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Break a Leg

Performance energy is the secret ingredient that electrifies great presentations, client meetings -- even telephone calls. It's engaging and irresistible.
When I was an MBA student at UCLA, I learned that certain components of the core curriculum had the power to send me into a bottomless fugue-state. Like macroeconomics: we messed around with money-supply megametrics until the cows came home. And then there was accounting, where I spent way too many hours cracking simultaneous linear equations using the good old Gauss-Jordan method. Even finance put me under by requiring the calculation (by hand, for Pete's sake!) of beta coefficients (in case you were spared, that's a measure of the volatility of a security compared to the market as a whole). If it's all the same to you, let's just say I had no jones for this sort of thing (though perversely, I adored statistics) and leave it at that.

So there I was, stalled in the chilly depths of winter quarter, sweating over my grotesque computations, when I happened by the students' bulletin board one morning. A short announcement posted there stopped me cold: open auditions were about to start for a spring production of the much-loved musical, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Any MBA student so inclined was invited to come to a second-floor conference room at noon.

I thought, What the hell... at least I won't be crunching noxious numbers over another anemic chef's salad in the B-school cafeteria. And maybe I'd pick up a couple of pointers for my next big interview. So I went, I auditioned (singing, dancing, improvising, and pretending to be six years old), and when it was all over, I was cast in one of the five leading roles: Peppermint Patty, to be exact. Rehearsals started up the following week, and during one long weekend in May, our little production played to full houses of paying customers in UCLA's matchless Schoenberg Theatre. It was, no question, the absolute acme of my whole business school career, the one event I wouldn't trade for all the beta coefficients in creation.

From Charlie Brown, I learned how to connect with an audience, how to tap into energy reserves I thought had been sucked dry, how to make the difficult look easy. I developed a feel for timing. I learned to sell a song and deliver a punchline. I had a blast. Though I'm not an actor, I learned how to give one helluva performance, a skill I once felt was somehow dishonest, best saved for emergency use only, when you really have to turn it on. But this brand of oomph is a lot more versatile than that. You just have to know when and how to access it.

That's where the Atlanta-based Theatre Techniques for Business People Inc. comes in. Founded in 1993 by actress/writer/director Martha Burgess, and Luanne White, a former broker/ad executive/actress, TTBP teaches salespeople, entrepreneurs, lawyers (who get their own custom program), and all kinds of IPs how to unleash what Burgess and White call "performance energy." Unlike nervous jitteriness and flop sweats, its toxic, raw-edged, fear-drenched cousins, performance energy is a potent, authentic, and creative force. When you're working from performance energy, you're in the zone. That's an exalted place to be, but it can be devilishly hard to locate. It's an equation that White claims is deeply encoded into our "cellular memory," like a system file on your computer's hard drive. "Now, as adults," she says, "when we're trying to make a sale or give a presentation, our cellular memories tell us to keep it low, keep it down," which, unfortunately, is the perfect shortcut to oblivion. "Can't you just hear it -- 'Who do you think you are, missy?' 'Don't brag!' 'Be modest.' But the thing is, we've confused conceit with confidence," White says, and that's a crime.

Performance energy is the secret ingredient that electrifies great presentations, client meetings -- even telephone calls. It's engaging and irresistible, worth every bit of physical effort required to bring it forth. At their public workshops, Burgess and White help participants identify and summon their own performance energy by using "trigger exercises." Here's a sample from TTBP's two-day seminar. Choose an image, something that represents high energy to you -- a volcano, a tachometer, a new PT Cruiser. Now run in place or jump up and down until your heart pounds and you're panting. At that moment, stop, close your eyes, and focus intently on your trigger image. Repeat this exercise five times every day for six weeks, and White promises that you'll be able to crank up to performance energy at the drop of a hat simply by focusing on the icon you picked. (I tried this to get ready for a big speech -- I imagined revving up a speedometer needle all the way -- and it seemed to work.) White offers one important caution: "When you walk off the stage or out the door, you've got to turn it down," she says. "It's great to be up there for a while, but you can't live there."

Don't assume that performance energy means flailing and flapping and hooting. This really isn't about tricks or theatrics. "You can be very still, use a low voice, and still be into performance energy," White points out. See for yourself by trying another TTBP exercise. This time, visualize something or someone you love -- a hot fudge sundae or Bailey, your champion yellow Lab. Jump up and down, clear the floor, raise your arms, and holler at the top of your lungs, "I love it!" Then, slow your breathing, calm down, visualize your beloved icon, and whisper, "I love it." Intensity doesn't equal loudness. The idea is to discover your own best self, White says, not to scream your lungs out.

If there's a particular philosophy behind what TTBP does, it's that your ability to wow the world doesn't depend on external variables, like what sort of surly mood your prospect might be in. The good news: You're in control. The bad news: You're still the one responsible for getting your message across, no matter what's going on around you. "We teach you how to work with what's inside to influence what happens on the outside," White adds. That's why she stresses the significance of nonverbal communication, calling it "the most important language there is. It's where leadership and persuasiveness come from." The reason can be found in social science research, which confirms that our impression of somebody is determined by three big pieces of information: What he looks like (3%), what he says (7%), and his use of nonverbal language (90%). In other words, when a prospective client is listening to you speak, if the white-coats are right, he'll remember less than ten percent of what you say, give or take a couple percentage points. The impression you make will largely be determined by subtle little visual cues and shadings that he'll interpret, for good or ill, with alarming speed.

We're talking about "subtext," to borrow the language of the theater, or the underlying personality of a character. When an actor asks, What's my motivation? -- he's trying to figure out subtext. White recommends this exercise to make you aware of the nuances in the most basic communication. Think about the last time you introduced yourself to a client. "What's the most important word in that introduction? Your name," White says. "Now, ask yourself: What was your undertone? Maybe you said, 'Hi-my-name's-Luanne-White,' and this message came through: Now let's get onto the important stuff. Try saying something like, 'Hi. My name is Luanne White,' and this time, add this unspoken line: You're about to meet somebody you're going to like." The idea is to supplement your voiced introduction with a snippet of interior dialogue that transmits the lion's share of the meaning.

Successful IPs, like successful people everywhere, have learned to tap into a robust base of power; they don't create low pressure areas wherever they go and they don't snivel and slink around, at least not if they plan on getting work. Try using theater techniques to boost your performance energy -- though you don't have to join Theater Techniques for Business People to do it. Get some books on acting methods, or sign up for a local theater class. It can help you keep your head in difficult situations, vanquish your foes, and foil more than a couple of client-induced migraines. Talk about drama!

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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