Are you Training Your Leaders to be Performers?

I hope not, but I suspect many companies are unintentionally training leaders to be performers as communication workshops taught by actors and acting companies continue to pop up in corporate curriculums. I’ve only experienced one of these workshops first-hand, but I hear a lot about these classes from clients who are confused by the tools and uncertain of the takeaways.

And, I realize that these programs are driving a whole new set of habits in communicators. I believe it’s the wrong set of habits.  So, I offer the following perspective as a way to consider what you’re trying to develop and how to think through the impact of any training program on someone’s ultimate objectives as a communicator.

It may seem that I’m just trying to undercut a competitor because if someone says they teach communication skills, then we’re in the same space. And, you could easily say it’s just a different approach on a similar topic. But, that’s about the experience itself, and that’s not what I’m challenging. Many day-long workshops are focused only on the day’s experience. Is it fun? Was it different? And if that’s your goal and measurement, then my concern about habits is not a worry. You may have found a fun and energizing workshop that meets the needs of the day.

My challenge is about helping someone develop the skills of a compelling and authentic communicator.

That isn’t a one-day experience. It’s a longer journey where a workshop may be used as a starting point to lay the groundwork for strengthening and changing habits. And if you’re approaching some of the performance-based programs with the intention of helping someone on the journey to effective communication, I hope you will hear caution in the actual outcomes and observations below.

I’ll start with Ted Talks, one of the fastest growing communication formats. The format of a Ted Talk has done a lot to change the look of corporate keynotes. And, that’s a great thing!  If you haven’t been behind the scenes of a Ted Talk, the format represents a conversational approach. Podiums are gone, note cards are out and presenters appear to be more conversational.  Many companies ask us to help their leaders present in a “Ted Talk” format without realizing what that implies.

Ask someone who has given a Ted Talk, and most will tell you that they love the visibility and they hated the process.  They were coached to memorize the content. The pressure is on to get it exact, to do it right … it is everything but conversational and authentic for most business communicators.

Most leaders walk away with the wrong message from this format. It is so time-consuming, that they never want to do another one. And many seem less confident about their ability to lead a storyline than they did when they took it on.

Memorized words fight listener engagement in every communicator. It’s the wrong technique, and it has consequences for anyone who really wants or needs to engage a room full of people.  It leads to content blocks and worries about words and phrases. It keeps someone in their head trying to follow a thread or word association. And while your leaders may invest the time to memorize a Ted Talk, they will never invest that kind of time to prepare for a town hall or customer conference. Instead, they need to learn how to bridge ideas and follow the flow of a storyline. It’s a much easier way to organize content and bring the listeners into the experience.

If you’re trying to create visibility for a specific leader on a specific topic, the Ted Talk experience may be the best forum to launch your leader.  But if you’re trying to change the communication culture within your organization, you’d be better to coach your leadership team to leverage storytelling to become more involved and connected with a group.

Storytelling has also become front and center in companies. And, it’s the approach that leads to engagement. It’s also coachable. I think storytelling goes back to President Reagan who put people in the balcony during the State of the Union address so that stories would resonate with viewers as they connected a person to an experience. And corporate settings provide a great way to leverage stories as customers and employees can be visible and are able to bring their experiences to life in a similar way.

It’s the connection factor, and the emotion that communicators should draw from an audience that leads to the concern with actors teaching communication classes.

If you’ve ever taken an acting class or been in a play, you’re memorizing lines and trying to be in character. Your role is to act like someone else. And if you remember the performance itself, you were very tuned in to timing, cues and everything happening on the stage as the performance took place.  You had very little awareness of the audience and probably never noticed who was in row eight. I remember this from my own experiences in theater, and I loved every minute of it. But it was never about the audience; it was always about the performance.

Public Speaking should be exactly the opposite. It’s all about the audience and little about a performance. A great communicator reacts to the audience and tries to draw them into the content. The start of a communicator’s journey is to gain awareness of the voice and body and how to use them consistently so that their focus can shift off of themselves and onto the audience. If you coach someone to view a business setting as a performance, you’ll find that the audience watches them and rarely interacts with them. In fact, the communicator is unintentionally setting that up to happen.  They’re focused on getting things right and seldom get out of their heads or connect beyond their lines.

I’ve worked with hundreds of people who have experimented with acting as a path to become a good communicator, and it just doesn’t work. And I think most actors themselves would agree. The goals and settings are just different.

So, why are these programs used in companies? Well, an acting class or improv exercise can be a good way to set up the basics of communication… standing in the front of the room or opening up the body. And as long as that’s the only intent, it can be helpful. The challenge is that the people who like acting exercises or improv exercises weren’t the ones who had trouble getting up in front of groups in the first place. The more literal learners who may be introverts or hesitant communicators need someone to put them at ease and link communication to conversation versus pulling them out of their element with exercises that don’t translate to a business setting.

Leaders aren’t performers; they’re communicators.

And while a performance can be entertaining, provocative and so well done that we jump to our feet with applause, we recognize it was never about us. We were merely spectators as a story unfolded. As employees and customers, we want something different from leaders. We want communication to be about us. It can be entertaining, provocative and well done. But when we leave, we want to leave with a clear understanding of what the leader is doing to impact us. It’s a different setting and a different goal.

So, if you’re looking for a day’s experience and a fun way to loosen up a team, a workshop led by actors can be an energizing exercise. But if you’re trying to develop communication skills, think twice before you set your future communicators on a journey to become a performer.

In fact, we’d like to help you set the right journey for your team that leads to a compelling outcome.

We’re here when you need us.


Sally Williamson - Training Leaders

Sharing Student Stories: Storytelling’s Place in a Changing Academic World with Pete Wheelan

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We know storytelling’s place in the business world, but have you considered the role it plays in academic institutions across the nation? In our first episode of What’s Your Story?, Season 2, Sally speaks with Pete Wheelan of InsideTrack about how he uses storytelling alongside professional coaching, technology, and data analytics to increase the enrollment, completion, and career readiness of students.

More About Pete Wheelan

Pete Wheelan is dedicated to leading mission-driven, high-growth companies unlocking human potential and currently serves as CEO of InsideTrack, the nation’s leading student success coaching organization.

Under Pete’s leadership, InsideTrack has now served 2 million + students and 4000+ academic programs for clients including Harvard, the Cal State System and Ivy Tech. He led the purchase of InsideTrack by Strada Education Network, a $1.4 billion public charity focused on improving high education outcomes, and InsideTrack’s acquisition of Logrado, the foundation for InsideTrack’s uCoach technology and analytics platform. Pete also serves as Executive Chairman at Roadtrip Nation, a fellow Strada Education Network affiliate.

Before InsideTrack, Pete served as COO/CRO of Blurb, a leader in self-published books, and as SVP of strategic marketing and business development for Lonely Planet. He also founded online portal Adventureseek and was a strategy consultant with BCG.

Pete received a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. and J.D. from Northwestern University.


Show Highlights

  • What is the power of stories in academic settings?
  • Inside Track is a company that started in 2001 that was trying to solve the issue that college is hard and most institutions don’t provide support that is not academic or financial aid related
  • What are the big issues that stop students from completing their academic programs?
  • For communication, the best way is to meet students where they are, utilizing email and texting and not just a phone call.
  • What are students seeking with InsideTrack’s service?
  • Most higher education institutes have gone from a growth mindset to a fixed mindset
  • Why is the sense of belonging a big struggle for new students?
  • What are the causes of a student actually dropping out?
  • How do you approach universities to integrate this program?
  • How does the storyline with the school take shape?
  • Inside Track coached 300-400,000 students in 2019
    • Inside Track has access to student satisfaction and work to help remove obstacles and challenges for students
    • Student success has become increasingly important in the institution
  • What are some things InsideTrack provides for students?
  • With students, InsideTrack provides reputation and relationships that develop over time – it’s not a one and done.
  • How do you keep the human at the core of your program but use technology to enable them?
  • To sell this program the best case is having partners and clients tell their story via a case study,
    • Teaching sales to lead with stories in their conversations
    • Bring coaches and coach managers into early conversations with potential partners
    • Use first generation students as coaches to represent and share their story- makes it real and relatable
    • Stories that are repeated by other institutions using their stories and coming back as a referral
  • InsideTrack is a predominantly virtual workforce.
  • Advice on inspiring employees?
    • Communication
    • Authenticity
    • Repetition
    • Clarity and consistency
  • When you are approachable it provides credibility for the other communications to an employee.


Like what you hear? Hear more episodes like this on the What’s Your Story podcast page!