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What everyone can learn from actor training

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A few years ago, following up on a dream from my youth, I went to study acting in New York. I was fortunate to have been accepted into the Stella Adler Studio for a 12 week course with Maureen Megibow, and I made the most of it by taking all the additional training I could get my hands on. Famous for producing talents like Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro and Martin Sheen, the Stella Adler Studio is one of the great old New York acting schools, and I quickly realized that I had made a wise choice. In terms of technique, Adler’s version of “the method” has always struck me as being a lot more accessible than many of the other variants. With Adler technique, the focus is on “what does my character want?/what is in the way?/what will he do about it?” In short, I don’t have to relive the death of my childhood dog to play a father paralyzed by grief at the loss of his child. It’s make believe – get it?

Rob Duncan and fellow cast members in Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings

Rob Duncan and fellow cast members in Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings

After I returned from New York, I was able to draw on my actor training in a number of ways. The first was through acting itself. I was quite pumped up by all my New York acting experiences, and was able to get cast in both short and feature-length films, as well as a play. But perhaps more interestingly, I was able to use the training and coaching I got in a number of useful ways.

Actor training made me a better teacher, speaker and manager – and can help you. Consider these examples:

Developing stage presence: Theater training helps you understand your body as an instrument of expression. You learn how you move, which of your mannerisms and habits help you express yourself, and which are a hindrance. You also learn simple tricks like understanding where the light is in a room and how it is (or isn’t) hitting you so you can get into a position that makes you look less like a shadowy goblin!

Hitting your marks: Another trick of the trade is working with marks. When you do stage and film work, everytime you move, you are aiming to land on a particular spot. Most of the time, the mark is literally marked on the floor with a masking tape “X.” The same is true in giving a presentation or teaching a seminar. By scoping out the venue, I usually like to work out a few choice spots to stand, where the lighting is good and the audience gets a good view of the screen if I am using one. Masking tape is usually part of my gear, but I have also used pennies on the floor in a pinch. The idea isn’t to remove sponteneity, but rather to have some guidelines of where to come to a rest – this actually frees you up to be more spontaneous!

Exercising your voice: I worked with great coaches like Roger Simon and did a masterclass with Andrew Wade from the Royal Shakespeare Company who showed me how to treat my voice like a muscle and exercise it, so that you can actually relax more, and project farther at the same time. Roger has a great workout where you power up your voice in 20 progressive increments, with a view to “smashing the lightbulb across the room” with the final one. Both Roger and Andrew were great for clarity and enunciation.

Learning how to improvise: I trained in improv at the Gotham City Improv, and it is an incredibly valuable skill to have in the workplace. Improv at its best involves creating a hilarious shared story with a group of people – a story that moves fast, never misses a beat, and ends up where nobody predicted! The trick with improv is to understand that when the story comes to you for input, all you need to do is move it along a tiny little bit – you don’t have to hit a grand slam or deliver the knockout punchline everytime! Removing that anxiety from yourself lets you be a more effective and giving team player. Sometimes you just have nothing, so you simply offer up something like “…and then she jumped on the bus and…” and toss it over to another team mate. The key is to keep it moving, and then when you least expect it, you’ll say something hilarious. Will anyone who was in our class ever forget the substance known as “boil matter?”

An early film poster from my ongoing "Before he was Famous" days!

An early film poster from my ongoing "Before he was Famous" days!

There are many more lessons to be drawn from acting training, including the power of intention, making bold choices and growing a thicker skin. But no matter what you do as a profession, I highly recommend heading down to your local community center or night school and taking a class in acting or improv. It will enrich your life and career in ways you never anticipated, and you might just have fun! To learn more, or to explore having me speak to your group or team about theater in the workplace, please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

Consistency vs. “innovative churn”

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I’m not a real junk food hound, but every so often I get a craving for McDonalds and Dairy Queen. The other day I went on a bit of a rampage and had a Big Mac, cheeseburger and fries from Mickey D’s and a Turtle Pecan Blizzard from Dairy Queen.

Now arguably, the Big Mac is nature’s perfect food, possessing all the four essential food groups – salt, sweet, fat and cheese – but what really struck me is that the Big Mac I was eating was absolutely identical to every Big Mac I have ever had.

Nature's perfect food?

Nature's perfect food?

It got me musing about all the places I have had a Big Mac. Beijing, Capetown, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Johannesburg and on and on. With the exception of the vegetarian “Maharaja Macs” I had in Mumbai and Delhi, every single one of them was identical – bang on the money. Yet they say that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” – so what gives?

It is the very fact that a Big Mac is going to be a Big Mac no matter when or where you eat it is precisely the secret of its success. I can recall when I was studying at ESSEC in Paris in my twenties, there was nothing more epicurian than sitting outside a left bank McDonalds at a proper Parisian cafe table with a Big Mac, frites and a half liter of red wine (yes, McDonalds sold wine!) watching Paris walk by. It was a comforting taste of home, yet it was jazzed up in true Paris style.

Similarly, when I was in Beijing for the run up to the 2008 Olympics, giving a speech on the innovation and commercialization ecosystem in British Columbia, it was Mickey D’s that provided that familiar taste of home, when Peking Duck wasn’t on offer. My Mandarin is pretty much limited to “2 beers please, and thank you,” and so it was great to be able to point at the laminated picture menu with a big smile, and there it was – nature’s perfect food!

Rob Duncan and colleague Allison Markin enjoying the consistent taste of Starbucks in Beijing

Rob Duncan and colleague Allison Markin enjoying the consistent taste of Starbucks in Beijing

So clearly, consistency has it’s place. In a world where we have such a frenetic amount of “innovative churn” that it is almost impossible to buy the same toothpaste or deodorant twice in a row, it is good to see some things never change – they don’t need to!

To learn more, or to explore having me speak to your group or team about innovation related topics, please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

Why you need to make time for adventure!

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Rob Duncan bound for Cape Horn

One of my very favorite keynote addresses that I give is based on my experiences of sailing around the dreaded Cape Horn on a square-rigged sailing ship. More living people have been into outer space than have sailed around Cape Horn, the sailor’s equivalent of Mount Everest. Sailors who have rounded the Horn gain access to a secret society of mariners who enjoy privileges such as the right to wear a gold hoop earring in your left ear, the right to eat with your feet up on the table in any ship’s galley, and the magical ability to urinate into the wind!

Cape Horn is legendary for 100 mile an hour winds, 40+ foot seas, wicked storms and only 8 days of sunshine a year. There are some 800 ships at the bottom of the sea there, and some 10,000 sailors have lost their lives trying to round the Horn. When I read these accounts as a young boy, I knew I had to go there one day (much to the disappointment of a worried mother)!

Rob Duncan Navigating the Horizon, Cape Horn Earring in Place

Rob Duncan Navigating the Horizon, Cape Horn Earring in Place

It took a few decades, but I finally got to fulfill my dream – complete with storms, 75 days of confinement with surly (and wonderful) crewmates, shredded sails, broken masts and seas the size of small apartment towers! When I tell audiences what it was like to walk away from a great (but less than thrilling) job and hop on a sailing ship as a deckhand to pursue a childhood dream of rounding the Horn, the best part for me is when the audiences share their own Cape Horn type quest with me and with their neighbors. I still get emails from audience participants who tell me I inspired them to take a risk, take a step out of the ordinary, and pursue a personal quest. For me, that is what being a speaker is all about.

Haul Away! Teambuilding Lessons from a Voyage around Cape Horn

Haul Away! Teambuilding Lessons from a Voyage around Cape Horn

There are a lot of lessons to be learned in stepping away from the ordinary and following a quest. Some lessons are about handling fear and doubt, about teambuilding, leadership, and finding your inner strengths. Many of these lessons are captured in my book, Haul Away! Teambuilding Lessons from a Voyage around Cape Horn. To learn more, or to explore having me speak to your group or team about “lessons from a voyage around Cape Horn,” please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page. Your audience will leave the room inspired, uplifted and ready to tackle their next challenge!

Energizing innovation by enabling social connections

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One of my most satisfying experiments was the introduction of Commercialization Bootcamps at BCIT’s Centre for Applied Research and Innovation (CARI). Rather than just being a dump of lecture content (which people told us they DIDN’T want), the purpose of the one-day events is to enable social connections between inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers, professionals and students.

Watch this quick video to get the idea:

Client feedback is telling us that the Bootcamps are a total success, and that the connections that attendees have made with one another have advanced their ideas closer to market.

To learn more, or to explore having me speak to your group or team about enhancing innovation through bootcamps, please contact Rob Duncan at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

Passion, vision, growing together

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I am excited to set up this blog to share my experience and ideas on leadership and development.  I will be able to pull all the best resources I have found over the years and over the web and present them in a format that is both easy to understand and easy to apply to normal life.  My vision is to help individuals and teams to identify their true goals and help them prepare and accomplish those goals within their own schedule. I will be adding a video blog shortly so that you can get a better idea of who I am and what I am truly passionate about.  Please come back soon to absorb and  interact on knowledge that you can actually use.

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