HR magazine tries... Acting techniques for storytelling

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Rachel Muller-Heyndyk learns how to be a better storyteller and communicator, as part of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s programme of acting techniques for HR and L&D professionals

What was your journey to work like this morning? If I told you I bought a coffee that I didn’t really need, spotted the neighbour’s cat outside my gate, and moaned about the queues at London Victoria station, I wouldn’t blame you for zoning out.

Telling a story (and telling it well) is hard. Luckily being a great storyteller isn’t all down to natural talent. With the right tricks, explains Debra Leigh, voice and communication coach at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, anyone can learn how to become a gifted orator.

You may have heard the faddish-sounding buzzwords 'corporate storytelling' floating around business circles. But being able to communicate well and tell your own story is a good trait for any employee, or any organisation.

It’s something Leigh believes isn’t being encouraged enough. “We are well aware that computers have taken over the world and business, and that can make it much more difficult to speak in public,” she says.

Ultimately, however, people want to be listened to, she adds: “Whether it’s a big presentation or just chatting in the boardroom, they want to be heard, and because we train in voice as a drama school we have a lot of trainers, and work in a very bespoke way. It’s very important.”

Which is why the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama has set up a taster day offering businesses a series of workshops on all things communication, from coaching to presenting, which uses the same techniques taught to performers.

I always loved drama, and found that as a relatively quiet child performance became a good way for me to express myself and learn about the world. I’m well aware, however, that most people will actively avoid any opportunity to get up on a stage in front of a crowd.

But fear not; the course doesn’t involve much of that. I’m impressed by the fact that the tutor isn’t at all pushy in encouraging people to speak in front of others. Instead the focus is on providing us with practical tips on how thinking about your speech, body language and tone of voice can affect how you tell a story.

Our group, which is made up of L&D and HR professionals from across sectors, start by swapping ideas on what makes someone a great storyteller. We all agree that detail, eye contact and use of body language are important.

After five minutes or so, repeating nursery rhymes back and forth with my partner while saying certain words and punching the air, it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

I feel painfully aware of my voice at certain points though. For example the occasional irksome inflictions at the end of my sentences that can make it sound as if I am asking a question. But I soon realise that noticing this, slowing down, and taking the occasional pause helps massively.

Leigh tells me that a lot of what they do in the course is about wellbeing. If you can help people to feel more relaxed they’ll be stronger communicators.

“The work we do is experiential; it’s not about having a PowerPoint in front of you all day. We’re here to take care of everyone. How are you feeling? How are you coping? Where is your energy in the room? How are you judging a situation? It’s about learning flexibility in your communication styles; that’s what’s important,” she explains. “It’s about learning to be aware, relaxed, and comfortable in your own skin.”

Coupled with this, the ability to be a little vulnerable and self-deprecating in our stories can help us become more engaging. Through taking Leigh’s tips of inserting surprise, tension and pauses, we each take turns to tell the story of our careers so far. People really do open up; there are stories of struggling early on, having to move back in with parents, suddenly relocating to Cambodia.

By the end of the session everyone, including me, seems to have unwound a little. Being able to share personal stories with strangers, albeit in a safe environment, feels like a galvanising experience. I don’t expect I’ll be invited to do a TED Talk all about my journey to work any time soon. But learning that it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it, is definitely valuable.


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