Actors In Training : Why Actors And Improvisers Make Great Coaches
Posted on May 6th, 2013

By Jason Mitchell 

action!As a sales training professional with a performing arts background, one of the biggest hurdles I have to overcome when I explain what I do to potential clients usually sounds something like this:  “How can a bunch of actors teach me anything about sales?”   Clients come to us at e-roleplay when they are looking for innovative and effective training solutions, where the learning in which they invest is sustained and actually sticks when their employees get back into the field.  Our incredible team of professional roleplayer/coaches all have backgrounds in the performing arts–whether that’s live theatre, improvisation, stand-up comedy or something else altogether. It is precisely because of these backgrounds that our roleplayers are ideally suited for training and coaching work.  Let me use one experience of mine as a starting point.

I’m in one of those large, banquet-style hotel meeting rooms that anyone who has been to their company’s annual meeting or a sales retreat can picture. I’m sitting across the linen-covered, round table from a Sales Rep, whom I will call Jim.  We have just finished roleplaying a scenario in which I was a small business owner and Jim was trying to sell me his product while integrating his company’s new branding approach.  I give him some feedback about not pushing so hard on solutions and about asking me some clarifying questions to find out why I chose a particular business model, noting how this will help him tailor the branding piece to me so as not to sound scripted or robotic.  He takes a long pause and stares at me, finally saying,  “Have you ever been in sales?” I have to admit that I break out in a bit of a sweat for a moment, and then decide honesty is the best policy. “No, I haven’t,” I say.  “I’ve been in involved in sales training for almost 10 years, but my background is in acting and I’ve been a customer all my life.  All I can tell you, Jim,  is that when you said my business plan is totally wrong and didn’t make any sense, and then pushed hard on how I should change my business, I felt defensive and I immediately stopped listening to you.”  I explain further that I had an emotional response to his statement that immediately, and perhaps permanently, affected how I felt about buying from him.  He seems mollified by this clarification, and admits some validity to my point: that attacking the rationale of my small business plan was not going to convince me to buy from him, even if he was right.   I didn’t need years of sales experience or an MBA to know how I felt in the moment. This is at the heart of what e-roleplay does. We use actors to portray realistic characters for the purpose of practicing a desired skill set and then provide coaching on that skill set.   This has an obvious benefit in terms of realistic improvisation, and there are many other key benefits that make using coaches with an acting background a great choice for roleplaying and coaching in sales training.

Whether roleplaying over the phone or in person, the first and most obvious benefit is the realism of the interaction. An actor can play an irate customer with a complaint, an elderly widow/widower who is confused by a new process, a stressed-out small business owner or a disgruntled, defensive colleague or employee, all delivered with authenticity, realism and conviction. We often hear comments right after a roleplay like “I think I talked to this guy last week,” or “you sound exactly like a real client.”  My personal favorite is when I hear: “I totally forgot I was roleplaying, I almost hung up the phone when you said goodbye at the end there!”   Along with an ability to play realistic business characters, the other crucial skill that an actor possesses is improvisation.  Our e-roleplay courses have some structure, in that they are based on strategically designed scenarios, but each roleplay is a real-life conversation that could go in many different directions. An actor has a unique ability to roll with the punches and adapt to the situation as it unfolds. If we feel cornered, we will defend ourselves; if we feel engaged by a great question, we’ll become chatty and reward that behavior by improvising; and if we feel confused, we’ll interrupt and demand an explanation.   The acting and improvisation experience is the foundation of e-roleplay coaches’ skills, but it is not the only piece of the puzzle.

An interest in and facility to describe how you are feeling in a given moment, which I think of as an inward-focused awareness of the concept of emotional intelligence,  is another valuable skill set that actors possess from which many in business may shy away.  The craft of acting depends largely on the awareness of how your character feels and how you react in response to other characters or situations. When I put myself in the shoes of the small business owner, as in our example with Jim, I become immediately aware of how I feel and why.  It’s that instant awareness of feeling, and the ability and enthusiasm to talk about it, that we prize in our roleplayers.  This provides a great crossover to the land of business where, let’s be honest, disclosure of feelings is less than prized, because the context of business is very different. What makes the ability to recognize and communicate emotion a valuable skill and a valid point of focus for discussion in the business world is that emotion is a powerful, often unspoken motivator, both in sales and in coaching.  A prospective client may smile and nod and agree to let you “follow up with them in two weeks’ time.”  What they won’t do is tell you that something you said offended them or made them feel annoyed or suspicious. “Why don’t you follow up with me a bit later?”  is actually code for “You’ll never hear from me again.”   Similarly, unless you have a particularly easy-going management style, when in a coaching session, an employee will most often guard their feelings and do whatever you, the boss, suggest (or even worse, only say they will do whatever you suggest, then revert back to old behavior). At e-roleplay, this is precisely the kind of crucial feedback that we provide.  Giving specific feedback about how it felt to be your customer or your direct report is one of the cornerstones of the e-roleplay method, and actors are uniquely suited to provide this insight.

The final reason an actor is a good choice for roleplaying in sales training is that the other skill sets mentioned previously (e.g., acting/improvisation and facility with emotional responses) give an actor the freedom to concentrate on multiple levels. Simply put, actors in roleplay and training scenarios are great multi-taskers.   Often at live-event sales training, if any roleplaying is included at all, it is done among peers, most of whom have no experience in roleplaying or acting and most decidedly do not love to roleplay. This is especially true when said roleplaying is done in front of their peers or, in the worst case scenario, their boss. Turning back to our original example, one part of Jim’s frustration in roleplaying with me was undoubtedly who was in the room with us:  over a dozen of his peers, myself and four of his bosses. Imagine the added pressure and little added-value if one of the other sales reps had to roleplay with him. In contrast, a coach with an acting and improvisation background can play the character, improvise dialogue and adapt to changes, all while “helicoptering” above the discussion. This means that an actor playing an irate character (in the middle of berating a sales rep as the customer, for example) can also be paying attention as the coach to how the sales rep is responding, noting said behavior for coaching later on.  This gives the actor the ability to guide the learning in the moment (adjusting the level of difficulty on the fly, for example) and to craft individual coaching and learning moments as they happen in real time, all while being acutely aware of what those moments are and to which ones they plan to coach.

The unique ability to play absolutely realistic characters, while simultaneously noting desired or errant behaviors, makes actors an ideal choice for sales training. Actors love to play characters and are used to improvising constantly. Add to this ability e-roleplay’s rigorous training and development process, each individual roleplayer’s years of experience and their thousands of roleplays conducted over that time, and you start to develop a unique and impressive skill set.  When compared to other types of training or roleplaying among co-workers, using e-roleplay’s professionals can bring real-world, practical value in a unique format that stands out and makes learning actually stick.

4 responses to “Actors In Training : Why Actors And Improvisers Make Great Coaches”

  1. Kris Ryan says:

    Finally got around to reading this, Jason. Fabulous article. Very thought out, very succinct and very exact!

  2. Robin Pratt says:

    Fine work, Jason. You have convinced me. As I have said to you guys, you are filling a niche that has been missing in action for most business people. The old comedians lamented the demise of vaudeville. They said, “There is no place to be bad anymore.” None of us steps forth with new skills at the unconscious competence level: we all need this kind of practice and feedback.

    Cam and Randy, your newsletter continues to serve its purpose from what I can tell. Keep up the good work.

  3. Joel says:

    I love this! Our executives all think they know everything and it’s good for them to practice and even new information every once in a while. Well written.

  4. Vincent de Tourdonnet says:

    Excellent article, Jason. Very candid and lucid!

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