Part 1 – Making People Believe

Although I’ve now spent over thirty years in front of audiences, it wasn’t until my junior year in high school when I first took to the stage.  I was fortunate to have an amazing teacher and director, Rob Ramoy, who one day stopped me in the hallway and told me I had to audition for that first show.  The show was “Damn Yankees,” and I saw it as an opportunity to play the role of a baseball player on my favorite team – the Washington Senators.  I didn’t know that this was going to awaken in me a love for performing and being on stage. I also didn’t realize that it was going to provide an invaluable lesson in both acting, and business.

The original Benny Van Buren, Russ Brown playing my character from Damn Yankees

The original Benny Van Buren, Russ Brown playing my character from Damn Yankees

After a few tense days of auditioning, I was cast as Benny Van Buren, the manager of the Washington Senators.  I was as green as you could get as an actor, and being cast as an old, cranky manager certainly didn’t help things.  I didn’t have any difficulty learning my lines, but I just could not connect with the character I was playing.  Rob Ramoy knew I was struggling, and so he began to pester me some of the oddest questions I could have imagined:

“What kind of car does your character drive?” he asked.  “What kind of car?” I thought.  “Are you kidding me – how would I know that?!”

He was relentless and day after day he pressed on.  “What kind of cereal does he eat?  What kind of house does he live in?  What type of music does he listen to?”  I couldn’t figure out how in the world this would make me a better actor.  But after some nervous laughter, I began to make up some answers.  It seemed like a waste of time, but if it made my director happy, and got him off my back, I figured I’d give it a try.

Every time he passed me in the hallway, or cornered me during a rehearsal, he’d fire more questions at me.  I’m not sure when it happened, but soon I didn’t have to think hard to give him an answer.  As a matter of fact, it became effortless.  That’s because Rob Ramoy had quietly moved me from being a person who was playing the role of the character he was assigned, to being a person who was that character he was assigned. I wasn’t just reciting lines; I was believing the words I was saying.   I walked like my character, I sat like my character, and I became that character.  If you saw me on stage as that character, you believed me.  It didn’t come from the words I had memorized; it came from the persona I had taken on.

Fast-forward a few years and I tapped into “my character” in business for the first time.  I was interviewing for New York Life and I had to pass a personality test.  Before I took it, I asked my prospective manager a simple question: “Do you want me to answer these questions as Rob Jolles, or do you want me to answer these questions as an insurance salesman?”   He laughed at the question and said, “There is absolutely no way to fool this test, so just try to answer it one way or another.  Just answer the questions, Jolles!”  So I did.

When the results came back, I was brought into the manager’s office.  Right away, I could tell that the test hadn’t gone very well.  In a somber tone, my manager informed me that I had received one of the lowest scores he had ever seen, and he was unable to hire me.  I mumbled that I should have taken the test as an insurance salesman.  He heard me and told me, again, that there was no way to fool the test and get a higher score.  I didn’t disagree with him, but I begged him to let me take the test again, and I promised him I would pass.

A week later, I was at the testing center taking the test once again, but this time, I mentally got in character.  I ate like an insurance salesman, I walked like an insurance salesman, and I dressed like an insurance salesman.  Every answer I gave came very easily to me because, for that moment in time, I was an insurance salesman.  I didn’t just pass the test; I received the highest score ever recorded in the Washington General office.

In business, you need to learn your character too.  Companies will train people to master the product knowledge side of things, but that’s like handing people scripts, but never teaching them the character they need to portray.  In the end, you may know your lines, but that doesn’t mean you will be believed.

Do you see the problem?  Do you understand the ramifications of not knowing your character? Can you see the value in understanding your character, so you can deliver your lines with conviction?  Stay tuned, because in part two of this series, I’ll discuss techniques for learning your character, and making you more convincing when it’s your turn to make people believe.

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