As an 18-year-old I starred* in Davidson College’s production of “Frankenstein: The Rock Opera,” my first-and-only acting performance that gets better every time I recount the story for someone. It came on the heels of an illustrious* high school theater career, as both a singer and a playwright, but before my more famous* stint as the writer/director/producer of my own play. I can’t seem to find my IMDB profile at the moment, but trust me the superlatives are not at all exaggerated or misleading.
The criticism of a liberal arts education, such as the one I received across four years at Davidson, is that it’s not practical once you walk across stage to grab your diploma. More critically, if you think an English degree (which I have) is especially useless, allow me to present my English major/theater minor. What the heck can you do with that? Wouldn’t Summit be better off if I had an economics degree?
Twelve years to the day after walking across the stage and grabbing my diploma, I used my theater education as the anchor for the third course in our Summit School of Innovation. This particular class, Storytelling + Marketing, had one rule and one directive. You must participate, and any idea is worth discussing.
Over the past year, I’ve taught Summit baristas in Cornelius, coffee CEOs in Boston, college students in Davidson and high school students in Connecticut. Somehow teaching has become a big part of what I do. I am by no means a well-trained, or even moderately trained, educator, I do believe it’s a platform to harness the best things I have learned and pass them along. So here I am, wearing a shirt with pineapples on a Tuesday afternoon in front of 10 coworkers, parlaying my extensive, extensive theater career into a lesson on how to become better storytellers and, thus, better marketers. Logically, we started with improv.
Coincidentally, or perhaps something more than that, on the way to class I ran into Sharon Green, my Davidson College theater professor. I told her that I was making my storytelling class into an acting class and her eyes lit up, as if something she taught me in 2006 was finally resonating how she intended. “The best storytellers control the narrative, and those who control the narrative run the best businesses,” she said.
So much of what we do, the reason I take a few minutes every Tuesday (sometimes Wednesday) to fill these pages, is to share a story. There are different characters, different plots, different plot twists and different resolutions. But it’s all the same story. It’s the Summit story.
The reason I
invite and encourage and strong-arm people to take these classes, to think outside the box, is to develop storytellers. Some classes, like Leadership Development, are more subtle. This is blatantly about telling stories, front-and-center on the course syllabus. More than that, though, it’s about tuning into new voices and new perspectives. It’s an opportunity for Summit baristas to engage in silly discourse as part of their job, and for me to see who’s engaged, who’s silly, who has a story they want to share.
In all the classes I’ve taught, there have been people who never fully engage, who never find their voice in the room. Improv doesn’t allow that. It forces everyone to play a role, to be a character, to speak out and be on the level with everyone else in the room. After 20 minutes of improv, we had 10 students smiling, awake, engaged, and with a voice. The rest of the class was vibrant and exciting, full of ideas and perspectives, and full of balance. The talkative ones were more reserved, and the reserved ones more talkative.
The author Tim O’Brien writes, “Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.”
So what did my English and Theater degrees get me? They allowed me to discover my voice, to understand cadence and characters and comedy. My degrees taught me to be a storyteller, and maybe it took me exactly 12 years to identify it, but that made me an entrepreneur. Without Sharon Green, without acting and directing and playwriting, without improv lessons, I wouldn’t be the storyteller I am, the teacher I seem to be becoming, the leader I am hoping to evolve into.
Sure, businesses run by people educated in business can work well. But that’s not the Summit story. This story is about a closet theater nerd finding ways to integrate improv into storytelling, storytelling into marketing, and marketing into part of everyone’s job.
Please don’t YouTube me.