In the beginning...
“I love my job,” writes Carly Gresh, who manages accounts for Women’s Wear Daily, “But pitching to clients when thousands of dollars are on the line can be stressful. This work, the kind they just don’t teach you in school, is invaluable. Eliza ... sees the individual and understands each professional needs specific, unique strategies to succeed.
We start to gesture before we start to talk, so people are getting all this information about you before they hear what you have to say. Don’t let your delivery diminish your message.” Eliza VanCort has been successfully running the Actors Workshop of Ithaca for many years now, but she’s also a helpful person and a natural acting coach. Not too long ago, she noticed she was spending a lot of time improving the speaking ability of people who had no inclination to act.
For example, a mid-career businesswoman who knows she’s the best in her department, and can’t seem to get a promotion, or, a student getting ready for college interviews, or a man with a blue-collar background and a white-collar job, who wants to know how to talk to his coworkers.
“I realized one day, I was doing it all the time, and for free.” With help from her friend Katie Spallone, also a successful businesswoman, VanCort found the name for what she does: “presentation coach.”
“Cornell contracted with us (AWI) to coach their people with their on-camera skills for MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses),” said VanCort. In a traditional classroom, it doesn’t matter much if the professor drones on and on in a monotone, barely looking up from the podium. The students have to sit and listen anyway. But online teaching requires something a bit different, because if the presentation is boring, the student will walk away from the computer. Varying your tone of voice, standing straight, and looking at the camera can make a world of difference.
Once she had a name for what she was doing, the business took off from there. The Meisner Technique that VanCort teaches at AWI is about authenticity, about being yourself—but most people don’t spend much time in front of a mirror, and they may not know their public self at all. In the Actors Workshop, students spend the first two semesters mirroring each other: working in pairs, they minutely observe each other and report on the smallest and largest of gestures, and on their own reactions. They study how they make others feel, and how others make them feel.
Did you know you joggle your knee when you’re tired? Cross your arms when you feel threatened? Touch your nose after you shake someone’s hand? If you’ve ever been surprised by someone else’s description of how you come across, you know that part of the self you put out in the world every day is a bit of a mystery.
VanCort leads the way to a mini theatrical studio in her home, complete with audience chairs and bright lights. Here, she helps people learn how they come across, and helps them change the things they want to change.
“The problem is, I’m almost too good,” she said, laughing. “I’ve had people come for one or two sessions, and then they don’t need me any more.”
A case in point was that businesswoman who knew she was valued in her department, but couldn’t seem to get ahead. It wasn’t that her colleagues didn’t appreciate her work, but that she was mousy, with a little voice and a shy way of speaking; she would literally back away from her (almost all larger) male colleagues, and they would take over the conversation. “A lot of women adopt what I call defensive speech patterns,” said VanCort, who was also a women’s studies/political science major. “They’re used to being interrupted, so they talk really fast to get it all out before they can be cut off.”
“Women don’t interrupt; they did some studies on this, and it turns out, it isn’t that men aren’t taught to interrupt. They’re just not taught not to. So women will wait, in conversation, for a turn to speak: they’ve been told, when they were little, not to interrupt. If you want to get ahead as a woman in tech, you should learn to interrupt.”
With coaching on her presentation, the mousy professional learned body language and speech habits that caused her colleagues to listen to her, and received the promotion she’d been passed over for before.
VanCort also works a lot with sales people: “I help people get into the right mindset before making a sale; I can teach you to alter your emotional life so your insecurities don’t rule you.” §