Step Into Power: What Acting Can Teach Us About Power and Responsibility
In this podcast episode, we discuss how lessons from the theater inform leadership styles and power dynamics at work.
“Leadership is a role that you play, like a part you play in other people’s lives. And [your] expression of that role is your responsibility as a leader,” says Stanford GSB lecturer Melissa Jones Briggs.
Jones Briggs’ work combines techniques from the theater with social science research to teach lessons about power and communication. In this conversation with podcast host Matt Abrahams, she discusses how acting in a leadership position requires staying present and also knowing when to step back.
“Power and authority often determine which stories are centered and which stories are marginalized,” Jones Briggs says. “By uncovering previously untold stories, we can create environments that invite new stories in, and that helps shape inclusive and equitable work cultures.”
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
Full Transcript: Step Into Power
Matt Abrahams: Filters, fuzzy backgrounds, hiding our videos, manipulating our microphones. We now have more tools than ever to manage how we appear to others. Yet the desire to manage the impressions we make on others is not new. It is fundamental to who we are as humans. Hello, I’m Matt Abrahams. And I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart — the Podcast.
I am really excited today to chat with Melissa Jones Briggs. Melissa is a Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at the GSB. She combines her vast experience in performance and acting with a deep knowledge of social science research to provide her students with insight into how power and presence impact all personal and business interactions. Plus, she is just an all-around great person. Welcome, Melissa. Thanks for being here. I am so excited to have you on the podcast.
Melissa Jones Briggs: Thank you, Matt. Thanks for inviting me into the conversation.
Matt Abrahams: Yeah, great. Let’s get started with that conversation right now. You co-teach the very popular Acting with Power class. Can you describe the focus of the class and share a few key takeaways about how we can display a more powerful presence?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Absolutely. In the course, we use techniques from the performing arts paired with social science research to address the challenges of responsibly using our power and using it well, the challenges of interacting human to human. So in large part, Matt, it’s a theater arts class. We give students the experiences, the knowledge, and ultimately the courage, I’d say, to act outside of their normal comfort zone so that they can perform all kinds of roles with agility and range. So class lectures and discussions focus on power as a force for good, and power and status dynamics are brought to life through acting training and scene work in real-world scenarios.
But you asked about the powerful presence. I think the answer to that is summed up in another question to an extent, which is powerful for whom? So a key takeaway early in the class covers maybe three points. The first is that power is a tool to serve others. The second is that leadership is a role that you play, like a part you play in other people’s lives. And third, expression of that role is your responsibility as a leader. It’s your right and it’s your responsibility. So our job is to bring ourselves, our expertise, our voice, our experience to our leadership roles in the office, at home, in our communities.
Matt Abrahams: So in answering your question to whom, if I am a leader in an organization and I want to make sure those around me see me as somebody who is responsible, is capable, is one who deserves the respect that the position holds, what are some things that I can do with my body, my voice to demonstrate that power?
Melissa Jones Briggs: The awareness of context and role and the range of the physical behaviors — the physical and vocal behaviors required to perform that role as effectively as possible for your people is what underpins the purpose of our work in class.
Matt Abrahams: So I want to come back to — you’ve mentioned the notion of context. Can you give us more detail on what you look for in the work that you do and guide others to look for when you’re exploring the context and trying to understand its impact on who we are, what we show, and how we communicate?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Yes. Clarity of context and role is important to the responsible use of power and effective communication, right, especially across distance and across dimensions of difference. And so what that means as it relates to role is, what are my responsibilities here in this room in the present moment with these people? What are my responsibilities in my larger role within the organization? And bringing your full self to that role that you’re playing in the moment aware of the people, the other actors in their scene and their own needs, aware of your physical and vocal cues, what’s available to you and, of course, the content. And the space, your movement through the space around you, the specifics — the very specifics of where you are.
Matt Abrahams: It sounds to me like context and role are intimately connected. It’s multifaceted what you need to pay attention to. I really like this idea a lot. We have spent a tremendous amount of time across these podcast episodes really thinking about who we are speaking to. And adding to that this notion of context and where you’re speaking and the role you have and are expected to play just add more specificity to that type of reflection. And certainly, we will adjust our communication based on context. And I love that you’re highlighting very specifically space, the space we are in. That influences a lot of things. So thank you for delineating that and helping us understand it better.
Much of what you’ve just mentioned though is nonverbal, what we do with our body and our voice. But what we all — what we say actually matters, too. I read a recent “Washington Post” article in which you talk about how language can act as, in your words, armor against uncertainty and embarrassment. Can you tell us more about how the words we choose to use or not use impact how we come off to others?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Yes. That piece was about corporate-speak — unnecessary, meaningless jargon.
Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.
Melissa Jones Briggs: Choosing meaningless words distances us from people. Speaking cryptically with no explanation, intentionally or not, can be a dominance display or playing high statuses improvisors, like Keith Johnstone, Dan Klein would observe. But they’d also agree that corporate-speak can undermine power, too. It’s not just about playing [high]. The impact of this kind of language depends on the context and the audience. So it may read as intimidating if the jargon signals, say, an in-group language that the audience doesn’t know. But it can also be read as ridiculous if it’s obviously meaningless language that the speaker’s using in an effort to raise their status.
It’s natural, of course, to feel vulnerable, right, as the cats jump into our frame here on video or children toddle into the room, which might actually happen here [laughs].
Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]
Melissa Jones Briggs: It may be tempting to use more corporate-speak to make ourselves appear more put together. But it’s actually a retreat.
Matt Abrahams: So the corporate-speak, the protection you talk about in the article is really about being inauthentic is what it sounds like. And I’m curious, do you have a favorite corporate-speak term that just really bothers you? Is there one that just above all else you’re just like, aw, that’s like fingers on a chalkboard?
Melissa Jones Briggs: One is operationalize. I’ve also come to get really irritated by leverage —
Matt Abrahams: [Laughs]
Melissa Jones Briggs: — not that I haven’t used either of those, but I’m humiliated when I do.
Matt Abrahams: The one that bothers me the most, and it’s not just in corporate-speak, is it is what it is. That to me is just a wasted statement. It doesn’t say anything. So that bothers me, too. Now managing how others see us is central to social life. Can you help us understand what covering is? And how do the stories we tell help us cover or uncover information about ourselves?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Fear of backlash. So the consequences, like we discussed earlier, the fear generally can lead people to downplay aspects of their identity that may not align with the role expectations of the group majority. So that’s covering is the downplaying. It’s a term that was coined by the sociologist Irving Goffman back in the ‘60s, the downplaying of stigmatized identities. So the identity may be apparent, and the individual downplays various aspects of it to assimilate to the majority group, aspects like hair, clothes, accent. They distance themselves from causes, events, or people.
Kenji Yoshino is a Professor of Law at New York University, and he describes this as a hidden assault on our human rights. Men and women, for example, may cover within an organization that has a strong masculinity contest culture by bragging about long work hours or strategically distancing themselves from caregiving identities. So covering is a performance. Many people cover in ways that they may or may not be aware of.
Matt Abrahams: And stories factor into that, the stories we tell others —
Melissa Jones Briggs: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: — and share.
Melissa Jones Briggs: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: Do you have thoughts on that storytelling?
Melissa Jones Briggs: I do. I do. Power and authority often determine which stories are centered and which stories are marginalized. And narrative revelation deepens our understanding of others and ourselves, revelation meaning the reveal, the uncovering. So by uncovering previously untold stories, we can create environments that invite new stories in, and that helps shape inclusive and equitable work cultures. Covering and uncovering are both calibrated performances. So when it’s safe, you can uncover and bring more range to your role. When it’s not safe, people who have the power to make it safe for others to do that must. And the craft of acting teaches us to uncover. It sets the stage, too, to allow others to do the same.
Matt Abrahams: So it sounds to me like uncovering requires both courage, but also support from the environment that you’re in. And that support could come from leaders, from having mentors or examples, et cetera. Is that right?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Absolutely, Matt.
Matt Abrahams: So a take-home message might be that, as leaders, we need to be thinking about what we can do in terms of our role modeling, in terms of the environment we set up so that people feel safe and comfortable to share some of these stories that might not typically be shared. So thank you for explaining the concept and also for encouraging us to set those kinds of environments up. You and I have known each other for quite a while —
Melissa Jones Briggs: Mm-hmm.
Matt Abrahams: — and I always learn something about the guests I interview. And it really, really impressed me with some of the incredible work that you’ve done with those who are marginalized and underrepresented in business. And I’m wondering if you could share what lessons and tools you use to help people in those situations, and what can we do to support those lessons that you teach?
Melissa Jones Briggs: So much of the work, like in class, is about identifying and revealing underdeveloped parts of ourselves to bring new performance awareness and range to their roles. A lot of it’s breaking habits, habitual ways of speaking and moving. And that calibrated uncovering, the revealing and growing those underdeveloped parts of ourselves helps us serve our organization and our people.
Matt Abrahams: So it sounds to me like doing reflection on your communication, your circumstance, your role, and then thinking about who you really are, maybe even itemizing the things that are important to you, can set you up for success when it comes to playing or acting in the work life and the work situations you find yourself in. Is that an example –
Melissa Jones Briggs: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: — of a clear takeaway?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Yes. And bringing the — and bringing intentional about your objectives and intentional about your role and your responsibilities in your role because you leaders have more power than you realize. And it’s their right and responsibility to harness that power as effectively as possible, to embody it.
Matt Abrahams: Ah. So it’s first and foremost paying attention to your situation and then focusing on your intention once you have that information to inform how you are going to act in that situation. Is that right?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: I love any advice that can rhyme. So it’s attention, intention to adjust to the situation. There we go. I’m a happy camper.
Melissa Jones Briggs: So do I. So do I [laughs].
Matt Abrahams: Any last best practices or advice you would like to share to help us navigate and manage our impressions and power?
Melissa Jones Briggs: The understandable desire, right, that we all have to manage impressions may undermine our larger objective and the impression itself. I think that’s something that’s important to remember. We’ve been talking about being mindful and intentional and bringing our full range. But it’s also important to be able to let that go, to rehearse and prepare and be able to let it go. It’s important to care, to make sure that you’re caring, but about the right thing — the shared objectives, the audience. So rehearsing to grow range, being thoughtful and intentional, [even] practiced, is critical.
But the whole point of all that work is then to be able to let it go and be right there in the moment with the needs of your people.
Matt Abrahams: That speaks to so many themes that have come up across our podcast, the notion of being present oriented, the notion about structure and practice and reflection and how that can prepare you. A great analogy, I think, is for anybody who’s ever played a musical instrument or who’s done a sport, you do so many drills and so much practice, so in the moment, when you’re playing the instrument, when you’re playing the game, you can just be present and experience it and rely on the skills that you’ve developed. And to take that approach and apply it to our communication, to apply it to our work situations is so powerful but not necessarily easy to do.
That’s why we need expert teachers like you and others to really help guide us along the way. I really appreciate that advice. Now Melissa, before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Yes.
Matt Abrahams: All right, here we go. If you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would that title be?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Keep pace with the present.
Matt Abrahams: Oooh, I like that.
Melissa Jones Briggs: Keep pace with the present. That’s a master acting teacher Uda Hagen, whom I didn’t work with directly in New York but I wish I did, but to quote from her, which speaks to the practices of pace and delivery, of course, but also with how important it is to be right there.
Matt Abrahams: I like that. There is a flow, there is a rhythm to communication. And keeping pace with that can really help accentuate what’s going on and can help you really connect and direct what’s going on in the interaction. So I appreciate that advice. I’ll be curious to hear your answer for this: Who is a communicator that you admire and why?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Acting professor Kay Kostopoulos can take any non-actor in the classroom or off the street, and she can put them in a scene, cast them in a scene, and within moments, Matt, coach them towards some moment of transcendent human connection with their scene partner, with the text, with the audience. She does this with a delivery style that is extremely warm and very, very direct. She commands audiences of hundreds as an actor and a singer, but watching her nurture a non-actor on stage into a moment of truth and growth is really special. Her students, thousands of students over the years will know what I’m talking about.
Matt Abrahams: Wow, the point about warmth being balanced with directness is a true art and one that we can all work to develop because if you can be direct and clear in what you’re asking for but do so in a compassionate, inviting way, that can make a big difference. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Melissa Jones Briggs: Generosity, which is a form of commitment to share your voice and share the stage, amplify other voices. Courage to bring your full range to the needs of the present moment, the circumstances, the needs of your people. And genuine curiosity, not just about your audience — are they with you — but insatiable curiosity about the human condition.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, my goodness. Well, we have to thank you, Melissa, for your generosity in sharing insights that you have gained in your life and in the teaching that you do, for courageously standing up for sometimes people whose voices are not heard, and for being curious in exploring these issues so that we all can benefit. Thank you so much for what you’ve shared with us and for what you’ve taught us.
Melissa Jones Briggs: Thank you, Matt.
Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: the Podcast, produced by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. For more information and episodes, visit GSB.Stanford.edu, or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media at stanfordgsb.
For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.