Acting Lessons for Zoom

Research and practice from the worlds of dramatic arts and education can help enliven online meetings and training.

Everyone is suffering from Zoom fatigue these days. Research tells us is that this fatigue is a function more of bad planning and preparation than anything inherently bad in synchronous meeting technologies.

As faculty in dramatic arts and education who coteach a doctoral course in leadership, we realized that the knowledge we provide in class around helping breathe life into the leader as teacher and performer also can be used to help leaders plan and execute— and endure—Zoom and other meetings and training.

FOCUS OUT AND TRIANGULATE

Too often, meetings (Zoom or otherwise) are designed and executed purely for the convener. The first frame to consider is what the world of drama knows as going beyond the “I.” In acting, it often is referred to as to “focus out,” meaning to focus your attention on others rather than on yourself.

American pragmatist John Dewey argued that the consumption of art is an interaction among the artist, the art, and the audience. Learning and Development (L&D) professionals can think of it as the interaction of subject matter expert (SME), content, and learner. Just as actors are trained to think about the ensemble, the word, and the audience in order to enact the performance, for Zoom meetings, think about everyone involved and why you are coming together.

FLIP THE MEETING

Most of us have heard of the “flipped classroom”—the idea of using technology to deliver content and then using class time for group work. This also can be useful for meetings. Can you distribute prework or readings beforehand and use the meeting for discussion?

RUN A HARKNESS MEETING

America’s elite boarding schools use the Harkness Method (developed at Exeter) in which a teacher and students discuss a topic. Related to the Socratic Method, it has two key components. First, the leader guides the discussion by asking questions and listening. Second, there is “equal air time” where every voice is heard. The main goal is to encourage engagement by all participants rather than have them passively listen to the facilitator. Leaders should be heard least and should most often be heard asking a question of others.

REPLACE AN AGENDA WITH A CURRICULUM

Since an agenda is merely a list of items to be discussed, a better frame is a curriculum. “Curriculum” comes from the Latin “to run” and implies a purpose, a vector, a “course.” Framing your meeting with a curriculum that has outcomes and a course of action will make it much more productive than a simple list of topics.

REPLACE A MEETING WITH A REHEARSAL

Anders Ericsson developed his 10,000-hour rule that practice is the path to expertise. During practice, an individual tries different things, takes risks, fails, adjusts, and learns through experimenting over and over again. Actors take it a step further, positing that a “rehearsal” is a better frame than practice. First, practice defaults to the individual as the unit of analysis, whereas “rehearsals” generally refer to groups of people working together. Another difference is that usually in drama, rehearsals have a leader who directs the group and provides feedback. By framing the meeting as a rehearsal, it shifts participant behaviors and creates a markedly more productive dynamic.

ASK YOURSELF THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

Meetings are stressful. The key is overcoming the primordial fight, flight, or freeze biology. Retraining our minds and our bodies to overcome the lizard-brain instinct requires identifying certain practices. One is to ask yourself the right questions, such as, “What am I going to learn?” rather than “How will I impress?” Frame it as “What do I love about what I’m doing?” as opposed to “What am I doing?!”

Another way we teach actors mental preparation is to present the idea of giving a gift—the pleasure of finding, wrapping, and ultimately giving a gift is much better than worrying about how it is received. When we walk in to teach a class we’ve taught for years, it isn’t the content that we have covered ad nauseum that excites us but rather how the students react to the conversation. We frame it as what we learn from them rather than what we hope to teach. On Zoom, this translates to engaging your team in reaction, feedback, and conversation, without pre-describing what you’re hoping for.

PRESENT WITH PRESENCE

Actors have to speak text “as if for the first time, every time.” Watching an actor on autopilot is deadening. Zoom meetings are no different. One way to think about bringing life to each moment is by, literally, breathing each moment to life. Breathing freely helps us to physically and emotionally register each moment we are in, so we can be “in the now.” If we hold our breath or control our breath, less information is available to us, and we are limiting connection to self and to others.

To download two videos (with thanks to USC MFA drama student Charrell Mack) that show Linklater Voice exercises to release tensions and free up the breath, visit: https://youtu.be/1zXEv8mFCV0 (spine roll) and https://youtu.be/Yb_7osdv3mQ (breath release).

Doug Lynch, Lauren Murphy Yeoman, and John DeMita teach together in USC’s executive doctoral program on organizational change and leadership. Lynch was an academic director at Wharton and vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s grad school, where he created the PennCLO program. Yeoman teaches at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts, and has a private practice as a Los Angeles vocal coach. DeMita has worked in all aspects of the performing arts, including 30-plus guest-star and recurring roles in film and TV.

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