All the world’s a Gorilla: Confidence in the work place


And: Book/Workshop Review- Artful Making

My stomach was in tight knots that threatened to force what little breakfast I had eaten to come back up for discussion. I could feel my palms sweating. Not the “just a little moist” sweating. No this was the, “dripping off my hands” sweating. In short I was a complete and utter mess. And the planning meeting was going to start in just fifteen minutes. I’d have to get in front of thirty people and present the entire plan for the release.

I’d tried to pawn it off on my boss. No dice. She said it was my time to shine in the spot light. “You’ve worked hard on this, time to get the credit you deserve. I hear the EVP is coming to the meeting.”

Great… Say, Boss, did I mention I’d much rather hide in the background with my Gantt charts? I so didn’t want to face all those people.

The door of my office burst open. Leaping through the door, with a dramatic “Hah, ha!” came Hogarth.  With short, puffy pants, a beaded vest, cape  and a hunk of lace around his neck that made his head look like it was on a dinner plate, he looked like a reject from the Shakespeare in the Park company.

Holding a skull aloft, Hogarth flipped the cape back over his shoulder and declared, loudly. “All the world is a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their…”


Hogarth stopped mid-monologue. Turning towards me, he pouted. “You interrupted the immortal bard.”

“Yes, yes I did.” I waved at the skull, “first of all, the skull is from ‘Hamlet’ and the monologue is from ‘As you like it.’ Second, and way more importantly, why the hell are you doing a monologue in my office!?

“Harumph,” Hogarth grunted. Setting the skull on my desk, he dropped into the spare chair. “Some people have no appreciation for the arts. I bet Lawrence Olivier never got shouted down for doing Shakespeare.”

“Hogarth…” I warned.

Slumping into his seat he continued to pout, “Oh fine. I was only trying to make a point.”

“And that would be?”

Hogarth perked up. “Oh, right. Did you know that the famous Sarah Bernhardt had to be shoved onto stage before every performance? Crippling stage fright, but once she was on stage it all just happened.”

“And the point of that is?”

“You could do worse than to take a theatre class, or at the very least join Toastmasters.”



Two for the price of one:

This blog is a two for one deal. It’s partially a review of Lee Devin and Rob Austin’s book Artful Making  and workshop of the same name. It is also a why on why you need to build your confidence and your presence to be successful.

Before we delve into the review, lets talk about the why.

Do you look forward to speaking in front of a group about as much as you look forward to your next root canal? Well you’re not alone. Some of the most famous actors in history have battled crippling stage fright. The thing is, its probably a good thing to have a little trepidation about public speaking (and large project management meetings are pretty public).  A young actress once confided to Sarah Bernhardt that she never had stage fright before going on stage. Sarah Bernhardt promptly answered: “Don’t worry, it comes with talent.”

This is not unlike bravery and foolishness. A brave man is afraid, but pushes on anyway, with caution. A foolish man isn’t afraid and just blunders on. Being afraid of public speaking isn’t a problem. Letting it stop you from being successful is. Especially when there are many ways to conquer that fear, or at least to soften its voice to a dull roar.

One of the absolutely easiest ways to build the skills needed to speak and present is to join Toastmasters. This international organization is devoted to helping people learn to speak and present. It’s easy to join, it’s easy to participate, it’s easy to become comfortable with yourself.

Toastmasters is excellent for giving skills to be confident with yourself. While I’ve done years of theatre, I still participate in Toastmasters to keep my skills honed and I still learn new things all the time.

If you want to move beyond confidence and into having a truly powerful speaking presence and the ability to quickly think on your feat, then I recommend taking a theatre class.

I had the great fortune to get involved with theatre when I was young. I got into it because it was fun and I was too young to know I should be scared of the audience (see the Sarah Bernhardt quote above). I certainly didn’t think doing improv street theatre would help me in a career I didn’t even envision being in two decades later.

Theatre taught me how to speak to be heard, memorization, posture, movement and most importantly, confidence. All tools that would be so very valuable in my career as a project manager.  I’ve presented at trade shows in front of 3000 person audiences and didn’t blink an eye. I’ve never had someone say “could you repeat that, I couldn’t hear you.” And I’ve been told many times I have a “commanding presence.” All of these I credit to the years I spent doing theatre.

Which brings me to Artful Making, the book and the workshop.

The Book:

With a forward by Dr. Eric Schmidt, chairman and former CEO of Google, the book had a powerful endorsement going for it right away. Google and Apple may not be perfect, but few can argue that they don’t understand how to run a business.

The What:

Artful Making compares the creative process used by acting companies with that of  Agile software development. It used direct examples from theatre productions and compared them to business practices and even NASA projects to demonstrate the principles that the artful process isn’t restricted to the stage.   It also sets out to provide a direct comparison and understanding of the artist and the knowledge worker.

The Good:

If you believe even a little in Agile or rapid development, then this book will resonate. The stories of the theatre company, in action, are fun to read and the message they deliver slips under your skin almost before you realize it. It’s not all theatre either. They use the Apollo 13 mission in two examples and it really goes to show that Agile isn’t new, just the word is. I came away from reading the book with a fresh mindset on the Agile philosophy as well as a some useful additions to my vocabulary that will help explaining the value of Agile.

The Bad:

It’s a text book- Devin and Austin both have teaching backgrounds and the book is laid out like a classic text book. Reading it I was very reminded of the Winston Churchill quote on giving a speech “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them what you’ve said.” While the content was powerful, the format of the book could have been much more engaging. Having heard Devin speak in person, it’s not the material but the format that makes the book a difficult read to slog through.

No actionables- The book is long on theory and examples but short on take aways you can use. Not every book has to be the next “Step by step guide to whatever” but I was expecting more based on the description of the book.

The Conclusion:

Still very much worth the read, just go in with your expectations set. This is a theory and understanding book which will get your mind thinking in new ways. It is not the next “how to” book.

The Workshop:

The What:

The Artful Making workshop is an eight hour session that keeps you moving nearly the whole time. Don’t worry about wearing comfortable shoes, you won’t be wearing them much.

Lee’s workshop is based on the acting concept of “Control by Release.” He starts with a simple little demonstration. Holding a pen tightly in his hands, he says “I’m in control of this pen. It does what ever I want it to do.” He waves it around in a stiff, Bob Dole-like, grip while he talks. Then he holds his hand out over the ground and drops the pen. “I’m still in control of this pen. It did exactly what I wanted it to do when it fell to the ground.” Actors use this technique to “let go” in order to be in control of their art.”

Lee then walks the workshop through a series of various exercises that get you up and out of your chair and challenge your comfort zones. Between these he reviews the concepts, the learning and the outcomes with a mixture of theatre examples, business examples and some science tossed in for good measure. Every leader should understand the concept of “Mirror Neurons” or as we normal folks call it, “Monkey See, Monkey Do.”

It’s not a class for the meek. You are going to be challenged, you are going to do things that initially feel really silly and you are going to walk away from the exercises with a new found respect for your own ability to do.

The Good:

Even with fifteen years of acting experience, I came away from the workshop with a renewed confidence, a greater focus and a better understanding for how the creative mind works. The ability to see how my team thinks and the confidence to not worry about what people think about me will make me a stronger leader and more effective.

The interactions with the other attendees are as valuable as the workshop itself. The debrief sessions, after the exercises, were enlightening, and educational. I felt like I could have tackled anything with my fellow attendees. If a team went through this workshop, together, I wonder how much more effective that team would be.

The Bad:

Limited actionables- Between the concentration exercise and the suggestions I got from other attendees, I came away with more hard actionables than I did with the book. Unfortunately, as Lee himself even says, this workshop just scratches the surface.

The Conclusion:

If you go into the workshop with the expectation that it is about making yourself more confident and a stronger leader and it won’t be any kind of magic set of tools for managing a team, then the workshop is well worth it. Lee challenges your edge and pushes you – in a positive way – farther than I think I’ve ever been pushed in a single day.

As a project manager, manager or leader, this course will give you the confidence to face even the toughest teams. That confidence will show through and make you more effective.

And you know how I feel about being effective…

Who is Hogarth? Read Blog 001 to find out all about my personal gorilla.


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