What can businesspeople learn from actors?

Theatrical techniques help in giving “Winning Presentations”

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Shannon Mitchell, Ph.D., had a problem. As associate dean for undergraduate studies in the VCU School of Business, she’s a leader in developing curriculum. Multiple professors teaching a junior business communications course were telling her that their students simply did not know what they were doing when it came to giving presentations. Presenting a compelling business plan or product is crucial to the success of any businessperson, but these students’ skills were lacking. Something needed to be done.

A colleague advised Mitchell to contact the VCU Department of Theatre in the School of the Arts for advice. Although doubtful, Mitchell needed help, so she turned to David S. Leong, chair and professor, and Aaron D. Anderson, Ph.D., associate chair and associate professor.

As it turns out, it was the perfect solution. Not only have Leong and Anderson worked with other disciplines across the university to teach theatrical skills, they also have their own consulting business, The Critical Communications Group, that works with business professionals. The two put together a course plan and in fall 2013, the School of Business launched its Winning Presentations pilot course.  

“We knew we were on to something,” Mitchell said. “We right away in the fall semester began hearing from the University College business advisers that it was the favorite course. These were freshmen primarily … and the freshmen were reporting back pretty uniformly that their favorite course was this Winning Presentations. So that was really good to hear.”

The program’s success and popularity prompted the School of Business this fall to make Winning Presentations a required course for all incoming freshman and transfer students who have not taken a comparable course.

“It is a really great course and it’s so valuable especially for students in their freshman year to get a great jump on their business mind,” said Marisa Guida, who received her M.F.A. in theater pedagogy from VCU this spring and is teaching and coordinating Winning Presentations this semester. “And also really knowing what they’re passionate about. Because it’s not just about having hobbies or things that you do outside of your job. It’s about finding a job that makes you excited to get up in the morning and they’re at the right age to really dig into that, and discover that.”

Like Guida, who served as a teaching assistant during the pilot class, the nearly 10 other instructors are all graduate students or alumni of the Department of Theatre. She said their background of theater performance has prepared them all to teach the class, which emphasizes basic storytelling.

“That’s really what it’s about,” Guida said. “Engaging your audience emotionally, hooking them emotionally and then kicking it up a notch. … How can we be dynamic? That’s all of our performance skills.”

The class has made Nicholas Thanh, a transfer student, more conscious of his body language and the energy he projects outside of class.

“Your body language speaks well to the audience, and that determines how well the presentation is,” Thanh, a junior majoring in accounting, said. “You can know everything, but if your body language isn’t speaking well, then people might not listen to what you’re saying." Still, he wasn’t happy at first that he had to take the class. Thanh didn’t even know it was a theater-inspired class until the first day; he was just nervous because he dislikes speaking in public. But, he said, the daily warmup exercises help get him out of his shell.

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The class relies heavily on participation and incorporates many techniques from a beginning acting class, such as centering, breathing and relaxing your body — none of which are typical exercises for business students. The instructors address that on the first day.

“It’s the first thing that we have to address because the things that we ask them to do are exercises that are theater games, improv games,” Guida said. “We’re up on our feet. We’re moving. … It takes them a while to be comfortable; people don’t want to look silly.”

But looking silly — and more importantly getting over looking silly — is among the main points of the class. The silly things students have to do in class help them combat stage fright by teaching them to be comfortable with their voices and bodies.

Kevin Geiger, a sophomore majoring in finance, considers himself a decent presenter — not great, but not shy. Although as a sophomore he was not required to take the class, he thought it would be more fun than another lecture class.

“I didn’t really notice until this class that I tend to stand still when presenting rather than do any kind of body motion that will keep the audience interested,” he said. “If you stand still and talk in a monotone voice — which is generally my biggest problem — it bores the audience and they won’t pay attention.”

If you stand still and talk in a monotone voice ... it bores the audience and they won't pay attention.

Definitely, Geiger said, the class exercises makes him reflect back on his presentations, and the questions Guida asks makes him think about how he can improve his presenting skills.

The physical activity and learning to use your voice in different ways surprised Chrisie Brandel, who took the pilot class in the fall. But, she said, those activities helped the students bond and become friends. Plus, she’s already seen how the course has improved her performance in other classes.

“I've always liked public speaking, but I was a lot more jumbled when presenting before I took the class,” she said. “Now that I'm taking upper level business classes the skills from that course have been invaluable. I am the only one in my finance class who will have done all of the extra credit presentations because most of the people in the class don't like to go in front of everyone alone. I know that when I am working in business that I will need to pitch ideas to important people and it could be the difference between the project’s acceptance or decline based on how I suggest it.”

Exactly how does learning these theatrical techniques help in giving a business presentation? Guida says it’s all about the audience. “It’s focusing your attention on the audience, and getting them involved,” she said. “What can you do for them? How is your big idea, your pitch, your product, whatever, going to save their day? And then, how can you present that in a way that is interesting?”

For Mitchell, the immediate positive feedback has been gratifying. And, she no longer has a problem.


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