Q+A: WERKIN with RADA | Director and Actor Imogen Butler-Cole on what actors and executives can learn from each other

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WERKIN recently caught up with Imogen Butler-Cole from RADA Business who is a theatremaker, activist and trainer. Imogen uses her experience as an actor and director to train executives from the business world on effective communication. What can actors and corporate types learn from each other? Read a transcript from our conversation below.

Imogen Butler-Cole, RADA Business

Imogen Butler-Cole, RADA Business

WERKIN: As an actor, director and a trainer with RADA Business specialising in women’s confidence, what led you to this very unique position?

Imogen Butler-Cole: It's one of those really lovely synchronicity stories which I didn't have much hand in myself. I'd been working as an actor and theatre maker for many years and I trained a friend of mine who wanted help in speaking and presenting more clearly. And after the session, my friend happened to meet someone from RADA Business and they were talking about the kinds of training that we do.

Having trained at RADA already, I got in touch with them and kind of auditioned, training a business team and they liked what I did. It's been a really wonderful balance for me between the theatrical work that I do, the creative work that I do and then having this amazing insight into the business world and being able to transfer some of those skills.

WERKIN: You work with people across industries in the corporate world, bringing your skills and talents from theatre. How do these communities differ?

Imogen: The truthful answer for me is much less than I thought they would, before I began working in business. Before I started doing this work, I thought that we were worlds apart, theatre people and business people. But what I've discovered since I started doing this work is that we're all just human, and people in business have exactly the same kinds of insecurities and struggles as people in the theatre world.

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And the the only really discernible difference I'd say is that people in business generally aren't trained in those techniques as we are in theatre.

What I mean by that is we learn how to use our bodies, our voices, our breath to be able to create a really strong impact when we're speaking to people. So it's not that we're encouraging people in the business world to act and become somebody else. It's really much more about accessing the kinds of tools that we have as humans to create a more credible, more confident impact when we're communicating with people.

More and more, in business people are expected to present constantly, to pitch ideas constantly. There are so many techniques that we have coming from a creative background that can play into that.

WERKIN: Playing on these two different worlds and how similar they are, are there any specific lessons you think that actors can learn from the corporate world or the corporate world can learn from actors?

Imogen: Yeah, for sure. I'm always bringing the kinds of tools we have as actors and applying them to a business context. It's about communicating and using our tools really well to do that more effectively. But in terms of what actors can learn from business people, I do think there is a kind of rigor and a practicality, and perhaps strategic approaches that we could learn from.

It’s interesting that you phrase it like that, because I've never really thought of it that way around, what actors can learn from the business world. Maybe there's a whole new opportunity to do a skills exchange because definitely theatremakers particularly, and I use that as a distinction from the word actor, because as a theatremaker, I write and direct plays and often end up producing them myself, but I don't necessarily have the business skills to write a strategy, a strategic plan for something whereas people in business obviously do that much more often, depending on which part of the business world they're in.

WERKIN: Across these two worlds, how does creativity play into business innovation?

Imogen: That's also a really important question, and one that we are really beginning to explore in more depth at RADA Business. We have a variety of courses on creativity for innovation. It's about taking the kinds of skills that we learn as actors in improvisation. How do we think on our feet? How do we stop blocking ourselves and our thoughts?

In a business context, very often in a brainstorming situation, we're expected to give ideas but then almost as soon as we give them, the ideas begin to be critiqued. And what we learn as creative practitioners is that it's impossible to be creative and to receive criticism at the same time because it's in the same part of the brain. If we're being criticised, then the creative element shuts down. What we need to learn is that to enable more divergent thought for innovation within our teams, we need to allow space for as much creativity as possible.

Disney had a really great technique where apparently he would come into work on any given day and say today is a creative day. We're only going to create ideas. We're only going to think of new fun ideas, we're not going to critique them. And then the next day would be a planning day. And all you can do on that day is figure out how to put those creative ideas into practice. You have to find ways of being able to make those creative ideas work. And then on the third day, they would start to critique the plan, they still weren't allowed to critique the idea. The creative idea doesn't get critiqued, the plan of how the creative idea is going to be implemented is what gets critiqued. So you're separating the critical part of the brain from the creative part of the brain, and that's when creativity really begins to thrive.

So RADA Business has some short courses which are excellent for team building and implementing more creativity within teams. But also, we're constantly creating new courses about the business wherever we see that there's a need in the market and we're developing a new retreat-based course for Creative Leadership.

There are so many practitioners at RADA Business who are working as actors and directors and creating their own work. We're constantly creating. Up until this point, there hasn't really been a connection of those two worlds of theatre and business.

WERKIN: Another focus of yours is working with women in confidence and management. Are there any notable differences across genders in terms of approaches to communication, confidence and management that you've noted?

Imogen: Yes, certainly. And what we've discovered through research is that there are certain areas in which women will feel more comfortable and there are certain areas in which men will feel more comfortable. We've discovered that statistically women are less likely to ask for pay rises or promotions, and less comfortable in speaking positively about our successes. Whereas men are less comfortable in networking and social situations. So our women's training program is about stepping up with confidence. For women who are aspiring to management or newly in management positions, finding the confidence to be able to stand our ground and ask for a promotion or a pay rise.

What we're really doing is trying to establish ways in which women can speak more positively about our achievements, and also to literally stand our ground, take up a bit more space. That might mean literally, physically taking up more space, but it also might mean taking up more space in terms of people's time. Speaking more slowly, speaking more about the things that we want to speak about, getting our voice heard. Those are the kinds of things that we approach in those courses. Those are techniques which are applicable to anybody, but certainly in those situations where women are less able to put themselves forward.

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WERKIN: As an actor and a coach in the specific area, what have you learned about personal branding and communicating your skills?

Imogen: Well, like anyone, just because I come from a theatre background, doesn’t mean it’s easier for me to talk about my achievements and my strengths than it is for anybody else. But it's something that I very consciously learned to do throughout the years, and I realized many years back when I entered the acting profession, I found it very challenging to be able to sell myself.

And of course, that's something that one has to do all the time as an actor. I've gathered over the years a collection of ways in which we can actually own what we do well and speak positively about our strengths without coming across as if we're big-headed or arrogant, which much of the time we might fear and what might hold us back.

There's a very key part of the women's training which is about establishing a personal brand and it's of stepping up, exploring different ways of using language, giving examples of ways in which we can own our strengths and also watching videos of very successful women and how they do it. Once we experience other people doing it and realize that it doesn't make them sound conceited, it actually just establishes what their particular strengths are, then it's easier for the delegates towards the end of the day to be able to take that space to speak about their strengths, their personal brand, their own unique skills.

WERKIN: We all have our moments before a big meeting or a presentation, what is one thing we can do to build our confidence right before walking into a room?

Imogen: There are a couple of things that I would say we can do almost in an instant. Just to become aware of our breath and to take deep breaths. Taking a deep breath, we think of snatching a lot of air into our lungs which expands our chest upwards and our shoulders upwards as well, and actually brings quite a lot of unnecessary tension.

But actually what I think is more useful to think about is an out-breath, which is much more relaxing, which in turn steadies the heart rate. And if done continuously a few times, deep long out-breaths, and relaxed in-breaths, then that can dissipate a lot of the symptoms that we associate with nervousness. Like a racing heartbeat and shaking hands, butterflies can simply be knocked on the head by getting a little bit more oxygen into our system.

The second piece of advice is to get grounded, allowing ourselves to connect with the seat or with the floor, imagining we have roots dropping down into the floor so that we really give ourselves permission to take up a bit more space.

Open the chest, open the shoulders and open the body out instead of slumping or closing, which not only will make us appear less confident, but it will also make us feel internally less confident as well. So take up a bit more space, think about your roots connecting with the floor and a good few long out-breaths will really help.