All the (business) world’s a stage

Actors on the stage of Wroclaw Opera House
Actors on the stage of Wroclaw Opera House

Campus 10178, the ESMT Berlin podcast, invited a professional actor and coach to share with listeners how they can use stage techniques for effective communication. Didi Hopkins teaches leaders to deliver their message and use the spotlight to their advantage.

With over 20 years of experience teaching executives and professionals, Didi, who is an actor, director, and voice-over artist by trade, draws many comparisons between the business world and the stage. She has an important message for all leaders out there: When presenting, technique trumps content any day. People in leadership positions are often well prepared but lacking in technique to convey the content they have so carefully drafted. “I think what happens in business is that we often forget about the audience and […] end up forgetting why we’re there, which is to work with an audience, to influence them, whether it’s the board or whether it’s influencing senior managers or even motivating a team.”

Business leaders can learn a lot by looking at performers. However, the answer may be closer to home than expected. Contrary to popular belief, leadership is not a show. There is no need to become someone else, to play a role in order to please an audience.  Didi shared three top tips.

The technical triad shapes your presentation

It does not matter who you are – talkative charmer or quiet wallflower, female or male, top executive or new to the game. If you focus on the right techniques and practice them regularly, you can become great at influencing your audience no matter who you are. “It’s a little bit like learning to swim”, Didi says laughing  “You have to practice […] so that you stop panicking, you start getting used to swimming in the swimming pool and in the end you can swim in the sea, which is a sort of unknown current. You have to trust your body and your body has to know exactly what to do in those situations.” She is quick to add that delivery is only one part in the equation. Message, delivery, and audience shape how a presentation is understood. They all have to come together. “I would say that people often do spend too much time on the content, less thinking about how they’re going to achieve what they want to achieve. […] You can’t go into a meeting and without preparing your content. But once you’ve prepared your content and you absolutely understand why you’re there and why [the audience is] there, then you can think about how you want to get your message across.”

It’s all about authenticity

To become a great performer, speaker, or leader, you need to get to the bottom of who you are and what makes you unique. Three aspects play roles in authentic presentations: your body language, your tone of voice, and the content that you deliver. Inspiring speakers are present in their body and, according to Didi, they are “alive, awake, and aware.” What do you do with your hands? How much space do you take up? Your tone of voice tells people how comfortable you are in front of them. We have all been there. You have to give an important presentation and you start losing your voice. You start speaking too fast. You forget how to breathe. These are evolutionary reactions to dangerous situations. “Everybody’s got something that needs an […] evolutionary kick to help them at the crossroads of fear,” Didi explains. Her job is to “help them find alternative ways to deal with the panic.” The key here is to remember to breathe. Another effective way to train your escape instincts is to record yourself and listen to what your voice sounds like. Over time, you will get more control over your voice. These techniques are designed to give power over panic.

Focus, reflect, and focus some more

Lastly, leaders need to engage in life-long learning – about themselves. They need to reflect on themselves, who they are, how they behave, and why they do it. With reflection, they can discover how they can improve their style for different audiences. The work environment may have changed drastically in the past decades, but the basics for great leaders remain the same. “I think essentially anything that’s been happening in terms of the changing world means that you need to focus more on your leadership skills in your communication rather than less. So I don’t think that any of this new technology has gotten in our way. People might need to lead differently,” Didi concludes.

Leadership, after all, is about the leader.