Some actors and entrepreneurs have an incredible talent for conveying meaning.
The best presenter recedes as you’re absorbed in and by the character and their story. Robert De Niro is so good that his world-famous persona fades the moment he appears on screen. Even when his characters are variations of ones we’ve seen in other De Niro movies, he somehow creates a new one that is, yet again, unique. And sometimes, powerful meaning comes wordlessly through the subtle actions and reactions of the actor. No finer example exists than that of western Pennsylvania native Jimmy Stewart’s performance in the final moments of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, “Rear Window,” where so much was communicated with so few words.
Like great acting, the best pitches aren’t really pitches at all, but compelling expressions of an emerging, meaningful reality few see now, but may someday soon. Great entrepreneurs-cum-actors have a gift for creating their own “reality distortion field,” to borrow from an Apple employee’s description of one of Steve Job’s extraordinary abilities, to motivate and move skeptical, even cynical, investors, employees, partners and customers.
Every tech entrepreneur’s story is some blend of fiction and non-fiction, with the larger portion necessarily being the former and rightly presented as such. It must be so because startups are doing a new and different thing; creating and/or trying to harvest an emergent reality that is not yet apparent to the rest of us. In the best case, her compelling story is an expression of a desire and a dream, blended with deep emotion, and supported by all the available evidence. In the worst case, it is attempt to share information about an opportunity to make money.
Attempting to understand why Robert De Niro and Jimmy Stewart are so extraordinary would be as fruitless as trying to find the “top 10” qualities that made Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos such great entrepreneurs. You just sort of know it when you see it and it depends partly on circumstances, timing and a bit of luck. Nevertheless, just as there are great actors and entrepreneurs there are bad actors, bad acting and, well, bad entrepreneurs. Perhaps it is in the unmemorable, uninteresting and boring actors and acting where, after some inversion, insights can be found useful to good actors and entrepreneurs alike.
“Acting isn’t something you do. Instead of doing it, it occurs. If you’re going to start with logic, you might as well give up. You can have conscious preparation, but you have unconscious results.” Lee Strasberg
The renowned acting coach, Stella Adler, whose students included De Niro, as well as Marlon Brando, Benicio Del Toro and Harvey Keitel, believed there were qualities common to all bad actors and bad acting, which when understood could make a good actor great.
First and foremost, Adler believed bad acting came from a lack of confidence, which she believed, was entirely a function of a failure to practice. If you have a great idea for changing the world you also have a moral obligation to that idea, yourself and the world to make every effort to try out as many creative ways of imparting all the meaning possible, and practice it again, again and again until it sings. Jack Nicholson is famous for practicing a four-minute scene not dozens but hundreds of times.
Adler also thought that before any actor could get comfortable with a performance they had to get comfortable with themselves. All too often in an effort to help an entrepreneur prepare to tell “their story,” the mentor sometimes takes the entrepreneur and the entrepreneur’s performance/pitch in a direction most comfortable and familiar to the mentor, but not to the entrepreneur. Let the entrepreneur tell their story their way.
Stella Adler stressed that a modern actor had to be authentic to be believable and in order to be authentic, the actor had to be emotionally available during their performance. It may seem strange and even counter-intuitive to ask a presenter to be confident, yet simultaneously emotionally vulnerable, but that is the mark of a great actor, great entrepreneur and, frankly, every great leader. Above all, it means avoiding the timid defensive presentation, where the presenter attempts to anticipate and head off the audience’s tough questions. Far better to have the courage to be open, affirmative and positive in physical and figurative posture and let things come what may.
Stella Adler would ask her actors to not “over-do it.” Few things are more cringe-worthy than watching a presenter preen, pose and just chew up scenery. Similarly, nothing comes off as more demotivating as an entrepreneur who sees his own persona as more important than the audience or the meaning he is there to convey.
Finally, Ms. Adler would inveigh one thing that must be avoided at all costs: never be boring.