Acting and Persuading

MetaphorI’d like to consider the relationship between persuasion and acting.  Certainly the similarities are obvious with that strategic sense of pretending in order to accomplish some other goal at the top of the list.  Acting, like persuasion, is strategic or it is not.  But there are deeper subtleties.  Let’s start with an observation from a critic looking at changes in American actors over time.

David Thomson in the Wall Street Journal offers a sharp analysis of Method Acting and its decline.  He makes many interesting points, but one point, primarily of emphasis, struck me for its application to persuasion.  Thomson observes:

Something odd is happening to our actors. No one seems to talk about it, but it’s there, and it has to do with our uneasiness over “sincerity.” Now, we’d like people to tell us the truth—whether our president or our spouse—yet we find it hard to trust “sincerity.” After 100 years and all those movies, wide eyes and an unwavering look too often seem like a proof of acting.

You may recall my Rule:  All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.  The subtlety of the Rule is not that you must lie, deceive, or falsify to achieve, but rather you will probably fail if you try earnestly, obviously, authentically, spontaneously or more simply, sincerely.

Thomson explores his point in a comparison between Method actors (from Marlon Brando to Robert DeNiro) to Technique Actors (from Laurence Olivier to Meryl Streep) to illustrate the decline of acting sincerity.

Now, I would first quibble that whatever the differences between Method and Technique actors, there are all first and foremost actors which means that the good ones are insincere, even the Methodologists.  While Brando may seek out his own experience to inform his performance of Terry in “On The Waterfront,” he still selects from a variety of personal experiences to find what he thinks is the one key to the correct performance.  Thus, even though Brando looks sincere in his Method, there is a planned, deliberate, and cold blooded decision.

Past this quibble, what do we learn about persuasion in our consideration of acting, whether through Method or Technique?

First, both acting and persuasion share similarities.  Both typically proceed from some form of script.  There’s an old theater expression:  If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.  Good persuasion should function the same way.  It is not necessary to have every word, gesture, and move prescribed in advance, but without advance planning, if only to identify the TACT and a play, persuasion will fail if left as a spontaneous reaction.

Second, both benefit from repeated performances, not just rehearsals.  Actors learn about their characters and the rest of the play during performance and adjust through a run.  Persuaders do the same.  In face to face sales, you encounter recurring commonplaces – the same worries about cost, convenience, availability, feasibility, and on and on – that allow you to try the “same thing” repeatedly, almost like Groundhog Day, but with enough variety so that you learn to move faster, smoother, and more effectively.  In a persuasion campaign, you also get repeated opportunities to change a TACT and learn from your receivers.

Third, both acting and persuasion share that dynamic tension between the natural and the artificial.  Even Technique actors let themselves naturally go and simply show their real selves as if it is the character.  And, too, with Method actors, while they always seek the key note from their personal experience, their deadly planning and selection renders the action something less than spontaneous even though it is “real.”  The same tension exists in persuasion.  You often have a personal stake in the Other Guy’s change and that natural force animates your action, but it occurs within a sense of restraint and control in recognition that the action is, after all, about the Other Guy, not you.

Fourth, in a few instances the acting and the persuasion benefit both parties in the interaction.  Both the actor and the audience may achieve insight, experience exhilaration, or merely share laughter and pleasure – it’s an equal exchange of value.  The same exchange of value can sometimes occur in persuasion as the receivers change to a more desirable thought, feeling, or action and the source derives satisfaction in a form of altruism.  Many teaching and coaching experiences provide just this opportunity.

Fifth, and finally, acting and persuasion share an imaginative spark, a creative flash, that hot hit you get in the moment of decision and action.  While both have the planned performance element, what makes both exciting, thrilling, and baffling is that magic of the instant, the “here it is, never to be repeated” moment where everything comes together either in combination or collision with the thrill of success or emptiness of failure just on the other side of that unrepeatable moment.  You just never know how it’s going to turn out, do you?

Persuasion is the performance of a play.  A paraphrase from Harold Goddard’s criticism of Shakespeare is apt here.

A play’s prosperity lies in the ear

of him that hears it; never in the voice

of him that speaks it.