If public speaking is a kind of performance,…

…then I guess it makes sense to get some training from professional performers.

I’m back in Washington D.C. for long-term training. Language training starts in September, but there is a lot to learn before that. I will do a yearlong rotation as an “information officer” for post. This will be a new job for me, so I have to receive all the standard training for “public diplomacy” officers.

The highlight of the first class, that just finished yesterday, was two days of off-site training at a theater. A team of professional actors and directors taught us about using our voices effectively, and how our physical posture affects our vocal delivery. This is important for people who will represent our country to understand. We got to practice giving a speech, and received feedback. The feedback was theater-style feedback, not federal government-style feedback. In training sessions that I’m used to attending, feedback is pretty straightforward. It’s almost an afterthought, and it typically isn’t particularly helpful. You get some written or spoken comments on your performance, and then we all move on to the next person.

The culture of theater is different. The purpose of feedback from the director is to change the actor’s performance, immediately. After delivering the feedback, the director wants to see change, now. So at the theater, when it was my turn, I gave my speech. I got my feedback from the director, then I nodded, and got ready to sit down. Wrong. The director wasn’t done with me. Instead of moving on to the next person, the director sat down, and loudly proclaimed: “let’ go again!,” meaning I was to start the speech again. I tried again, doing it the director’s way this time. When I messed up (again), he interrupted me and made me start over (again). It was an experience familiar to anyone who has acted on stage before, but it was very different from how we do things in the State Department. That training style was a departure from business as usual, but that’s not bad. It was a positive learning experience.

My training experiences in this job so far have been positive.  The State Department differs from academia in one striking way: the Department is willing to bring in outside experts to provide training. It’s expensive, which may be a reason why I didn’t experience it as much during my academic career. But we get to learn from experts, and it’s very beneficial. I’ve heard that the training culture in the Department improved when Colin Powell was Secretary of State. I’ve benefited from the effort to improve and increased training that is required of Foreign Service Officers.

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