Monday, March 17, 2014

Learning when you least expect it

Julianna Margulies stars in The Good Wife
As regular readers of this blog know, when I am not professionally engaged coaching clients to be better speakers and more authentic leaders, I am busily immersed in my other professional world--theatre. I teach acting, and I direct, write, and produce plays. And so when I engage in popular entertainment it is with a critical eye. Often, I am rewarded by seeing artistically sound, even transcendent, performances, like those in films nominated for this year's crop of awards. I blogged about some of these earlier in the year.

I enjoy watching good television. My favorite TV drama, The Good Wife, was on last night. I love this series because it has several leading female characters and features a strong woman at the center of the story--a woman who is successful, conflicted, experiences self-doubt, a sexual being who is also a caring mother--in short, a well-drawn, fully developed adult female character. This is fairly rare on network TV drama, so I relish every episode as more of Alicia Florrick's story unfolds. The talented Julianna Margulies has been bringing this character to life for five seasons.

Last night as I was relaxing watching this show I felt my worlds collide. The episode begins with Alicia anxiously pacing in a hotel room as her colleague Cary quickly skims a text. She is obviously awaiting his judgment. He delivers it: it's too dry, feels too labored. Even if she has spent two weeks on it, she needs to rewrite it before tomorrow. "They don't want facts and figures" he advises, "they want to hear your story." Alicia is preparing to give a keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association. 

As the story progresses, the stakes are raised higher and higher; much depends on Alicia getting this speech right. But it is hard for her to tell her story. As a plot device this is terrific, and allows for flashbacks that flesh out a current, very conflicted relationship. But I was thrilled to see, on primetime TV, advice that I give my clients all the time: no one wants your bullet points; no one wants to hear you recite your resume; people come to learn from your story. Of course, you must have something to offer besides your personal story (to answer the unasked question "What's in it for me?"), or you would not be giving the keynote. But you have been invited, precisely because the event organizers want you to share your conclusion in your own words, to filter the results through the lens of your experience. Otherwise they would have asked someone else, or been content to read a report on your findings, rather than ask you to share with them.  

But it is often hard to tell your story. We watch Alicia as she struggles. She is afraid of seeming too vulnerable. We see only a very small segment of her speech (I know I am in the minority, but I wanted to see it in its entirety). We cut to the speech in progress, and it is clear she has opened with a lighthearted story, but not a joke (also echoing my advice to never rely on a joke in a speech. See here, here, and here). And though there is some laughter as she begins her second paragraph, it is a laugh of recognition. It is a laugh of connection, of shared experience. They are with her! But Alicia loses confidence halfway through, when her audience starts to leave en masse. The reason they are leaving has nothing to do with her speech, but she doesn't know that, and we see her shaken. This moment offers a brilliant illustration of why I tell my speakers not to "judge" their performance by audience reaction--because the outside world can (and often does) come crashing into the world of your speech. 

After her speech, though Alicia thinks she "bombed," we are led to believe that she managed to regain her composure, and shared her story honestly, with humility, and humor. Because in the end, she did impress her target audience. She had an objective, and she fulfilled it.

My objective last night was to be entertained for an hour by good performances and good writing. The rest was a bonus!

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