How “Playing Actions” Can Brighten Our Lives

How “Playing Actions” Can Brighten Our Lives

I want to become a better public speaker. 

That seems weak. How about – I want to become a great public speaker.

Better, but it still lacks serious commitment.

Next up – I am going to become a better public speaker.

Hmm. Come on Michael.

Ok – I am going to be a great public speaker!

Now that that is settled…

Back when I was doing the “I want” and “become” dance, I enrolled in Heroic Public Speaking, an 8 month intensive online and in-person speaker training program, run by Michael and Amy Port, both of whom are trained actors. I just returned from my second 4 day long in-person session. One thing I learned on this trip was the concept of Playing Actions, a critical acting skill.

As an academic surgeon I have given many presentations from behind the podium. They were all designed to primarily transmit information. Dark rooms, slides with text and graphs, monotone. Perhaps you have suffered through these types of emotionless presentations, and struggled to stay focused, or not to fidget, yawn, or nod off.

Imagine what a difficult shift it is for me to focus on making the audience feel something! Sure, there is still content, which is the thinking part, but if you really want the audience to remember something, you must generate emotions in them. Emotions are the glue of memories. 

Playing Actions is performing an action in an effort to make someone feel something. As an example, Amy Port had us think about how we were greeted in the morning as we walked through the doors of Heroic Public Speaking to start our day. 

Here’s how it went for me: I pulled open the door, stepped into the entrance, and there was Amy and one of the other teachers, standing right inside the entrance, both with warm bright smiles (not the phony overdone kind, but genuinely warm and authentic), and then – “good morning michael, how are you” followed by a gentle hug, and if the throng of entrants was manageable, “how was your night?”

This happened for four mornings straight, in exactly the same way. And for four mornings straight, I felt welcomed, valued, and damn glad to be there. The warm greeting was a great kickstart to the day, and it also helped diffuse the significant tension I had about the challenges the day would bring in my struggle to learn these new skills.

So, back to the Playing Actions class. Amy pointed out that their greeting at the door every morning was specifically intended to make us feel welcome, appreciated, loved, and as if we had just come home. And it sure did, like gangbusters. 

But here is the crucial point: the intention behind Playing Actions is critical. Just saying good morning, smiling, and hugging  –  those are just words and gestures that mean little – like the psittacisms of a parrot  -  until they are infused with the right intention. Their intention was to make us feel welcome, appreciated, loved, and as if we had just come home. I could feel it, because it was real. 

The impact of a simple greeting was studied in 3 middle school students identified by teachers as consistently struggling to stay on task during the first 10 minutes of class. Using very well defined measures of being on task and taking measurements every 15 seconds, they could calculate the percentage of on-task behavior for each student.

After measuring each kid’s on-task behavior as a baseline, the teachers began greeting each kid at the door by using the student’s name along with a positive statement such as ‘‘I like your new shoes,’’ or ‘‘I am glad you are here today’’. No specific scripts were given because of the need for the interaction to be perceived by students as sincere and consistent with the setting. Then they measured each child’s on-task behavior after starting the greetings.

The results? Tim had a 37% on-task behavior before the greetings. This shot up to 66% with teacher greetings. Kay’s went from 52% to 87%, and Jon’s from 48% to 67%. Feeling noticed and valued, even just a little, has an amazing downstream effect on people. 

Just like the collateral effect of expressing gratitude to people, we have the power to shape the experience of others at work or at home, just by how we greet them. 

Maybe tonight, when your significant other or child comes home, you might want to get up, walk over to them, smile, give them a hug, say hi, how was your day, and mean it. Because you do, or you want to, right?

Don’t wait.


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