The title of this TED talk is “How to win an argument (at the United States Supreme Court, or anywhere”- a TED talk by Neal Katyal, former Solicitor General of the United States.
A parent of one of our students shared this video with us in part because of Katyal’s describing his transformative experience working with an acting coach.
Katyal begins his TED talk by recounting his experience representing Osama Bin Laden’s driver in a case before the United States Supreme Court.
And how he ultimately won the case.
So how does any of this relate to acting?
Before winning the case, Katyal was struggling mightily while rehearsing his argument for the Supreme Court.
In some level of desperation, he engaged with an acting coach who helped him communicate what he was trying to express.
This led to a revelation for Katyal which will likely resonate with many actors.
“The conventional wisdom is you speak with confidence.
That’s how you persuade.
I think that’s wrong.
I think confidence is the enemy of persuasion.
Persuasion is about empathy, about getting into people’s heads.”
One of the big misconceptions about acting is that it’s a domain primarily made up of confident, extroverted people.
Who else, but an extroverted person, would want to stand on a stage in front of thousands?
Many parents find it utterly bizarre when their typically shy child broaches the idea of acting classes with them.
Why would their shy child want to be in acting class?
But one of the main appeals of an acting class is not just in performing in front of others, but becoming other people… In another sense, “getting into people’s heads”
So much of what a great actor possesses is the ability to astutely observe the world around them, and emotionally relate to the experiences of others.
And shy young people are oftentimes particularly keen observers of what’s going on around them, and in the body language, mannerisms, and behavior of people.The young artist may become flooded with a tremendous amount of thoughts and feelings which can turn inward.
Storytelling and acting is a means to help this young artist fully express all that is contained within them.
A great movie, television, or play is when we actually care about the characters and their story.
This requires us to be able to empathize with the characters and their struggles despite being so vastly different than our own everyday experiences. Empathy is important to both the audience and the artist.
For example, the film “ET” can bring us to tears despite a (hopeful) understanding that this entire story is completely made up. Over the course of two hours we grow to care deeply about an imaginary friendship between a boy and his alien friend.
While we have (hopefully) never called an alien a friend, we understand deeply the bond Elliot has with ET, and the massive emotional impact it can have to lose someone you love.
In short, we can empathize with Elliot.
Of course, this is aided by a film having special effects, costumes, lighting, dramatic underscoring, and so much more.
At first, all an actor has is a script they take into an oftentimes nondescript audition room.
The actor’s challenge is to somehow empathize with a character’s story that only exists on paper.
If the actor is successful, they can ultimately take an audience on an emotional journey despite how seemingly unbelievable the story appears on face value.
This challenge requires an enormous amount of empathy.
And an individual can be enormously confident without having any sense of empathy or imagination.
These qualities are fundamental to a great actor.
An actor’s confidence comes from believing in the emotional stakes of the character and story they are inhabiting. It’s about “getting into people’s heads”, and making them feel something.
We can be persuaded to cry over an alien and a little kid flying in a bicycle if the story has enough emotional empathy.
In this TED talk, Neal Katyal explains how much he was struggling when rehearsing an argument for the Supreme Court.
In desperation he reaches out to an acting coach.
The acting coach does not teach Neal Katyal how to speak with more confidence.
But instead engages Katyal in exercises that focus on empathy and genuine connection with the people you are speaking to.
Katyal is working on empathy with the acting coach.
Or, in another way he describes it, “getting into people’s heads”.
This is what he believes makes for a successful argument.
And it’s also what makes for a successful performance.
When a story gets into our head and heart, it has succeeded.
Acting is all about getting into people’s heads and hearts.
In short, it’s about empathy.
And this can help you on a stage, film studio, or apparently even the Supreme Court.