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CEOs can banish stage fright
Rex Aguado
update on Saturday, December 18, 2010

In William Shakespeare's As You Like It, a character famously states: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." The Great Bard may well be referring to the corporate world, with its fair share of imperious executives, secretarial drama queens, finance department clowns and boardroom bit-players.

Just like actors, tough bosses do get cold feet before delivering a big speech. Worse, their stage presence may be more of a non-presence that sends people into a midsummer night's stupor.

Enter Jeanne Hartman, the Los Angeles-based "actor's detective" who was in Hong Kong recently on her fifth annual trip to lead acting workshops and private coaching for actors, directors, writers - even business managers and CEOs.

In the United States, one of Hartman's first corporate clients was the vice-president of a big American company who was an excellent speaker before a small group but would mumble and gesture excessively in front of a big audience.

"They say that public speaking is worse than dying for some people," Hartman says.

This same vice-president had attended a public-speaking seminar in the US and the solution offered him bordered on the macabre: they put bricks in his hands and tied them to prevent him from gesturing too much.

"That didn't solve it at all," Hartman says. "It was really because he didn't trust that he was getting his point across."

She says people should analyse each paragraph of their speech and understand the underlying message. "It's usually a verb," Hartman says.

When the speaker understands that message, anxiety eases over getting it right, so distracting hand gestures and body movements disappear.

Hartman says one thing she has noticed among her CEO clients is that they typically don't value the merits of rehearsals. "When we have to perform, everything that is practised well becomes automatic. It's true for all of us - for actors, for people who are going to give a speech," she says.

Hartman insists she's not the guru-type. She believes that people who just follow what they are told to do at seminars typically end up imitating the speakers - usually the bad version.

"Like a movie that's an imitation of another movie, it's never as good," she adds, underlining the importance of bringing one's experiences and personal history into a corporate role, including delivering a speech.

Among her tools of the trade is using role-playing to promote empathy among co-workers. The exercises can focus on solving communication problems or poor teamwork. Hartman uses improvisation or mime to let participants use their imagination in guessing what the other person is doing or trying to communicate. In the process, problems such as lack of empathy and poor listening habits are exposed.

"If you're not hearing me, you usually don't know that you're not hearing me," Hartman says.

Acting portfolio  

  • A former performer, Jeanne Hartman has been coaching actors for more than 20 years
  • Her main focus is in helping actors who have difficulty performing in auditions
  • Her Hong Kong clients include Daniel Wu, Josie Ho and Eurasian actor Jason Tobin

ANSWER: Photos from left - B, C and A


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