I was a good student. I did my homework on time, studied zealously for tests, and actually read everything I was assigned to read. Math was a hard subject for me, so I took summer classes to try to coax my brain into grasping all those black-and-white formulas and processes. I remember that I was always relieved when math tests required us to show our work in the margins because even if I ended up with the wrong answer, I could get partial credit for understanding most of the process of how to get there.
When I became an actor, I applied similar study habits to the work of understanding a play and a role. I read other plays by the same author, researched the time period and setting of the play, and spent lots of time figuring out a likely history for my character that would inform why she behaved as she did in each scene. This was the work I was encouraged to do by teachers and that I understood every great actor did. There was discipline and study involved in bringing a role to life. Then in graduate school, during a scene I was doing, a teacher said to me, “Stop showing me your homework.” I looked at her blankly. She continued, “I know that you know every single thing going on in every dynamic happening in this play, but I don’t want to see that. I just want to see you responding to what’s happening right now.”
The diligent student in me couldn’t help responding, “But what’s the point of all the time I’ve spent and work I’ve done if you’re not supposed to see any of it?”
She replied patiently, to a class very much riveted by this question, “You do have to do the work. You have to know the details surrounding the world of the play so that you can fully inhabit it. You have to understand the inner life of your character and the past that has carried her here. You have to spend hours in rehearsal figuring out where on the stage you will be and what will happen between you and every other character to make the story best come to life. But the reason you do so much homework is so that when you walk on stage you can throw it all away. You can trust that work will be there so that you can simply be present to what’s happening in each moment.”
I could write pages on how and why this so very true for an actor but that’s not the point of this piece. The point is that as an executive coach and facilitator, I have found myself repeating the phrase “Do your homework and throw it away” at least a hundred times.
I often work with people preparing for interviews, panels, meetings, and presentations. They too are good students who do all their homework. They know the topic thoroughly, make extensive notes, carefully prepare thoughtful slides, and anticipate the kinds of questions that will be asked. As they begin to rehearse they almost always say something like, “I’m not sure how much to prepare because I want to be really confident about what I’m going to say but I want to come across as easy and natural, not overly rehearsed.” To which I reply, “That’s right, you want to do your homework and then be able to throw it away!” Which means getting enough clarity and comfort with your content that when you get into the room, you can be available to everything that’s happening there, not just yourself saying the right things.
If we show up thinking too much about our talking points, or hoping we convey something in a particular way, or needing our audience to see how hard we worked, then people feel our effort rather than our ease. We have to do enough homework that we can then let it go and show up with ease. In that ease, we are able to be flexible and we are able to read the room.
The ability to read the room is a key component of executive presence. People shine when they are in sync with their audience whether that audience is a few people or an auditorium full. The less you have to think about what you are going to say, the more you can settle in, deliver your message and be available to fill your audience’s needs. I often encounter a belief that people who have this kind of ease and presence don’t have to work as hard, they just have “that thing.” This may be true sometimes. But more often than not, they are people who are really good at doing the work without showing the work, so that it looks like all they had to do was show up. The truth is, you have to do a lot of homework to be able to just show up.
When preparing for interviews (whether you are the interviewer or the interviewee) or for meetings, you should most definitely have a clear agenda with specific questions and specific answers prepared that you’d like to get to. And you should also be prepared to throw them all away. If a productive line of questioning is going another way, you want to be able to go with it. If someone offers information or an idea that is gold, you need to be able to keep digging there even if your agenda has you going in another direction. Trusting yourself to deviate from the plan is easier if you’ve really done your homework. You know your objectives and your material well enough that it doesn’t matter how you get there. Especially when working with new colleagues or clients, we need to focus a good deal of attention on what is required to get ourselves into an effective dynamic or relationship with them. This requires that our attention be with them not locked onto our content. The more we have to be focused on what we are doing or saying, the less we can be present to adapting to what is happening in any given moment.
We have all seen examples of people who seem stiff or robotic with answers and explanations in meetings or when giving talks. We’ve seen people nervous about what they are asserting in front of a boss or client. We’ve seen people unable to participate if a discussion digresses from the intended topic or agenda. Of course there are multiple issues that can be playing out here. But one of them has to do with people’s relationship to their preparation, to hanging on too tightly to the homework.
One way to avoid getting too attached to homework or preparation is to do it in such a way that you don’t get overly tied to any one version of saying something. Know what you want to talk about and all the details you want to hit on, but practice saying it in multiple ways. Get the language and concepts in your mouth, but don’t prescribe for yourself something so specific that it will throw you if you don’t say it exactly that way. When I’m preparing for an interview or to speak in front of a room, I like to say various versions of what I’m going to talk about out loud in the car, in the shower, while doing my hair. I get familiar with the sound of my voice speaking about things without getting overly attached to any particular version. I practice in casual environments that help me feel loose and at ease with it. I also anticipate where there might be pushback or questions and speak through various ways of addressing those. Sometimes this part of the preparation gets used, often it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter, I’ve done the work and I show up more confident and open for having done it.
So, do your homework and then throw it away. Prepare, rehearse, know your stuff and then simply, and fully, show up. As I learned all those years ago in grad school, life isn’t math class. People don’t want to see your work in the margins, they don’t want to see your preparation. They want to experience it in the work, in your presence. Your homework will show up in your ability and freedom to be fully responsive to whatever the moment demands of you.