Learning to act can help you in any profession

Why would professionals outside the theatre need acting classes? A university degree is meant to prepare you for the workplace, but whilst we students learn to express ourselves well on paper, we often don’t learn to discuss things orally. At Oxford we’re lucky to have a tutorial system that does help with this, but there is still a focus on written work over speaking aloud and debate. Moreover, there is a large difference between explaining your opinion to 2 or 3 people in a tute and giving a presentation in front of a large room in a professional environment.

Two renowned organisations seem to have recognised this difference: both the Young Vic and RADA currently offer courses for professionals. The idea is that they teach acting techniques that can be transferred into a professional environment to aid with teamwork, leadership and general communication skills. Corporations including Barclays Capital and HSBC pay for their employees to attend these courses so they can develop this skill set.

The sessions aim to use acting exercises to help people to present themselves in a more positive and confident way. They focus on both verbal and non-verbal communication and the importance of using both effectively. When standing in front of a group, many people show their nerves through their body language; they often try to physically make themselves smaller or they try to touch their faces in an effort to hide themselves. Like professionals going into a meeting, the actors who run the sessions at the Young Vic say they feel nervous before going on stage; the difference is that they have learnt to hide it. They have learnt to present themselves in a more positive way which helps them gain confidence and feel more comfortable. This skill is valuable almost anywhere and helps people to express themselves well. Appearing confident enables you to hold the attention of your audience. Independent of the content of their speech, people who speak well are more likely to get a positive response.

Vocal exercises highlight the importance of taking pauses when speaking. In order to do this, you just need to have (or pretend to have) the confidence to feel comfortable with the silences. The actors show how pauses engage the attention of a room and make the content clearer to the audience. It may seem unnatural at first, but pausing adds weight to your ideas that are worth the extra time taken to articulate them.

Like these course leaders, psychologist Amy Cuddy has emphasised the impact body language can have. Cuddy has found that if you act more confidently you can feel more confident. Her research shows that adopting a more powerful, larger stance increases testosterone levels and decreases cortisol (a stress hormone) levels so that you feel less stressed and more powerful. Her catch phrase is to ‘fake it until you become it’, meaning that you can present yourself in a confident way even if you don’t feel like it and over time, you will become more confident and not need to ‘fake it’ anymore.

These skills that enable people to speak eloquently in intimidating situations are not being taught in schools and higher education establishments. How you present yourself is a huge part of how your character develops and yet this is largely ignored as schools strive for academic success. The only way to ensure that these skills are taught in schools would be to have them examined. In France they have done just that as there are both oral and written components to the ‘Bac’ (A level equivalent) exams. Students are taught how to articulate ideas and practise debating which means all pupils gain valuable communication skills for their later lives. The oral exams recognise the importance of spoken expression and also prepare students for the workplace as they learn how to skilfully adopt a formal tone of voice.

At Oxford we may not have oral exams but we do have the opportunity to practise these formal communication skills in tutorials. There are countless plays each term and societies that require student leaders to speak in front of larger groups. Being aware of your body language can help you in both academic and social situations. You can train yourself to gain confidence when talking to someone new by adopting a larger stance, and in tutes, trying to sit on the edge of your seat to make you look, and therefore feel, more alert and involved in discussions. As one Oxford student succinctly put it, using acting skills in tutorials shows the ‘same content, just expressed well’.

So why not try Amy Cuddy’s advice and try and fake confidence in a daunting environment? Whether you feign confidence in a tutorial or start acting in plays, the ability to manipulate your body language enables you to influence how you are perceived. It’s a skill applicable to all interactions.