Planning to Act

December 11th, 2013

I love to understand people and discover why they do what they do, this is one of the reasons why I became a planner.

This is also the reason I started to learn acting 12 months ago. It begun with weekly evening courses in Amsterdam, and then spending all my holidays in workshops around Europe learning different techniques from Suzuki to Meisner. And most recently working on projects with some bad-ass actors and directors. I’ve just got back from a 2 month sabbatical, performing in a theatre production at the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

I’ve been pondering on why I was drawn to acting and planning, and after resisting connecting the dots between the two (mainly because I enjoyed keeping them separate) I realised it’s actually for the same reasons, as good ol’ Meryl puts it:

I’m curious about other people. That’s the essence of my acting. I’m interested in what it would be like to be you.

– Meryl Streep

I could replace the word “acting” with “planning”, and it would still stand true for me.

Acting has changed me and it has effected my planning. I think acting sharpens your emotional intelligence and empathy through listening, not just hearing. It forces you to look at life through another person’s eyes. I’m naturally a very empathetic person, especially when I was younger I would really concentrate hard on imagining what it would be like to someone else, whether it was a stranger on the street, an African tribe I saw on a BBC documentary, a musician at a gig, a celebrity in a magazine, a footballer at a match…you name it. And naturally, this is also what I’m encouraged to do every day when planning.

This parallel between acting and planning struck me first when I was in a workshop with coach/actor/director Wolfgang Wimmer when he explained that good acting involves the skill of being in touch with not only yourself but also other people, often the characters you’re playing with – it’s learning empathy. This immediately echoed the view of Rob Campbell who I remembered mentioning in an interview the role of empathy in planning:

“We are an industry about human beings, not robots – that’s why empathy is way more important than anything else”

Rob Campbell

Since learning the skills of acting, i’ve realized how important it is to have a much more empathetic view of the “customer”, and this is done through the skill of listening. In acting we are taught to really listen to the other actors, the same way a good planner can really listen to customers, whether that’s observing in every day life, a test group, a research paper or sieving through desk research.  When I’m truly listening on projects for Pampers it means I’m understanding a pregnant woman or new moms life better, in a much more empathetic way than ever before. Coincidently, I did recently play in a theatre production alongside a character who was pregnant, who actually goes into labor on stage, an experience I have not had in real life, but did cross over into my planning. As Michael Shurtleff says:

“(On one of the main skills of acting) Listening is not merely hearing. Listening is reacting. Listening is being affected by what you hear. Listening is active.”

– Michael Shurtleff

Empathy and listening are two skills I now feel are tightening up, and at the end of the day, the reason for acting and the reason for planning is to deserve the right to win an audience. My new mantra is:

 “Both acting and planning are about deserving the right to win an audience.”

The near future for me is now about focusing on crafting the skills and art of planning and acting. That’s what I’m passionate about, and as Martin Weigel says:

 “The notion of technique and craft might seem unimaginative. But the fact of the matter is that at the heart of the planning discipline lies a set of craft skills. These skills allow it to inform the creative process with an understanding of the real world in which communications is to appear”.

Martin Weigel

I also believe in Heidi Hackemer’s philosophy on being a better planner, and I’m following suit:

“I think that planners can get too mucked up in the bubble of our world and that it’s imperative that we push ourselves out of the institution of advertising. My current solve for this dilemma is that I split my time: half of the year I’m driving around the country in my F150, half of the year I’m rocking the boardrooms.”

Heidi Hackermer


Matthew is a Strategist at Nomads in Amsterdam, a new creative innovation agency. Keep up with Matthew on Twitter @mattbryancarney and here.


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