How Yin and Yang are Good for Business
As a former corporate gal and current actress, I get a real kick when these disparate worlds – business and performance - find common ground. It’s like a meeting of the minds, or within a single person, when the two hemispheres of the brain get together to see a pattern that escapes either side.
In Ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang is a concept of dualism, describing how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. - Wikipedia
It reminds me of the yin-yang symbol, which symbolizes the masculine and feminine aspects of our world. Each contains within it some essence of the other, which allows them to join and relate to one another. Nothing is pure logic or emotion, or even (as defined by yin-yang) entirely masculine or feminine. There is always a mix, a ratio of one to another within us, and therefore in the way we think, feel, live, and work.
I see my two worlds, business and performance as an example of this entangled relationship. If I were to simplify, which I am going to do for the sake of this discussion, business embodies the yin principle, characterized as female and sustaining and associated with the earth, hard, dark, and cold. Thought predominates in the business world. So does, some detractors would say, cold hard logic. It is practical and in many ways the bedrock of our modern Western culture. Business is trade, exchanging one commodity for another for the betterment of the business person or organization and, on a larger scale, society. A lot of thought goes into determining what the merchant or business has to offer, what is wanted or needed in return, and how to find a trading partner to make that happen. The development of products and services, planning how they will be marketed and distributed to buyers, and accounting for and analyzing these results at all layers of the organization – these are not accomplished on a wish and a prayer.
Film, TV, and voice acting, however, focus on affecting audiences emotionally. In performance, I recognize the active male yang principle, characterized as creativity and associated in Chinese philosophy with heaven, heat, and light. It’s energy that is alive and moving, always reacting to its surroundings and with all that it comes into contact. Actors are taught to respond viscerally to the story revealed in the script and to be “in the moment” as it’s played out with the other actors in the scene. Or, if they’re voice actors, in their imagination, when they’re alone behind a microphone in a booth. Actors capture and engage the attention of their audiences by creating worlds in which these scripted stories exist, ones that they and their audiences care about. We’re invited us in to vicariously experience these stories and relationships through them. Good stories well told generate an emotional response in us, as we identify with the characters, their problems, and how they go about resolving them. Even the driest medical narration full of pharmacological jargon stirs our feelings, as we personally relate to the problem and how we might be individually affected.
Like yin and yang, business and performance are not complete opposites. They contain elements of each other which, when used together, can be quite powerful. Yin and yang can turn into each other, such as wheat in the field (yang) being harvested and milled into flour (yin). Some of the best business communications are perceived as pure entertainment, while still carrying their essential sales pitch. Remember Coca-Cola’s “We’d like to teach the world to sing” melody that turned into a hit pop song in the 1970s? Maybe not, but perhaps you remember the polar bears loving their Cokes. Kids everywhere in the 1980s parroted the elderly woman demanding to know “Where’s the beef?!” on behalf of Wendy’s. And a generation earlier, kids challenged each other to discover how many licks it takes to finish a Tootsie Pop, while others in the 90s wanted their very own Energizer Bunny mechanical toy rabbit.
Similarly, many performance artists use their gifts to convey messages that they deem important to society. The purpose is to educate and widen the perspectives of their audiences through entertainment. It’s another form of a sales message, but with an inverse structure: the entertainment leads the charge, which some can enjoy just on a surface level, but there is a deeper, more meaningful purpose of thought that they want to leave their audiences pondering.
Yin-yang, thought-emotion … as human beings, we live constantly with many different thoughts and emotions, and our institutions reflect that. Businesses are started by people with a passion or a desire to accomplish something. And businesses require at least some level of creativity to thrive, even if it’s just to market itself. What is creativity but the child of thought and emotion, with a good dose of inspiration thrown in? Inspiration that comes from integrating these principles within us to live as whole, balanced, and well-functioning people. Inspiration that allows us to step out of our limited self-views and take a good look to understand other people and the world around us, and to allow our hearts and minds to ponder a greater reality and purpose. There is a reason that the heartless, soulless individual, corporation, or government has been a popular villain in entertainment for a long time. We recognize that as the antithesis of what we as human beings instinctively know to be wrong.
Performance, too, requires a modicum of thought. Certain questions need to be answered before the actor can begin his work: why did the writer create this story? What’s happening and why? What leads the characters from scene to scene and what obstacles are they trying to overcome to reach their objectives? Understanding the writer’s intent and bringing their essential selves to the roles lays the foundation for the performance. The actors’ interpretations and reactions to the events taking place stir the viewers’ emotions, but without thought and motivating reasons to anchor their feelings, the actors would be giving very superficial performances at best.
It all comes together in the sales and marketing process: business and performance merge to create a solid, appealing message. From the business’ perspective, the product or service was created because the market has a need, which the business seeks to satisfy. A pain point, which is suffered by a large enough market segment to justify the development of that product or service. And now that the business has the solution, it’s up to its marketers to educate potential buyers and convince them to adopt it. Sometimes, as Steve Jobs did with the Apple iPhone, the business seeks to prove to their potential customers that they have a need for something new and revolutionary - to solve a problem that they didn’t even know they had! (And he was very good at doing just that.)
Buyers are unlikely to be persuaded, or even interested, in a sales pitch that is purely dry and informative. It has to be personalized, striking an emotion that will generate a response. Sometimes that is a promise of happiness (food or entertainment) or relief from pain (medicine), a fear of missing out on something important (news or a competitive advantage) or risking harm without it (a security system), or – to strike at the heart of many - greater acceptance by others (stylish clothes, a new car, cosmetics, a cool toy).
And people love stories. We always have. Storytellers have been an integral part of our civilization before, well, there was any civilization. We learn from stories and respond to circumstances that we could very well imagine ourselves to be in. We use them to teach, to warn, and to share our experiences and history.
That is where performance comes in, to make personal the impersonal. Graphics, sound, music, the human voice and physical actions – together, they tell a story to alert potential buyers to the sales message, activating our senses and stirring up emotions that will (ideally) lead us to realize that the presented product or service solves one of our own, very real problem. Even if it’s not a problem we have, we generally sympathize with the problem that the people in the commercial are facing. And if the message fails to entertain us or touch our hearts, well, then the TV channel or radio station is changed, the mouse is clicked, and we move on.
The phrase “pain point” is right on. As human beings, we’re almost always feeling some sort of pain. Small or great. Physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Sometimes it’s a sense of emptiness or loss or just a feeling that we’re somehow missing out. As social creatures, we recognize pain in others and respond, most of us empathizing with them and wanting to help. Effective marketing strategies recognize this human dynamic and use it to show a solution to a common problem … or play to an underlying pain point and create one that can be immediately solved with their product. Similarly, artists use their mediums of video, audio, and the written word to explore flaws in the human condition, celebrate triumph over adversity, draw attention to injustices, and awaken us to a greater purpose in our lives.
Like the yin-yang symbol, thought and emotion are intertwined within us. Thought sparks ideas, ways of tackling problems, and planning our actions. Emotion spurs us to action, providing an array of feelings, memories, and sensory reactions that color and influence our motivations. And the most effective messages integrate thought and emotion to inspire a reaction. Thought to lay the groundwork and logical reason for accepting what’s presented. And emotion to give us a personal reason to agree and act upon it.
When I was in business, I worked on the intellectual side of the sales and marketing process: the selling points of my company’s products and services, the solution it provided, the benefits to the customer. Now that I’m an actress, my work on a commercial or video narration is to discover and share the emotional impetus of my client’s message. Two sides of the same coin, both an integral part of the overall story.
I appreciate my business background; it really helps me understand things from my client’s perspective. And I always enjoyed the presentational and educational portion of my corporate job; it allowed my inner actress to come out and play. So, I have to encourage people from both sides of the coin to occasionally flip their side over and take a look the other half. Not only may they find it interesting, but perhaps it can also help them come away with a better appreciation of how both business and creative folks can work together well to create the final product. It’s the yin-yang of the human experience. One that has a practical application for those producing commercials, videos, and other media to promote a business: crafting highly effective messages that generate more sales and a better bottom line for everyone.