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Where is the intersection between theater and the workplace?

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Workplace drama

Workplace drama

It’s funny, there is always a lot of crossover imagery between the stage and the workplace. Objectives, heroes, drama kings and queens, getting the right people to play different roles, tragic leadership flaws, double-crosses and so forth. Now that I am taking a step away from the office environment for a bit and rekindling my acting training, I am fascinated by the parallel lessons that can be drawn between the two worlds. A few months ago, I wrote here about the useful skills that people can gain from acting training – things like hitting your marks, learning how to improvise (always say yes), and using your full body as an instrument of communication.

The insights I have been gaining over the last couple of weeks can add to and enhance these earlier lessons. Here are a few ideas that may help you bring more “drama” to your workplace:

  • The art of analysing the script: The playright provides a framework of words, characters and given circumstances. The challenge is to figure out what isn’t there – it is the job of the actors to fill in the missing pieces with meaning. Otherwise we’d just get up there and read, and the crowds would stay away! As leaders in organizations, we should also be looking at the scripts we have been handed, and really take the time to analyse them. Who wrote this script? Are there other versions or other scripts I am not seeing? What is missing from the story on the page? What do I and my team need to add in order to flesh out the full story and make it truly inspiring?
  • The art of soft focus: We are trained in movement class to start to use our peripheral vision to see who else is in the room, and to avoid banging into them. Even when the director tells us to go crazy and flail around to all four corners of the room, we remain aware of each other. So it should be with the competing interests in an organization. We should be creating cultures where the differences are expressed, respected and where soft focus is encouraged to avoid bruising.
  • The art of understanding a character’s objectives: At the most basic level, characters act out of need. The job of the actor is to consider what it is their character needs, what is in the way, and what they are going to do about it. This last piece is where the actor’s choices make the difference between a truly memorable performance and a more ordinary one. For example, your character may need more than anything to gain the love of another character, but there are lots of ways to get there (intimidation, charm, kindness, trickery, deception, collusion etc. etc.). In the workplace, look around at the characters in your midst. What is their overarching need? Are they getting it met? Are you helping or hindering? Why? The more you can understand the other actors in your midst, the better you can manage around their actions.
  • The art of going larger: The training at the Stella Adler Studio is always exhorting us to be LARGER! What this means is that instead of making acting choices that are safe and tame, make larger, more dramatic and more passionate choices. Is your character trying to “tell” (yawn…) somebody something? Or are they trying to “convince” (better…) somebody of something? Or are they trying to “scare the sh*t” (now we’re getting somewhere…) out of somebody? Similarly in organizational life, making larger choices makes for a more interesting performance!

 

When in doubt, go large

I want to hear what you think! Please feel free to weigh in here with your comments. To explore having me speak to your team or group on drama in the workplace and other related themes, please get in touch with me at rob@robduncan.com or via the contact tab on this page.

Is it time to start curtailing our personal social network habits?

Doctoral research, Ideas you can use, Speaking 1 Comment »

When was the last time you looked a flesh and blood human being in the eyes and said “I hear you?” If it has been more than a day, that is too long.

As part of the research for my doctorate, I asked people whether they were growing tired of online social networks, and were planning to reduce their levels of activity or number of networks in the future. In a sample of over 400 people I was intrigued to see that fully one-quarter agreed that they were feeling this way.

Taking a break

It’s ironic, because a few weeks later, I find that I am one of those people! This may sound strange coming from someone who chose to do a doctorate focused specifically on online social networks – and someone who spends a lot of time speaking to audiences on the topic. Let me explain.

I recently started some acting training to add to and refresh my speaking and acting skills. The schedule has been fairly demanding, and has involved learning and rehearsing scenes from some of the great plays of all time, including Shakespeare, Ibsen and others.

Not only do these plays deal with timeless themes of great human and social importance, they are also not that easy to memorize. Over the last week and a half, I set to learning my lines in the evenings.

The first night, I had the TV on (24/7 Law and Order being one of the cooler perks of NYC), and started to read. During commercials, I would leap up, round into the other room and check Facebook, Twitter, Buzz, emails etc. The next morning, It wasn’t that easy to recite “Two households both alike in dignity…In fair Verona where we lay our scene…” from memory. Something had to give.

All my Sons by Arthur Miller

The second night, I left the TV off, and things improved quite a bit. I was able to really focus and get deeper into the lines, characters and themes of the plays. Still, I couldn’t shake the social networking habit.

The third night, I left everything off, and an amazing thing happened. This incredible sense of quiet, absorption and peace came over me. I was deep in great stories about heroes, villains, quests, tragic flaws and all the other fabulous chemicals of drama. The next morning, I also had nearly nailed the prologue from Romeo and Juliet. 

Stella Adler acting class

This was all happening against the backdrop of spending intense face-to-face time working with my wonderfully talented classmates, trying to achieve something together that was stretching, shared and artistically large. 

Needless to say, I eventually broke (speaking of tragic flaws) and checked my social networks. As always, there was fun and meaningful news on Facebook, and useful dialog on LinkedIn, but really, what was all this stuff on Twitter and Buzz? Sure, some fun news from classmates and friends, but mostly stuff about software I know nothing about, etc. etc. Why was I letting that stuff get in the way of spending quality time with Falstaff, Prince Hal, Torvald and the others?

Falstaff and Prince Hal

So as of today, I have decided to let my Twitter account go dormant for a bit, and will be turning off Buzz. In my online social network world, there are now only two big dogs for the time being - Facebook and LinkedIn. I want to free up some personal disk space for real human interactions. I wonder if many of us should have a similar conversation with ourselves?

I want to hear what you think! Please feel free to weigh in here with your comments. To explore having me speak to your team or group on social networking, drama in the workplace and other related themes, please get in touch with me at rob@robduncan.com or via the contact tab on this page. Oh, and if you crave the sweet sounds of silence, please follow me on Twitter and Buzz….

Do you know your customers anymore?

Doctoral research, Ideas you can use, Speaking 1 Comment »
Terminal City Club Vancouver

Terminal City Club Vancouver

I was part of a really enjoyable lunch and learn today in beautiful Vancouver, Canada hosted by SMEI at the Terminal City Club. I was asked to kick off the discussion by saying a few words on the theme of “Your customers have moved. Do you know where they live?”

I decided to start things off by broadening the discussion into the larger question of whether we even know our customers at all anymore, given the sea change in consumer behaviours that has occurred since the widespread adoption of social media like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

For example, do you know which online networks they like to hang out on? Do you know how they like to be communicated with? Do you understand what new levels of interaction they expect to have with your organization? Do you know when you are bugging them and driving them away?

 Part of the challenge is learning to listen again. Listening is possibly the most important sales skill out there, but how do we “listen” effectively with all the new media that is out there?

It all starts with some key, foundational principles. So here follows a bit of a manifesto for success in the new virtual neighbourhoods where our customers live.

  • You need to genuinely enjoy meeting and helping people. If that’s just not you, find someone else to look after your digital communications post. It takes all kinds to make a business succeed, and if you are not happy networking offline, online tools won’t change that reality.   Hire an intern or new grad from a local college or university. These social media natives are very well-equipped to be your eyes, ears and voice on social media. Many will appreciate the chance to make some bucks on the side while still a student. 
  • You need to be in it to help others. Blasting out endless Tweets about how great you are is not working, and is actually driving people away. In a recent study I conducted, one-quarter of the respondents indicated they are getting tired of social media and are considering scaling down their participation. The mood out there is in flux, and if you are not helping, you are annoying. You need to think in terms of “giving” not “getting.”
  • You need to build communities. This is an old idea that still has legs. Start a LinkedIn Group for your customers. Let them help each other, and let them give you input on your products and services. My research is showing that people want to be able to rely on their online communities for assistance in solving problems and coming up with innovative ideas.
  • You need to learn about the new cultures. This means listening before talking. Ask a lot of questions. Use tools like LinkedIn Q+A, LinkedIn Groups, and online customer surveys. Identify and befriend the “alphas” out there and learn the rules and protocols of engagement. Have a casual focus group over pizza and beer (be sure to invite me…) Watch how your competitors are handling the same environments and situations.
  • It’s not just about the tools! Sure there are lots of great tools out there, many of them home-grown success stories. But at their best, tools are simply extenders and enablers of existing behaviours. If you are doing the wrong things to begin with, cool tools just magnify your mistakes, and the consequences of them. Make sure your fundamental behaviours are sound before throwing caution to the wind and potentially alienating your customer base.
  • Become a trusted advisor. Freely offer your expertise and advice. Be a regular contributor to LinkedIn Q+A, and invest a half hour every morning helping people without expectations of a favour in return. Blog your own ideas, don’t just coat somebody else’s thoughts in your own wrapper and blast it out – editorialize at least! Make sure you would be on your customer’s “Top ten most helpful people” list.” Thought leadership is brand leadership.

How’s that for a set of starting principles? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this, and your additions to the list. Please feel free to weigh in here with your opinions!

PS. Some cool “Canadian” tools to check out:

StepRep (www.steprep.com) from Vendasta Technologies – helps you monitor and manage your online reputations

MashedIn (www.mashedin.com) also from Vendasta Technologies – builds trust by showing people how they are connected to you

HootSuite (www.hootsuite.com) -  manages, monitors and analyzes multiple social media presences

Flowtown (www.flowtown.com) – builds social media profiles from a simple email address

To explore having me speak to your group or team on this or other related topics, please feel free to be in touch with me at greatcapes@gmail.com or via the Contact tab on this page.

The “do-not-do” list for good leaders

Ideas you can use 1 Comment »

I had a very enjoyable breakfast chat this morning with my good friend Alejandro, and the subject of a “do-not-do” list came up. Unlike a to-do list, the do-not-do list is a reminder to ourselves of the things that we either don’t want to be doing or shouldn’t be doing.

Do-not-do list

Do-not-do list

This got me thinking about leaders, and the many things they should not be doing. I wonder if all leaders shouldn’t keep their do-not-do lists handy at all times. What would be on such a list? Here are a few ideas, and I hope you will weigh in with your own comments and additions:

A do-not-do list for good leaders

  • Do not do anything that one of your staff could do. Hoarding the work and failing to effectively delegate is a critical flaw, especially for new managers. It may be true that you can do the best job on several tasks, but that isn’t why they pay you the big bucks. Your job as a leader is to apportion the work fairly among your staff, to develop and stretch the talents of your team, to have your eye on the big picture, and to lobby for your team’s success. The first question to cross your mind when a new task comes in should be “Who else could do this?” If you have more than 3 items on your personal to-do list, you probably aren’t delegating enough – time to reassess and reassign.
  • Do not be a perfectionist. Delegation is one of the scariest things a manager does, as it often flies in the face of what got the leader promoted in the first place. Leaders often progress upwards because they are very hard on themselves, and are sticklers for producing good work. It can be gut-wrenching at times for perfectionists to release a task to someone else, knowing what they will get back is only 80-90% of the quality they could do themselves. Get over it! It is much easier to help refine the work of a dozen team members who have made a good effort at a dozen tasks than it is to hoard the work and add it to your growing to-do list.
  • Do not micro-manage. Nobody likes being micro-managed. Leadership is about engendering and modelling trust and accountability. Be clear on what the task being assigned is, how it fits into a bigger context (why it is important), what resources are available to help get it done, and when it is required. Then GO AWAY! You can check in if you sense that something is going off the rails, but otherwise, just back off. We hire highly-qualified and motivated people who are good at what they do – let them do it, without interfering or being overly controlling. When you micro-manage someone, you are telegraphing the message that you don’t trust them to get things done, which is very unmotivating, and is also a poor use of your time.
Rob Duncan at the Helm

You can't steer the boat and micro-manage it too

What do you think? Feel free to comment on this post and share your own “do-not-do” items.

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

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.

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