What CPAs Can Learn from Comedians and Actors
What can New Jersey Hall of Fame inductees Joe Piscopo, Jon Stewart, and Meryl Streep teach us about becoming better CPAs? How can the skills they’ve mastered make us better speakers, more collaborative team players and more effective interpersonal communicators? These three are superstars in the fields of stand-up comedy, improvisation and acting, and since I’ve studied those particular art forms, I can share a few insights that are transferrable to the accounting profession.
When an audience doesn’t laugh at a comedian’s jokes, it’s called “bombing.” It’s a nightmare, and I can tell you from personal experience that it’s very painful when it happens. Public speakers can bomb also, and that’s why public speaking is such a scary prospect for many people. How do comedians minimize the risk (leave it to a CPA to mention risk mitigation!) of bombing, and how can those skills make you a better speaker? Here are three tips used by comedians to minimize risk and maximize your public-speaking abilities.
- Be confident in your material. In any stand-up special you see on Netflix or HBO, the jokes have been refined hundreds of times. The jokes are written, tested on audiences and re-written until they get the desired effect. If you’re not confident in what you are trying to communicate, the audience, no mater how big or small, will be able to tell.
- Practice — a lot! Once you have solid material, rehearse often with others and make sure you can deliver the material without ever having to think about it. Why? Because you can never anticipate everything that might happen when you’re on stage. For comedians, there are hecklers and other distractions during a performance that can make you lose your train of thought and throw off your timing. If you have rehearsed your material enough, you can rely on your ability to keep the information flowing no matter what happens. That level of comfort breeds confidence.
- Get out of your head. “I’m not a good speaker… I’m not funny… they are not going to like this talk” are just some of the negative thoughts that can shake your confidence and block your connection with your audience. The best way to get out of your head? Focus on the audience, and tell yourself you are sharing your gift with them. If you focus all your attention on the audience and joyfully share what you have to say, it’s impossible to be in your head at the same time.
In recent years, improvisation (improv) comedy has grown in popularity, but what exactly is it? Improv involves creating a live group performance without a pre-written script or preparation. It may sound like there are no rules or structure to improv, but there are always fundamentals that are followed. Here are a few examples of fundamentals that are relevant to building team collaboration.
The most important goal for each improv team member is to make everyone else look like the star. It’s a selfless art — each member has accountability to the group, which makes the performance stronger. If each person on the team is giving their all to make the group look good, it takes the pressure off any single person and allows the members to thrive and contribute in a supportive environment. This selfless approach builds trust and allows discoveries to be explored.
An important concept for improvisors is “Yes, AND.” The philosophy of Yes AND is to always accept the idea presented by your fellow performer and build upon it. It’s one of the best-known guides for improvisers, but is also the most misunderstood. The Yes AND concept does not mean you have to agree with what your scene partner says, but you do have to accept the premise you are presented with and build from there. For example, if your scene partner says, “Nurse, hand me the scalpel,” you should not reply, “I’m not a nurse, I’m a garbage man!” — that would destroy the scene before it has a chance to develop. The goal of Yes AND is to establish openness and encourage collaboration in exploring ideas and possibilities, which is the core of teamwork. So, a response to the above example could be, “Yes doctor, here is the scalpel AND I hope we can save the patient!” Now an idea has been created, and the scene can go in multiple interesting directions.
Teams that embrace concepts from improv will quickly learn to be agile and collaborative, leading to greater efficiency in today’s fast-changing business environment.
I was fortunate to be invited to study the Meisner acting technique for two years at the William Esper Studio. What drew me to the studio was its reputation, high standards and process of teaching actors how to do quality work on a sustainable, repeatable basis. Yes, I said process, but I didn’t Visio the process for this article! What did I learn that is applicable to CPAs, engagement teams and firms? A lot, but I’ll share one critical element, which for me was foundational – making authentic connections.
A core element of acting is to be in connection with your scene partner/s. It is through connection that we see the intimate moments that take place between the performers. Each moment offers the possibility to engage on a deeper level and understand what the other person is really saying. It’s that “moment-to-moment” engagement that really brings two people in intimate contact with each other. Actors train intensely to be able to make and manage those connections with others.
How can acting techniques create a better connection? By encouraging the listening process. A lot of acting techniques are intended to develop your listening skills. When you learn to take in all the verbal and non-verbal information from the other performers, you can feel exactly what is and isn’t being communicated to you. We’ve all been a part of conversations where we felt we were not being heard or listened to. How did it make you feel? Did you feel a connection with the other person? Are you really listening to the other person when they are talking, or are you just waiting for them to stop talking so you can get your point in? What energy are you giving off to the other person, and how is that being perceived?
Once you decide to make an authentic connection with a person through engaged listening, you can foster a stronger bond with them. This bond can be built with anyone — a colleague, a client, your staff or a firm’s leaders. It just depends on your level of openness and willingness to engage. Another benefit I have found to developing my listening skills is that it helps me to exercise professional skepticism, which is critical in our profession.
I’ve enjoyed sharing these few proven tips and techniques from the comedy and acting world that can impact your engagement teams. So, don’t be afraid to embrace your creative side and exercise some right-brain cells. You’ll be surprised by how the effort can increase engagement, teach leadership skills and enhance productivity.
Thomas W. Metelski
Thomas Metelski, CPA, CPC, ELI-MP, is principle at JUMP! Coaching & Consulting LLC. He has extensive business financial experience, including operational risk management and leadership positions.