatre background, like me, to coach (read: collaborate) with business people in order to help them find a comfortable, persuasive manner and vocabulary for them onstage, in presentations, for pitches, and in conversations generally.  Why not when the goal of an actor is to persuade, create empathy, and generally win an audience over?

There is a lot to be learned from acting in this sphere, particularly when combining and tailoring a range of acting for a particular person's temperament, strengths, and blind spots.  Acting is really all about listening and reacting in the moment, and it surprisingly takes a lot of training to be natural in character.

95% practice, 5% inspiration, I always say.  And you can't depend on the latter without having done the former.

Theatre Vs. Film/TV

Although acting is often similarly natural across media, the effect is very different.  It's not just the live vs. non-live experience, which certainly changes one's experience of performance.  In business, think of it as the difference of being on skype and in the same room with someone.  The conversations won't be the same.

However, perhaps even more important, the dynamic of conversation is portrayed differently between film (and TV) and theatre.  In the former, your view of the dynamic between people as they talk is often obscured by focusing the camera in a close-up on one face.  So when using professional actors as role models, remember you're only seeing one side of the story.

Without a reaction from a listener, how can you be sure that the actor has hit the mark? 

An Example

I went to see The Audience with Helen Mirren as part of The National Theatre Live series.  It seems like an excellent deal: 20 quid to see a hundred-pound-per-ticket play televised as it is performed live.

The play depends on our belief that we are learning about Queen Elizabeth II as a human being through fictional, if informed, regularly scheduled visits she had with her prime ministers from her coronation through the recent Jubilee.  We learn, too, about her ministers, but the focus is Elizabeth as child becoming woman knowing she will be Queen, and then woman sustaining the dignity of the monarchy regardless of the personal cost.

What Was Great

The Audience pulled off an unlikely win in enacting the conversations of which the play is entirely comprised.  It's hard enough to suspend disbelief when a writer lays its credibility on the shoulders of 1 or 2 central characters' resemblance to historical counterparts.  Consider Frost/Nixon, The Iron Lady, Lincoln, or Peter and Alice.  Like The Audience, these were also composed almost entirely of conversations, but they only had to really persuade contemporary audiences that one of the characters seemed enough like the images with which we're all familiar.

However, The Audience's triumph is the credible representation of 10 or 11 characters as iconic as Churchill, the current Prime Minister, and the reigning Queen of England, even when the physical resemblance is more symbolic than photographic.

What Was Missing: For Those Looking to Learn for Business

The problem with the National Theatre's televised version is that you rarely see two characters at once during a conversation.  Because the viewer/listener lacks context, we focus only on what one character wants to say about themselves and not the dynamic between the two.  In other words, we can't see the reason for much of the dialogue if we can't see the faces and body language of the listener.  We are left to assume the reason for response based on viewing close-up one side of the conversation.

Why This is Worth Remembering

All effective conversations and presentations begin a conversation that listeners want to continue, whether it is in the form of a monologue or dialogue, whether in a grand ballroom onstage or at a boardroom table. 

The way you present and the things you say should be effected by the body language and expressions of your listeners.  In any presentation, watch the listeners more carefully than whomever is speaking.  You'll have a better idea of how to persuade when you take into account what has impact on others.

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