The World's a Stage for Execs Learning Communications

An actress teaches businessmen `presence' to reduce formality and rigidity

ACTRESS Eda Roth has convinced seven senior executives to stand up, shake their bodies, beat their chests, laugh loudly, repeat tongue twisters, and shout ``Hey you!'' across the room.

She explains the reasons for this lovely zaniness to the grinning, loosened executives. ``The point of this is to shift from being intellectual,'' she says, ``and connect with that sense of relaxation that you should have at home.'' She smiles conspiratorially. ``And maybe you can achieve that in the workplace too.'' She tells them to be generous with their voices.

Ms. Roth is the actress as hired gun, invited into Boston University's Leadership Institute at the School of Management to improve individual communication. For two weeks, executives from around the world are immersed in workshop sessions covering management strategies, personal development, making presentations, and shaping leadership for the future.

Lloyd Baird, the director of the Leadership Institute, told Roth, ``Teach these executives presence. Act it out for them, tell them why it is important, and get them to do it.''

That was seven years ago. Roth has gone on to train hundreds of executives in other programs at AT&T, PaineWebber, Mobil Oil Corporation, First Albany Corporation, and other companies. She has an MFA in acting from New York University School of Fine Arts, has taught at several universities, and has been a dialect coach for many stage productions.

At the Leadership Institute, in four-hour sessions with each group, she is the concertmaster of communication. She cajoles, critiques, and carries on. Part monologue and dialogue, the Roth method springs from the conviction that acting skills - ``presence'' - can reduce the formality and rigidity that is all too often the norm in businesses and corporations. She promotes more humane, alive, and responsive people.

As an introduction to the power of presence, Roth starts with a flattened Shakespeare. ``I read part of Henry IV about loyalty and honor like a businessperson might,'' she says, ``stiff and flat, and then I read it again with meaning and presence. When you believe in the value of something, you can't help being more alive.''

She plays a video of Martin Luther King's ``I have a dream'' speech. She tells the executives gathered around a big table at a hotel resort in Lenox, Mass., the memorable inspired lines toward the end of the speech were not part of King's prepared text. What he truly valued was expressed spontaneously. ``He was invested in what he was telling us,'' Roth says. ``His message was universal. Everyone is equal.''

Other excerpts from a Michael J. Fox movie and Woody Allen's ``Annie Hall'' illustrate poor communications: People are talking, but no one is really listening. The group analyzes the failures and remedies in both situations.

Roth then asks each participant to write down the values he or she brings to the workplace.

A discussion follows about the meaning of respect, honesty, accomplishment, integrity, fairness, and community.

``This session is not about putting on things,'' Roth says, ``but getting through things in the best possible way with what we know to be true.''

At the heart of the workshop are the individual presentations given by each participant. With a video camera rolling, each executive stands before the group and makes a prepared presentation or speech directed toward resolving a real office ``problem'' he or she is facing at his or her company.

Floyd Carman, an affable executive from a large insurance company, presents a plan to shorten the time that some accountants will have to file reports. This could be potentially bad news for them, and Mr. Carman has to be direct but encouraging.

His opening is a little flat. Roth interrupts him. ``Have you ever coached a team?'' she asks.

``Yes,'' he says.

``Be more like a coach,'' she says.

His energy level rises along with better hand gestures and good eye contact. He focuses on the benefits to the accountants and the company with the new plan. Roth praises him for his easy, nonthreatening manner. Other participants offer suggestions.

``It's good to try things out, an excellent way to be challenged and update what I had in graduate school,'' Mr. Carman says later. ``I felt a little naked at first in front of a peer group, but you just get up and do it.''

An executive from a Southern public-utility company presents the group with a dilemma he will face upon returning to his company: downsizing and confronting managers who failed to provide convincing mandated reports on how the company will downsize. ``They are faced with eliminating their own jobs,'' he says.

His first presentation is tense, short on sympathy because he is angry at his employee's lack of responsiveness to their obligation, no matter how tough it is. ``Your sentences go up at the end creating some doubt,'' says Kenneth Turpin, who works for a large New York nonprofit organization. Others say he has to be sympathetic, but insist the task still lies before the managers. Later he says, ``This program is really good in helping me round off the sharp edges.''

Roth says that after seven years of working with executives, she sees major changes occurring in the business world today. ``In general the climate for innovation has given way to economic downsizing,'' she says.

``Things are much tougher out there. But in a fearful environment, people have to get down to the heart of things through better relationships. That's why I have a lot of work these days.''

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