My first acting experience has given me a profound appreciation for how we build reputation (or “personal brand,” to use the 21st century parlance). I just finished my first weekend as part of the ensemble for Evil Dead: The Musical. I play a dancing tree, a headless corpse, a ghost, and a singing zombie. As you can imagine, I draw on significant real-life experience in bringing each of my characters to life (though technically, only the tree is living).
What’s made a huge impression is realizing how little the audience evers see of the actors. When I watch movies, plays, or TV, I leave with a feeling of connection with the characters, and by extension, the actors. While I intellectually know it’s nonsense, being in the play really drives the point home. What the actors bring to the experience is the authenticity of their emotions and emotional choices, but everything that knits those choices into a story—the dialog, the plot, the lights, the band, the sets—is staged and as close to identical as possible night after night. Almost none of it comes from the actors.
Shakespeare was Right—All the World’s a Stage
Then I realized that much of how we show up in the world is the same. No one we interact with gets the experience of us. They get the sum of their glimpses into us. But we expect them to behave as if they know us and our intentions.
Our reputation with any given person is the sum of the glimpses that person has had of us. If we had to reschedule a meeting twice with a prospect due to genuine emergencies, their experience of us is that we don’t make it to meetings on time. If we show up to a meeting with disheveled hair and bloodshot eyes, that’s the impression they have of us. Never mind that we were in a car accident the previous day and are still a bit vague from the drugs… they build an impression anyway.
This works for “good” reputations, too. Every time you put on a suit and go out to a business event where you nod, smile, and talk about the things that are “acceptable” in that context, you’re presenting a small slice of yourself. Never mind that you play in a rock band on weekends and have a complete reproduction of the Mona Lisa tattooed underneath that dress shirt… people at work build your reputation from the little building blocks you give them, that were carefully scripted by the current business culture.
The Scripts We Choose Determine the Impressions We Give
People only experience you through the glimpses you give them. What do you show the people around you? Do you let your idea of “expected” behavior be your script? When I was bitten by the theater bug last year, I mentioned it to my friend of 10 years, Steve. Steve’s a sales manager. After our conversation, he revealed he’s a sales manager whose degrees are in stage managing and directing. He directs 4-8 shows a year. He’d mentioned he did high school drama once or twice, but I figured he did it as a volunteer parent. He’d never shown me anything that suggested it was such a big part of his life. He was acting the script of the good, conservative businessman.
My friend Paul is at every networking event in Boston, handing out his card, flitting from person to person. Is it any surprise people know him as a major networker. Yet all he ever talks about is business, so his reputation is purely professional. People don’t feel like they know him, but they do know to call him when they need an introduction. He’s a whole person, but he’s living the high-powered, type-A networker script.
My script is a bit less mainstream. I talk about Evil Dead: The Musical and zombies. I write and produce a funny podcast on personal productivity, and do my best to find excuses to dress in jeans and T-shirts and wear colorful sneakers. That’s one glimpse into me. I also write about leadership, business strategy, entrepreneurship, and psychology. That’s another glimpse. Depending on where you get exposed to me, you’ll walk away with profoundly different impressions. People who love one of those characters may or may not relate to the other. Yet they’re both me.
Who Writes Your Script?
How do you show up? Be careful with your answer. Don’t consider how you want to show up, consider how you actually do show up: your appearance, the things you talk about, how you treat people. Are you brusque? Courteous? Fawning? Assertive? Tentative? Caring? Guarded? Open? Friendly? If you say things like, “people will just have to learn to deal with the fact that I don’t mince words,” have you ever really thought how you’re coming across when you don’t mince words? Have you considered the reputation that builds? Is it the reputation you want. The way you build reputation is by showing up more and more as the reputation you want to build. All the world’s a stage, we’re just actors, and you can let everyone around you write your script, or you can write your own. Your choice.
Stever in Corporate Mode