5 Lessons Corporate Clients Taught Me About Teaching Voice & Speech to Conservatory Students

(Today’s post contributed by Rockford Sansom)

Over the past several years, I’ve been privileged to serve as a voice coach for many corporate clients around the globe. I have a passion for these business men and women since so many of them deeply want to learn the skills voice coaches have to offer.

Nevertheless, I admit that, at my core, I’m a man of the of theatre, and theatre folk historically don’t mingle daily with hedge fund managers and vice-presidents of marketing. So for me, coaching corporate titans had a steeper learning curve than teaching college-age conservatory students. In the college theatre department, I wear sweatpants and play relaxing music during the body-voice-yoga warm up. But on Madison Avenue, I wear a suit, and yoga mats are often met with fear and disdain. In fact, if immediately upon meeting the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I asked her to lie on the ground for breathwork, she’d probably fire me.

Could the corporate folks use some yoga and some breathwork? Sure, they could. But that’s generally not the culture of the working environment, and I have to respect that. Would hedge fund managers benefit from a detailed knowledge of the IPA? Absolutely, but there’s usually no time for that. Working with corporate clients, then, made me reinvent many ways in which I taught voice and speech.

Even though the corporate client and conservatory student exist in extremely different universes with very different career goals, teaching corporate clients has made me a more organized and focused teacher at the conservatory. Here are the top five lessons the men and women of the business world have given me as a voice teacher:

Lesson 1: Begin formally and then become more personable

Corporate clients usually have the attitude that they’ve hired an expert, so an expert better walk through the door. In a business setting, I’m conscious of my tone, demeanor, and vocabulary for the first 30 minutes of the first encounter, and I give the most formal version of myself I can muster. The casual, playful side comes out later once I’ve earned respect in their eyes.  

Theatre departments (understandably) tend to cultivate an artsy vibe. Most faculty are on a first-name basis; there are yoga mats and sweatpants. But I’ve learned to add a slightly more formal tone to the first class meeting than I used to do as a younger teacher. When I add this brief introductory formality, I find that my conservatory students are more focused for the entirety of the term, and I can slowly start showing the sillier side of myself as the course develops.

Lesson 2: Clearly articulate the agenda and often

Corporate clients want to know the agenda to the minute. “What do you expect out of me exactly, and how exactly will you be using my time to accomplish this task?” That’s a direct quote from a client who heads HR in Atlanta for a worldwide company; she asked that question within the first two minutes of the session.

Many conservatory students may take a similar attitude as my HR friend, but unlike clients with Wharton MBA’s, the conservatory student may not have the guts to vocalize that desire. Thus, I’ve learned to begin each class period by stating my detailed agenda for the day and how that daily plan fits into the course goals as a whole.

Lesson 3: “The reason for this exercise is [fill in the blank].”

I argue that much of theatre actor training tends to favor the teaching principle: experience first and (only if necessary) explain the exercise later. To people who studied business and law, that teaching philosophy simply does not fly.

In my experience, most conservatory students will follow a teacher to the moon and back. Just tell a senior-level BFA acting class to quack like a duck and crawl around on the floor, and they’ll do just that without much hesitation.

Outside of theatre department, most adult learners want to know the reason for an exercise well before the experience. Generally speaking, if an adult doesn’t understand the context and purpose of a lesson, then an adult learner will disengage; they won’t just play along and hope to glean some knowledge from the experience. Corporate clients will take this attitude to an extreme. They think, “Time is money; tell me what you want and why.” So I regularly reiterate the goal behind every activity both before and after we do it.

Theatre education tends to highly prize experiential learning and rightfully so; however, I’ve learned to bring a greater sense of clarity to voice exercises for my conservatory students, and I’ve learned to always state the purpose of the activity. “The reason for this exercise is [fill in the blank]” has become one of my favorite phrases. The students learn the concepts faster and remember more if the purpose is clear.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid to be simple

British author and literary critic, Samuel Johnson, famously quipped, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” I love that. That’s corporate voice and speech work in a nutshell. I find that in a corporate session most people feel comfortable walking away with one or two really solid and usually simple concepts that they can put to use often. I’ve done my job for a corporate client if he or she comes out of the training saying, “I learned these two handy tips that I can put into practice later today. Perfect. I can do those concepts comfortably and well.”

I’ve learned to bring some of that simplicity to theatre students too. Yes, of course, the scope, volume, and depth of material in a semester-long conservatory class greatly exceeds what I usually cover with corporate clients; nevertheless, I ask myself, “What’s the least I want my students to know?” And if everyone in the class can walk away with at least those few concepts, then everyone wins.

Lesson 5: End with “So what does that mean for YOU?”

Corporate clients want immediate application. “How can I take what you taught me this morning and use it during the board meeting this afternoon?” During corporate workshops, the participants relish the opportunity to discuss and plan how they can put their new voice skills into action. “This concept will help me with my boss, and this other concept will help me when the meeting gets heated.”

I think all adult learners want to see their new skills put into action. So I’ve learned to allow the conservatory students to personalize the material as well. I occasionally hold short reflection discussions where the students are encouraged to chat about using the tools they have learned in voice and speech class within other areas like acting, singing, a current production, etc. If they own the material, then they’re far more likely to remember it and practice it.

To Sum Up

Coaching corporate clients forced me to reevaluate many assumptions about teaching voice and speech in the conservatory that I long held dear. Ultimately, I’m grateful for the opportunity and the lessons of clarity, simplicity, and personalization that these business clients continue to teach me, and I look forward to the lessons I’ve yet to learn.

***Dr. Rockford Sansom is a voice professor and actor based in New York City. He has taught at universities worldwide, has served as a communication development trainer–working with Fortune 500 executives, United Nations officials, and members of the U.S. Congress–and has acted in leading roles Off-Broadway and in multiple national and international tours. He holds Knight-Thompson, Fitzmaurice, and Estill Voice (Master Teacher) certifications and is the incoming Editor-in-Chief of the Voice and Speech Review (www.rockfordsansom.com).

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