Episode 013: Helen Harbord–Acting, Presenting, and Improv

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Episode 013: Helen Harbord–Acting, Presenting, and Improv

Category:introversion,Introverted Leadership,Leadership,personality,Podcast

Episode 013 Show Notes: Helen Harbord

Introduction

Helen Harbord and Ben Woelk discuss the differences between doing presentations, acting, and the value of improv training.  

Key concepts

  • Acting is not the same as presenting
  • The value of improv training
  • The value of professional organizations
  • Being yourself
  • Talking to two or three is easier than talking to one

Quotable

I think the thing with acting–the big big thing that I think there’s a misconception about, is that when you’re acting, you’re not being yourself really. If you’re acting a part, you’re being a character.

Whether I’m comfortable or not, and I will play that role, and at a conference, I’ll look like an extrovert very often to people, but when I have the option and have a choice, I just would not get out. I would be reticent. I would be sitting back, I would be observing–Ben

Being a good actor is so much about being good at observing and just seeing how people behave, what they do and then obviously being able to mimic it, but if you don’t have that observation part at the beginning, you’re not really going to get anywhere. And I think that is something that comes much more naturally to introvert people.

I think improv is just brilliant. I’ve done bits of it, but I love it. It’s kind of terrifying and just exhilarating all at the same time. Ah, yeah, like you say, and I think it’s really useful. It’s taught me… Well, what’s it taught me? It’s taught me all sorts of stuff which is useful as you say, with communication. I think it teaches you not to overthink things, which introverts are slightly prone to. It teaches you just to get on with it. Say what you’re thinking. It teaches you to really commit. So if you decide, you know, you’ve made your choice in improv, you stood up and you’ve made yourself a tree or whatever it is you’re going to do, and then you have to really go with it. You can’t change your mind or waiver. You have to be strong. So I think that’s a really useful thing to and it also encourages you to see things from different angles, not just the obvious angle.

I think the most important thing is to work out who you are and just really be yourself. I think you have to be true to yourself and you have to bring the bits of you that are positive to the job, onto the role, and not let yourself be defined by the thought that you may be an introvert

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Links

Transcript

Ben: Welcome back, Helen. We’re chatting today about some of the challenges you face in the workplace and one of the things that we’ve been discussing offline a little bit, is whether or not you do presentations. Many of the previous guests who identify very strongly as introverts do present, but they also find they have a good deal of discomfort with it. But they had some ideas around it and I’m curious because you’re clearly very well spoken. You’ve provided in your bio that you do voice-over work and acting and things like that, which are obviously very public and you’re speaking in front of people, but from what you’ve told me that you aren’t really doing very much in terms of presentations. I’d like to explore that a little bit. How come you’re not doing presentations?

Helen: [Laughing] Well, it’s a very good question. I suppose for one thing, I don’t need to do them at work, so the need doesn’t come up. It’s not like a thing though, I’ve said, “Oh, well I’m not doing that.” It just literally hasn’t really really come up. I mean, I’ll do mini-presentations. I’ll do presentations to my team, but they’re kind of like friends, so that doesn’t really feel like a scary thing particularly. But yeah, I think the thing with acting–the big big thing that I think there’s a misconception about–is that when you’re acting, you’re not being yourself really. If you’re acting a part, you’re being a character. And not only that, you are basically doing what you’ve been told to do by the director. You’ve been told, well you may not have been told how to do it, but you–you’ve done something, and the director said, “Oh, a bit more like this, a bit more like that.” So it’s not really–It’s not you. It might be your skill and your ability, but it’s not you presenting. And I think that that just makes all the difference. In a performance, you’re expected to speak because you’re acting a part. Everybody’s expecting you to say something. Whereas if you’re at work, not in a presentation world, but just at work, you’re not necessarily expected to speak. So, people don’t–I don’t know–I mean people sort of don’t–there’s no pressure on you to say stuff. Whereas when you’re acting, yeah it’s just not you. I’m not explaining that very well, but you know what I mean.

On presentations--I think the thing with acting--the big big thing that I think there's a misconception about, is that when you're acting, you're not being yourself really. If you're acting a part, you're being a character. Click To Tweet

Ben: I think I get what you’re saying is that you’re playing a role when you’re acting, and you’re not…In some ways playing that part, you’re not–you’re not vulnerable when you’re up there speaking because you’re actually doing these specific–maybe specific lines or maybe just a certain way that you do things. What I’ve found interesting for myself, when I speak at a conference, I don’t know how much–I’ve done it enough times now, so I’m not totally freaked out by it, though I still get very nervous beforehand and I really want to go hide right afterwards, if I have an opportunity just to settle down and recoup some energy. But I found at least in terms of my involvement in professional organizations, if I’m at a meeting, the last thing I really want to do is go up and introduce myself to people or try to have conversations which may feel like small talk or something like that–just minor topics. But I’ve found that when I go into an event and I’m there as a representative–say I’m going in as vice president of such and such, I know full well that there’s a role I need to play, whether I’m comfortable or not, and I will play that role, and at a conference, I’ll look like an extrovert very often to people, but when I have the option and have a choice, I just would not get out. I would be reticent. I would be sitting back, I would be observing, I would not be up introducing myself to people I don’t know at all. So there is very much a discomfort level, but I think it’s the same thing as, I know I have this role to play. And that part’s been interesting. Do you ever present at conferences or anything?

Whether I'm comfortable or not, I will play that role, and at a conference, I'll look like an extrovert very often to people, but when I have the option, I just would not get out. I would be reticent. I would be sitting back, I would… Click To Tweet

Helen: No, I never have done. But I must admit the thought does fill me with terror. But I would. I think again it’s like you’re saying, you’re passionate about a subject and you genuinely think that you have information to impart to somebody that would be useful for them, then I think it would be fine. I think if you focus on that thing and not on yourself, then I think it’s fine too, and as you say, you have a role. You have a reason to be there. You’ve got a subject immediately there to talk about. I think it would be good, but no, I don’t. I mean–one of the things–one of the–it does backfire sometimes this acting thing, because I think people do assume that you will be brilliant at presenting and that you will love to do it. I definitely don’t have a particular desire to do it.

Helen: I do have the instinct to run away. When you say that, I do just think, “Ah. No. No. No.” And I think even with acting, I much prefer camera work. I’m very, very happy to act to a camera, but to act to an audience, it does actually terrify me, and I don’t think I’m alone. I think a lot of professional actors have the same thing. You hear the Judi Dench thing. She’s that good at saying her favorite part of getting a role is the moment she knows she’s got it, and then ever after that it’s terrifying until it’s all over. So, I think it’s a common thing, and I also think a lot of actors, a lot of very successful actors are introverts themselves, which surprises people. But I think it’s again, it’s that thing, you know, you’re being a good actor is so much about being good at observing and just seeing how people behave, what they do and then obviously being able to mimic it, but if you don’t have that observation part at the beginning, you’re not really going to get anywhere. And I think that is something that comes much more naturally to introvert people.

Being a good actor is so much about being good at observing and just seeing how people behave, what they do, and then obviously being able to mimic it, but if you don't have that observation part at the beginning, you're not really… Click To Tweet

Ben: Yeah, I think that’s a very good point. I think one of the, one of the things that introverts are very good at is–maybe not all–but is reading emotions and really trying to see what–how people are reacting to things rather than just delivering–I’m going to say delivering their lines or delivering their presentation or something like that.

Helen: Yeah, empathy

Ben: Yeah, the empathy thing. Absolutely. I know in my–I hesitate to call it a career–in my speaking experience, which has really only been, I don’t know, it’s probably been more than 10 years, it seems like less to me, that I had still much prefer to be up there with someone else if I’m co-presenting. And in general, I run through the same issues in terms of anxiety before I present as well. I’m usually okay once I get going now, but there’s certainly been times in the past that somebody saw that that person’s really, really nervous. I mean, I think part of it, I think there is a role you play as the presenter as well, and I absolutely want to be engaged with my audience. So for me, I think I look at it as an opportunity to have engagement and also try to have conversation and try to have some dialogue during a presentation.

Ben: But it’s an interesting thing, and I do classroom teaching also. And even the first day of a classroom teaching, I am nervous. I don’t know. I’m in front of people I don’t know. They’re students, they must all know more than I do, which has absolutely not been the case, but it feels like that going into it. So it’s an interesting thing and one of the things that talking to Alisa Bonsignore previously about this whole thing about presenting. I think part of it is understanding that you have something important to say. As an introvert, it’s also being really, really well prepared, because it’s very easy for us to talk about a subject that we know in depth. I found it very difficult to talk about myself, because I don’t like that vulnerability. I much prefer–I can talk about this, I might be wrong about something, but I can talk about this, but I don’t, I don’t really enjoy the criticism or I’m afraid of the criticism.

Ben: I don’t know. It’s interesting. I’ve had to speak in front of as many as 3500 students and I think that took care of a lot of the stagefright part of it. And I’ve also done lightning talks where the slides advance themselves every 15 seconds. So it takes some control away, and you’re hanging on trying to get through the presentation. But the other thing that I started exploring over the last year or so is improv. And looking at work that Alan Alda had done around improv and how helpful that is for very technical people, whether in science or in medical fields, it helping them in terms of their communication by teaching them how they can be an empath with the audience, understand how their message is being received, rather than just kind of going into lecture mode or whatever the rote thing is that they normally say. So, I’ve actually found that to be quite interesting, and quite surprisingly enjoyable to be doing the improv. And I think part of it is it’s just that you know you’re going to play a character. You don’t know where it’s going to go. And I think there’s some excitement to that and some fun with it also. But I agree that I think a lot of really good presenters as well are very introverted and certainly the case with musicians and things like that. Also, the performance aspect doesn’t really seem to have a lot to do with being an introvert or an extrovert. I think–you hear about it, many many people have stage fright.

Helen: I absolutely agree with what you say about improv. I think improv is just brilliant. I’ve done–not matters of it. I’ve done bits of it, but I love it. It’s kind of terrifying and just exhilarating all at the same time. Ah, yeah, like you say, and I think it’s really useful. It’s taught me… Well, what’s it taught me? It’s taught me all sorts of stuff which is useful as you say, with communication. I think it teaches you not to overthink things, which introverts are slightly prone to. It teaches you just to get on with it. Say what you’re thinking. It teaches you to really commit. So if you decide, you’ve made your choice in improv, you stood up and you’ve made yourself a tree or whatever it is you’re going to do, and then you have to really go with it. You can’t change your mind or waiver. You have to be strong. So I think that’s a really useful thing, too, and it also encourages you to see things from different angles, not just the obvious angle.

Improv is just brilliant. It's kind of terrifying and just exhilarating all at the same time. I think it's really useful. It teaches you not to overthink things. It teaches you just to get on with it. It teaches you to really commit.… Click To Tweet

Helen: So I think it helps you think around problems a bit more as well. And then the whole thing about always saying. “Yes.” In an improv, if someone comes up to you says, “Stop pointing that gun at me,” you don’t go, “Oh, it’s not a gun.” [laughing] You have to sort of, you say, “Yes. I will if you give me those diamonds,” or whatever it is, and you just advance the scene. And I think again that in a meeting situation where somebody has asked you something that you know you can’t do, or isn’t the right thing to do, rather than just saying, “No, that’s not going to work.” It helps you to be more accepting of it. So, so “Yes! I was thinking about this too! Brilliant idea! Let’s have a think about it. And I think that will work, but this might do,” it just smooths the whole process and I think you can get an awful lot out of improv.

Ben: Yeah, I think that’s very much the case. And I was surprised. I’d always loved watching improv, and we would get–I think Whose Line? Is probably based on a British Whose Line?. It was a quite popular show over here and getting an opportunity to see some of–see how they work. It’s just fun, because you just don’t know where it’s going to go and it is interesting because normally I really like to know where things are going to go, and have some idea and where. I know where I want to end up and I want to figure out how to get there.

Ben: So let’s talk a little bit more about ways that you feel like you’re an influencer, whether it’s at work or in your professional organization. Whether you feel like you’re a leader, and if so, what ways you do that.

Helen: Well, I think certainly at work. Because I’m the only person that deals with user assistance, that kind of thing. And then developing materials to help our users. So I’m the only one that does that. I’m the only one that can really advise on it and discuss it. In that way, I think I’m definitely an influencer, and perhaps a leader, because I can come up with ideas for things that other people just wouldn’t have thought about because they’re spending time thinking about other stuff. So I think certainly in a software development house you’ve got the stuff that I do in writing online help, that kind of thing, goes very much hand in hand with support, customer support, and so I can certainly have a lot of influence over the way that we design our products really. Yeah.

Ben: And what about in terms of involvement with ISTC? I see you’re a Fellow for that. I know that works differently than the Fellows do for the Society for Technical Communication. So how did you become a Fellow, and do you play any leadership roles in that organization at all?

Helen: I don’t play any leadership roles as such. I do help in terms of some of the behind the scenes stuff with the conference, the one that we met at. And I did get involved with that a little bit and I became a Fellow, really, because I wanted to have recognition I think in my field. I think it carries quite a lot of weight with it, and it’s a good way of showing the outside world that you can’t just become a Fellow overnight. You have to do the work, put in the hours. You have to sort of prove that you can do the job and you can do the job well. So that was really my motivation, I think. But I do very much like being part of the ISTC. I think it’s a fantastic organization. I imagine it’s very similar to the STC. Yeah, really a good community.

Ben: Yeah. And for me it’s–we use the phrase tribes over here, which is certainly not–is way overused now, but it’s very much of a case when I’m around that group of people, you know they understand you. We’ve built relationships over the years because when you go to a conference year after year you start meeting the people and start having conversations and such with it.

Ben: So Helen, I think this has been an interesting conversation. It’s really nice to get your perspective on things. One of the questions I’ve had for my guests is recommendations they might have for other people who want to really become an influencer, maybe become a leader, whether it’s a positional type leadership or whether it’s just somebody who has an impact on other people. What recommendations would you have?

Helen: I think the most important thing is to work out who you are and just really be yourself. And I think especially in a corporate environment, you can end up with an awful lot of corporate clothes, if you know what I mean, and I think I’m definitely not a corporate animal. I’m very happy to work in a corporate team and do all that stuff and I love my job and I take it very seriously, but I think you have to be true to yourself and you have to bring the bits of you that are positive to the job, onto the role, and I think not letting yourself be defined by the thought that you may be introvert, because I think as I said earlier, often introversion I think can be seen from the inside as a handicap or a negative thing, which it just isn’t at all. If you look at some of the extrovert qualities, you think, “God, It would be a nightmare to be like that, you’d never get it done!” There’s all sorts of things.

I think the most important thing is to work out who you are and just really be yourself. I think you have to be true to yourself and you have to bring the bits of you that are positive to the job, onto the role, and not let yourself… Click To Tweet

Helen: So I think just focusing on the talents and abilities that you do have, because there is only one of you and just really really being yourself, and then learning to manage your energy. Definitely. I know we’ve talked about the thing about introverts needing time to sort of hibernate afterwards or whatever. I don’t have that particular thing, but I do get very depleted of energy at a big event. So for example, something like a networking event, I will get really tired during–even though I may enjoy the conversations that I’m having. It is quite tiring. So I think understanding the type of energy that you have is a really useful thing. Many years ago, I was ill for several years. There was a thyroid issue which wasn’t diagnosed. And so I learned an awful lot about energy and how it gets used up. I think when you’re ill, everything’s distilled and you can really, really see what’s going on.

Helen: And something I discovered, which was a bit of a revelation, was I think as introverts, we tend to think that it’s easier to talk one to one, just to talk to one other person that it’s less scary than with a group, but something I discovered is that that it is absolutely exhausting and draining because you’re having to be constantly engaged with that person. So for example, at a networking thing, although it seems easier to walk up to one person standing on their own and have a conversation with them. If you can get into a group, it’s much less intense, because at any point the other two people could be having a chat together and you can kind of step back a little bit and breathe and maybe look around the room, and without being rude and it’s much, much easier to get through an evening if you have–if you are getting exhausted by it. That’s just something that I’ve learnt. And it was a big surprise.

Ben: I think that’s a really good point, because it’s much easier to be in a conversation with a couple of people. And actually if the conversation’s not going well, it does potentially give you an opportunity to excuse yourself, without feeling like you’re being rude with it.

Helen: Yeah. Definitely.

Ben: Yeah, networking events. Yeah. those for me, those can be grueling as well.

Ben: Thanks Helen, for a fun interview!

Extras

Helen appeared in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as a Ministry of Magic worker.


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