What my time in theater taught me about corporate communication
Spending over a decade in theater will teach you a lot about how to communicate and engage with other people using your voice, your words, your body language, your tone. At least, it did for me.
I started learning the fundamentals of great communication as a graduate student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, or RADA, in London. During my time there, I studied text (what we say) and subtext (our tone and our nonverbal communication). In fact, there was an entire class called “Motion,” which focused exclusively on body language.
As you can imagine, actors must be masters of both text and subtext if they want their performances to be engaging and authentic, which is why RADA emphasized communication fluency so heavily.
And, to be honest, that deep dive into communication was a revelation to me. Like most everyone else, I didn’t realize how incredibly nuanced the skill of true communication is.
Before RADA, I thought that communication was sending an email, or picking up the phone and chatting with someone, or having a face-to-face conversation. I had no idea that those things weren’t communication: they were the exchange of information.
Learning how to communicate with my audience was instrumental in helping me see that around the world, people -- especially people within organizations -- were merely exchanging information with each other. They weren’t truly communicating.
Over and over, I have worked with leaders, teams and employees on how to move from exchanging information to truly communicating. I use my “actor’s toolkit” to give people the tools they need to start connecting and start hearing each other.
The outcome? Once people learn the communication concepts actors are taught (the concepts I’ll share with you here), then we see productivity, efficiency and organizational cohesiveness increase exponentially.
We are perpetually in dialogue
One of the first things you learn as an actor -- and one of the first things I tell my corporate clients -- is that you are always in dialogue. As an actor, you’re in dialogue with the other people on stage, and you’re also perpetually in dialogue with the audience. It’s a communal experience.
Part of what that means is you must learn to read and respond to what your audience (and the other actors) are doing. You have to learn to read their energy. Are they distracted? Bouncing off the walls? More muted and serious? Bored and disengaged?
You must be able to interpret the signs they’re giving you and respond in a way that will allow you to bring them into your experience and take them where you want to go.
This is true for corporate communication, as well. I like to tell my clients that communication always starts with the other person. We often think about what we want to say or what we want to tell people, but the truth is that, instead, we should be thinking about where they are and what they need to hear. What’s the other person’s state of mind?
I refer to this as DNA: Demographics (in other words, who I’m talking to), needs and attitudes.
Just as successful actors do, you must be able to tailor your message and your tone and your word choice to meet the other person where they’re at, in a way that allows them to receive what you’re communicating. Being able to do that successfully makes it possible to get the outcome you want from that conversation.
We must be fully present
Starting with the other person is a great first step, but as theater taught me, great communication takes more than just that. As I learned at RADA, the very act of communicating means being fully present. And that’s something most of us aren’t naturally good at.
Being fully present isn’t just a skill; it’s a muscle that needs to be built up and practiced. We are all constantly bombarded with distractions, especially in a work environment. Between texts, emails, Slack messages and phone calls, staying present and focused can be incredibly challenging. But unless we’re fully present for the entire dialogue, we will have wasted our time because the results won’t be effective or productive.
I got a firsthand demonstration of how important it is to be fully present when I was playing Cordelia in a production of “King Lear.” Right on stage, in the middle of a scene, the actor playing King Lear suddenly went into “Hamlet.”
Luckily, because I was fully present and stayed with him, I was able to bring him back to the right play. If I hadn’t been dialed in -- if I had been thinking about my lines instead of staying engaged with him, for example -- it would have been disastrous.
The same thing happens with corporate communications. Unless we’re fully present, we can’t stay with the other person and really hear their words and interpret their nonverbal cues. We can’t tell if our message is landing, or if they’re a million miles away or completely confused. Once we go on autopilot, the chance for effective communication is doomed.
Our verbal and nonverbal communication must match
Have you ever watched a politician speak and thought to yourself that something felt insincere? That’s because their words are saying one thing, but their body language is saying something completely different. When that happens, our brains immediately pick up on it, and it sends little alarm bells off in our heads.
As an actor, you have to learn to become aware of your verbal and nonverbal communication. You can’t just say your lines; you need to deliver them in an authentic way. You have to bring the right subtext to what you’re saying.
It’s a skill people must develop in corporate communication, too. To communicate effectively with people, you must be able to seamlessly weave together your verbal and nonverbal communication. And you must learn to pay attention to both of those things when they respond to you, too.
Mastering this skill helps ensure that you don’t unintentionally make people defensive, destroy your credibility or harm their perception of you. When your spoken and unspoken communication are in alignment with each other, people will trust you more, and the chances are much higher that you’ll be able to achieve your goals for the communication.
Focus on engagement
Whether you’re talking to an employee or customer one-on-one, giving a keynote presentation to thousands of people or presenting to your board, you must be able to move beyond merely exchanging information to truly and authentically communicating.
It isn’t always easy, but if you can remember to meet the other person where they are, stay fully present, and make sure your verbal and nonverbal communication match, you’ll be much more likely to achieve the outcome you want.
Just like mastering acting, mastering these skills takes practice. It takes commitment and determination to retrain yourself to ignore all the distractions and really engage with the other person. However, if you’re willing to put in the work, I promise: The benefits will far outweigh the costs.
Monique Maley is a CEO, serial entrepreneur and angel investor. In 2011, she founded Articulate Persuasion, her third entrepreneurial success and a company that cultivates authentic and influential leaders. As a classically trained actor with more than a decade spent in the theater and film industries, Maley offers her clients unique insight into influential communication. She leverages her actor’s toolkit and entrepreneurial experience to mentor leaders with a distinctive approach that emphasizes adaptability, impactful communication, and connection with others. Maley’s clients include Fortune 500 companies, complex government-funded organizations and scrappy startups from around the world.
For more advice on how to master corporate communication, you can find Maley’s book “Turbulence” on Amazon.