Teacher or Actor?
When I was a kid, I could not decide if I wanted to be a teacher or an actor. Teachers seemed to have a great and important gig, but then I saw Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno, and acting seemed like the better way to go. In high school and college I did some acting, and I taught and tutored as well–trying both activities on for size. But I was thrust into the post-college, “get to work” world still not knowing which path I wanted to take—the classroom or the stage. It was not until I met and experienced Otto Kroeger a few years later that I discovered that this was a false choice. If you teach and train correctly, the classroom and stage converge, and you become a teacher showman.
An accomplished and enthusiastic actor/performer himself (Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and the King in the The King and I were his two favorite roles), Otto taught me plenty about the wisdom of the stage and how it contributes to effective training. These seven lessons have become standard practice at OKA—a critical part of the OKA experience, central both to how we teach and how we craft and mold new trainers. The following insights I learned and developed from working with Otto Kroeger, the master teacher showman:
1. Know Your Lines
I saw Otto smoothly step in many times when he was co-training to redirect the answer to a question, inject some energy, to press re-set on the mood or in some other way steer the audience’s focus. He was able to do this by knowing the content and the goals of the design in such great detail. Training is not about merely transferring facts—it is about facilitating an experience.
Know your part—backwards and forwards. You never hit the boards and face an audience before you learn the lines—and not just your lines but those of everyone who takes the stage. Even if you improvise, facilitate and let your performance stay in the moment, the freedom of such performances is only workable when you first have totally immersed yourself in the part as written. The same applies to effective training. Know your subject matter, your design, your transitions, where it gets challenging and where it gets fun. Know the laugh lines and the parts of the presentation that punch and jab a bit. Know the arc and flow–the music–of your training event.
2. Fill the Space
Otto towers in my memory, but in reality he was not a big man. While he always carried some weight, he was only about 5’9’’. But he knew how to fill a stage. No one could play Tevye or the King of Siam who did not know how to use his body and voice to fill not just the stage, but our imaginations. Great trainers and great actors have this in common.
Otto taught me to use the whole room—visit each corner in setting up and processing exercises, answering questions, and telling stories. Make the whole room part of the action space. Break that fourth wall, and make the audience/participants part of the performance. Take your storytelling up a notch with gesture and animation, and fill up your training space.
3. Play to the Back Row
Otto once lamented with a mix of regret and irritation that a participant in the back of the room seemed to be dozing off in one of his presentations. That the presentation had been a keynote to over 800 people who had eagerly awarded him a standing ovation made little difference. Otto always played to the back row, which means he paid attention to the person least connected, least engaged or furthest away from the action.
I always give focused attention to the sight lines and room atmosphere for those in the worst seats in the room. Do they have obstructed views; can they hear everything; can I and the rest of the group see and hear them, and do they get as much of my energy as the folks at the front table? Every seat in the house deserves the same great show.
4. Move with Purpose
Otto understood that his words and voice were only part of what he was communicating. Over twenty years in the pulpit as a Lutheran minister taught him this as well. Gestures, walking, and movement were powerful tools to harness.
OKA teaches the trainers it trains to move (fill the space) but to do so with intention and direction. Taking a few steps in one direction or another could reinforce a content point, personally connect to a participant, grab or re-direct attention, offer visual variety, or any number of things. A good trainer—like a good performer—gives thought to movement and intentionally selects the physical presentation that best serves the lesson.
5. Control the Stage
As a student of good acting and performing, Otto knew Anton Chekov’s urging for effective stage dressing. If there is a candlestick on the mantle when the curtain goes up, that candlestick should be used in some way before the curtain comes down.
OKA’s translation of this theater principle is keeping the training room focused, neat and clean. Use plenty of visuals and training support tools, but as soon as the point is made or the topic changes, clean up, organize, pare down and focus your visuals. The only visuals participants should see are those that are still needed for support or reference. Good trainers, like good performers, control and organize their performance space.
6. Commit to the Part
Otto believed in Type, and he was equally committed to the human interaction lessons at the heart of the NTL (National Training Laboratory) training he designed and delivered, but he declined to train on a number of topics and tools over the years because he knew that to be believable, the performer must commit to his part. An actor should never take a part to which he/she cannot authentically commit.
If you don’t believe what you are saying, and if you have not integrated the material you are offering, you will not be seen as a trusted trainer/presenter. When you are watching a great performer, you never wonder if he or she believes what is being said or done—authenticity is core to a powerful performance or training.
7. Comedy Beats Tragedy
Otto died in 2013. That year’s Best Picture Academy Award winner was 12 Years a Slave. That same year, Despicable Me 2 (the Steve Carell comedy) was one of the biggest money makers—earning more than 7 times what the gritty Oscar winner brought in. While there are many provocative and thought-provoking conclusions that can be drawn from this, the important one here is simple and powerful–people are generally more drawn to comedy than tragedy. Hamlet is amazing, but Much Ado About Nothing is more fun.
Otto was always interested in making people laugh. Facts need to be conveyed, but when they come clothed in a funny story, they are both enjoyed and remembered. Having fun and laughing are common experiences at an OKA event. Keep them laughing to keep them learning.
Other Otto Remembrances:
- Relinquishment, Diminishment, and Otto’s Big Mouth
- 11 Otto Lessons
- Intimacy and the Feeling Functions
- The Jester and Sage
- How To Be an Enchanting Partner (or Friend)
- Otto’s Hamburger Example
Keep in touch with OKA
Otto lives on in every training we design and deliver at OKA. To see the kind of training firm into which OKA has evolved, come visit us online.