We can learn a lot from actors. Take a look at the work of two of my favorites, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. I suggest Susan Sarandon in The Client and Sean Penn in Milk. And I suggest Sarandon and Penn together in Dead Man Walking. All four are Oscar-nominated performances, deservedly so. Sarandon won for Dead Man, Penn for Milk. Frame by frame, their performances are sharp, crisp, luminous.
Penn and Sarandon are smart actors. They dig deep emotionally, but they never splatter the character’s emotions all over the screen. Instead of “playing the emotion,” they “play the objective.” This gives their performances focus and direction. That’s what I love when I watch their work: I see clear intent in action, right there on the screen. Simply marvelous.
Here’s one thing every actor learns at some point in acting class: You take a scene in a script and you break it into beats. A beat usually describes one clear line of action in the script, a through-line if you will. We know that a beat ends and a new beat begins when there is a major shift or change in the conversation. Within each beat the actor, of course, speaks the lines from the script. More importantly, though, the actor picks an objective for the beat. The objective is the actor’s secret little mantra, if you will. It is never stated out loud, but it is vivid in the actor’s mind. Actors know that the moment they find a clear objective for a beat, it gives everything they say a strong purpose. It charges the words with energy. It lifts the scene to a higher level of intensity. There are three golden rules that actors know about an objective:
1. The objective needs to be an action verb.
2. It needs to describe the impact I seek to have on another person.
3. It needs to be visceral for me.
Action verbs matter because they unleash forward-moving velocity. They propel us toward the other person. More important, however, is this: An objective needs to be “a turn-on” in the brain. Actors love to do synonym searches to find the objectives that really get their juices flowing. My objective in a scene might be to “excite you.” Fine--but what if, instead, it were to “agitate you,” to “incite you,” to “impassion you,” to “titillate you?” There is no such thing as a right or wrong objective, but there are not-so-good objectives. Good objectives stimulate my brain, strike my fancy, spark my imagination.
So--let’s take this very simple notion and apply it to our everyday relating.
Creating Intent in Formal Presentations
Not every moment in a professional relationship needs to produce Oscar-worthy fireworks. But I see it over and over again in my work as a coach: Just as a clear objective illumines any stage relationship, clear intent has the potential to illumine any professional or personal relationship. When I clarify my intent, the relationship will change--yes, must change--because my intent toward the other person has changed. And the beauty of intent? It is simple. It is invisible. It costs nothing. It is a thought that is available to me at all times. I simply need to choose it.
Three principles will help you to select an intent that works for you. These principles entirely match the guidelines we just reviewed:
Three Intent Principles
1. Pick an action verb.
2. The verb needs to describe the impact you wish to have on another person.
3. Pick a verb that stimulates the heck out of you!
The power of our intent resides in the crispness of our thought. “I kinda, sorta would like to make a good impression on you” won’t do it. “I want to dazzle you” may. If the verb “dazzle” doesn’t click with you, no problem. Find a verb that does. Vague and rambling intents will create vague and rambling conversations. Crisp intents electrify a conversation!
If you ever took an oral interpretation or public speaking class in college, your professor likely asked you to play with different types of intent. Great. Intent is especially crucial in any public speaking situation. In a business meeting we don’t just get up and stand in front of a group of people to babble about something or other. We usually have a certain amount of time in which we are the center of attention, and during this time we’re expected to make an impact. Clear intent helps us do just that. Here are some “classic” intents that can be helpful when we speak in public:
- To motivate you
- To persuade you
- To inspire you
- To entertain you
- To move you
- To challenge you
- To enchant you
- To provoke you
- To delight you
Just as in acting, it is possible to have multiple intents in a single presentation. Not at the same time, please--that will create one big “kinda, sorta” muddle. But there can be a section in which I seek to move my audience, another one in which I challenge the audience, a third in which I inspire it. The beauty of working with such sequential intents: I begin to enrich my presentation with a layered texture and wider palette. Each beat now has a distinctly different purpose. And just like a well-trained actor, I suddenly begin to display a broader personal range. This range sharpens the impact I have on folks in ways I cannot possibly know.
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Excerpted with permission by Skyhorse Publishing Inc., New York, from Infectious  by Achim Nowak.
--Achim Nowak's first book is Power Speaking: The Art of the Exceptional Public Speaker. Influens , the international training and coaching firm Achim founded in 2004, is based in South Florida and supports senior business leaders worldwide.
[Image: Flickr user Tom Magliery ]