An actor told me about a time he forgot his line on Broadway in front of about a thousand people, some who paid hundreds of dollars for their seats.
He was in his forties and had acted for decades. Still, sometimes you forget your lines.
What do you do when a thousand people are watching you and you don’t know what to say? Most of us have faced not knowing what to say or do, though usually only in front of one or two people, which is more than enough to paralyze us with anxiety.
Actors know about a technique called the repetition exercise, a cornerstone of Meisner technique, named after Sanford Meisner, one of America’s great acting teachers of the twentieth century. There’s a lot to it, but the important part here is that two acting students repeat the same line, exploring nonverbal communication.
Faced with not knowing what to say and no way of getting a cue, he fell back on technique. He repeated the previous actor’s line. Since he knew how to give it different meaning with different nonverbal inflection, the audience didn’t notice he went off script. Since the other actors on stage knew the technique, they could fill in for him and cue him without the audience picking up on it.
That’s one of the great values of technique: when you don’t know what to do, you can fall back on it and it will work.
When I teach students experientially with real-world exercises that have them interact with real people, I show them technique in the classroom for how to do it. I give sample emails they can edit, describe phrases that help work, have them practice with each other, and so on. Then when they interact outside the classroom, they apply that technique.
Lectures, case studies, and reading often don’t give you practice with technique.
When a coaching client asks me how to prepare for a situation I’ve never been in, I fall back on technique that works for others in such situations. They can figure out how to apply it to their situation. Then we practice it before they apply it.
Learning technique doesn’t mean you have to use it in its basic form forever. Everyone who masters technique makes in their own, adding their style. But they can always fall back on the fundamentals. This holds for leadership and acting the same as any performance-based practice, like sports or playing music.
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