By December 7, 2010 Read More →

Is peak performance just a big act?

I’ve spent a good deal of my career as director of films, both commercial and documentary, and my clients have often remarked on the quality of the performances I get, whether it’s from professional actors or just regular folks.

Some have asked whether I use any particular method to get people to perform at their best.

I had never really given it any thought until recently, when a client insisted that there must be a relationship between getting good performances on a film set and getting good performances in business overall.

I think he’s right.  So I started analyzing what it is I do, and I’ve come up with a few  general principles that  that may be able help you, as a manager or educator, to get peak performances from the people you’re directing.

1) Know what you want

When people are asked to perform, they feel vulnerable. If you want peak performance, your job as a director is to make them feel safe.

The most important way to achieve this is to know exactly what you want.

This isn’t easy.  It requires you to visualize beforehand what  will be occurring on-set, and to imagine all the things that could possibly go awry.

When I’m preparing for a documentary interview, for example, I write down what I imagine the story might be, and develop my questions based on these hypothetical answers.  I also imagine what might happen if the interviewee offers up what I was not expecting, and how that might change the direction of the story.

The objective here is not to restrict the interview to any preconceived notion of what should be said.  Rather, it helps the actor or interviewee feel like he or she is in good hands.

And it helps me to react quickly and intelligently to unexpected events.

2) Reveal something of yourself

When directing, it’s good to maintain some distance from the actors and the crew.  People, after all, want to know there’s someone in-charge.

However, it’s important not to overplay your hand.  There are times when you should bring yourself down a peg.

This is especially true when working with actors.  Chances are, when the camera starts rolling, they’ll feel a little nervous.  By revealing some of your own weakness and vulnerabilities (best done through self-deprecating humor), your performers will identify more with you, they’ll relax and deliver a stronger performance.

3) Get into your performers

When working with actors, there’s always an attitude or a point-of-view or a way of reading a line that comes naturally to them.  It’s a place where they’re strong, where they’re most themselves.

Similarly, when interviewing real people for documentary work, a remarkable eloquence emerges when they’re discussing something that truly matters to them.

Your job as a director is to listen intensely to what your performers are saying: to their words, their body language, their inflection.   You’ve got to uncover what really makes them tick, and to encourage it.

Sometimes you can gently tease it out of them.   At other times it might be best to challenge them.

Whatever method you use, it will  lead to performances that are authentic, confident and persuasive.

Now, how do these principles of directing people in films apply to the workplace, or the classroom?

What they do is illustrate a fundamental challenge to leaders of all sorts, whether they’re CEOs, managers or educators:  namely, striking the right note between freedom and control.

When on the set, I’m always engaged in a delicate balancing act between guiding things according to the plan I’ve prepared and just letting things just happen on their own.  I’m forever calibrating the amount of control I exert, the amount of myself I reveal, the degree to which I coax or challenge the performers.

If you’re leading an organization, or managing a team or teaching a class, you too have to find the correct balance.

After all, you are the main performer.  It’s your show.  Everyone is taking their cues from you.

So make sure you’re prepared.  Make sure you’re listening.  Make sure you keep your game plan in mind while simultaneously working in the moment.

In this way  you’re guaranteed that you and everyone around you will be performing like a star.

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