Lower Back Pain: My Experience with Network Spinal Analysis

December 23rd, 2013

Breathing Exercises: Breathing Relaxation Techniques

November 20th, 2013

SMART PRACTICE: Strategies for Effective Practice

February 27th, 2013

Here are some things I’ve learned that can make or break your practice efforts.

There’s No “Right” Place to Breathe!

April 15th, 2012

“Breathe in the right place.”
“Breathe where it makes sense.”
“Breathe only at the punctuation.”

These precious gems of grade school wisdom are huge hidden traps for anyone learning to breathe well, as a speaker.

Your voice is a wind instrument. It requires generous amounts of breath to work optimally. If there’s inadequate breath in the system, everything suffers, and I mean everything. If there’s no breath to flow the sound out of your body, your only choice is to start squeezing sound from your body. You don’t feel good, you don’t sound good and you have no impact on your listeners.

The only “right” time to breathe is when you need to breathe. I don’t care whether you’re at the end of a sentence, the end of a phrase, or even in the middle of a phrase. The instant you feel that “I need a breath” feeling, you pause, allow a new breath into your body, and then resume speaking. Your need to breathe always takes precedence over the demands of the text.

That’s the difficult part for a beginner: letting go of those ingrained rules long enough to explore and master the universal principles governing voice and speech. When you’re too busy obeying the rules and “doing it right,” you can’t give yourself room to experiment and learn something truly new.

If you give yourself time and space to master the technique (connecting deep breath to sound), the application (speaking and phrasing) will emerge naturally, effortlessly and authentically.

So, long before you worry about whether you’re breathing in the right place, you should learn to

  • breathe deeply
  • release breath easily
  • experience sound  as vibrating breath
  • release sound easily and generously
  • feel words and phrases as sound vibration
  • honor the rhythm of breathing and speaking

When those skills feel natural, you can begin to explore the connection between breathing, speaking and the demands of the text. But you’ll come at it with radically different priorities, and you’ll find there’s a lot more flexibility in that relationship than most people realize.

A rule says, “You must do it this way.” A principle says, “This works… and has through all remembered time.” The difference is crucial… Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form. —Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

That’s not just true for writing, it’s true for breathing and speaking, too.

Back away from the need to produce the “right” result. Practice is not performing. Learning is not about getting it right. Spend time experimenting and cultivating crucial skills. When you command your own breath, you control your own process. You perform the task of speaking and presenting with a sense of confidence and ease. You’re in charge.

FREEDOM VS FORMULISM: From Mechanical to Mastery

December 2nd, 2011

I’m starting to realize there’s a pattern to the majority of questions people ask about public speaking and presentation. We’re looking for simple solutions to complicated issues.

That’s a problem. Communication is complex. After all, it’s about human interaction. And we all have enough experience to know that anything related to humans takes complication to a whole new level!

But humans also prefer certainty and simplicity. We don’t like things to be complex and iffy. So we constantly come up with rules, manuals and prescriptions to guide us through the chaos. We look for for tips and tricks that are guaranteed to work in every situation.

But rules never cover every possibility. So we make more. Pretty soon, the rules just add to the confusion and complexity.

Formulism is defined as a strict adherence to prescribed forms. It shows up in art, religion, ethics—even in math. And maybe it’s okay, even necessary, for beginners. The trouble is, prescription creates rigidity. We get up tight trying to remember and obey all the rules. We become disconnected, focused on doing it right, rather than being present to what’s actually happening. In this respect, formulism stifles peak performance rather than promoting it.

Can you see how this relates to presentation and public speaking?

The antidote is Freedom. We must accept that communication is complex and the outcomes uncertain. It’s not for dabblers and slackers. We must work to develop concrete skills rather than manufacturing end results. Instead of making up rules for eye contact, we should be cultivating our ability to be engaged, open and connected to our listeners.

Bringing crucial skills to the interaction, trusting we have what it takes and allowing ourselves to be aware and present, we can apply our skills in unique ways that are highly relevant to the situation. That’s true expertise.

When we commit to the way of freedom, in communication, we discover a sense of confidence and serenity. We’re not trying to be perfect, but effective. We become present for our listeners, projecting a sense of, “I get you.” We bring enhanced creativity and spontaneity to the situation. And we communicate with greater relevance and ultimately more impact.

BE THE CHANGE: Embodying Skills

September 6th, 2011

During my holiday, I tried to finish a book that’s been on my shelf for some time, The Anatomy of Change, by Richard Strozzi Heckler. This is one of those books that contains really great insights and resonates so well with the concepts I teach, but sadly I can’t recommend it because it’s so difficult to read. (Kristen Linklater‘s Freeing the Natural Voice is another one in that category.) Now, I’m no book critic, but when a smart guy who likes to read, and loves to learn, struggles to get to the next page, something tells me it’s the writing.

Now that I got that off my chest, I’ll share one quote from the book that keeps resurfacing for me in the middle of lessons.

“At the time of the race, the runner must let go of the [training] and concentrate fully on the race. He must be in union with the things he has practiced, because he is no longer practicing. He now needs to be those things.”

I love this concept, and of course it’s true for any kind of performance, including public speaking and presentation. It’s not enough to know what you’re supposed to do. It has to be in you at that point, part of your being. Yes, “conscious competence” is one stage of learning, and there’s nothing wrong with being at that stage. But it’s not the end of the road. You aspire to “unconscious competence”. When you’re at the front of the room, and all eyes are on you, it’s too late to be thinking about grounding, breathing and resonance. You have to be grounded, breathing and resonant.

How do you embody skills?

  • Practice. Time and repetition help to change muscle memories.
  • Feel what you’re doing. Don’t just think about it.
  • Go slowly. Give your body a chance to absorb what’s happening.
  • Focus. Pay attention to one thing at a time.
  • Enjoy it. If it feels good, you’re more likely to retain it and return to it.
When I’m in the middle of a breathing lesson, and my client asks, “Do you breathe like this all the time,” I can only smile and say, “When I’m thinking about it, yes. When I’m not thinking about it, I hope so.” Embodying skills is the journey of a lifetime.

BEING PRESENT: Noticing the Details

July 27th, 2011

I was in the middle of a training session the other day, introducing an exercise I’ve been through hundreds—maybe thousands of times. Sometimes in those moments, I must confess, there’s a part of me that whispers, “Oh my God, gimme a frying pan. I wanna smack myself on the head, right now.” It’s so tempting to shift into AutoPilot and go through the motions.

Of course, the professional side of me whispers back, “Get a grip! This isn’t about you. This is about your client. It’s completely new for them. And besides, they’re paying for your undivided attention.” Oh, right…

You know what I do in those moments? I focus on the details. I raise the bar on my own performance. As I’m speaking, I ask myself, “Is every vowel sound vibrating fully? Is every consonant sound articulated cleanly? Is every word spoken with openness and connection? Am I practicing whatever technique I’m preaching at this very moment?”

Then something interesting happens. I get present. I get out of my head and into the room. I’m truly with my client again, fully available. Not because of the self-talk. Certainly not because of my discipline. Just because I focused on the details. Paying attention to details heightens my awareness, sharpens my focus and restores my capacity to be attentive to the person in front of me.

I realize I’m essentially talking about my own experience of mindfulness in the context of my work. Mark Williams (The Mindful Way Through Depression) writes that “slowing things down and deliberately paying attention to each aspect of our sensory experience can reveal things that we may have never noticed before.” That’s important for anyone who wants to experience life more fully. It’s even more important for those of us who aspire to any level of excellence and expertise in our work.

PRACTICE: Getting the Feel of It

July 25th, 2011

I normally won’t touch the term “projection” with a ten-foot pole, since, for most people, it implies working harder and pushing one’s voice to the back of the room. But I do teach Kristin Linklater’s concept of “sound forward”—at least, I think it originates with her—this idea that every last vibration of sound is moving forward, flowing away from the speaker.

But that’s not what this post is about.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when we get to “sound forward” exercises, clients start to get uptight and over-think the process. They start to hesitate, make more mistakes and apologize, saying, “I’ve got too many things to think about.”

And that is the problem: trying to mentally control what’s happening. Once we reach a certain level of complication (and believe me, speaking and presenting can get very complicated) our brain starts dropping balls, as it were. A juggler knows they can’t think about the steps. That would be disaster. They must know how it feels.

When we become preoccupied with the result, “getting it right,” we start thinking about what we’re doing. By thinking, we become less attentive to sensations. So when we focus on getting the “right” result, we forfeit the pleasure of the action. We become tense. We lose our flow. We become frustrated. We actually trigger an avoidance response to the task. We’re fighting a battle instead of enjoying a discovery.

If we can put aside our need to “get it right,” and immerse ourselves in the sensations connected to an exercise, it becomes pleasurable, a feel-good activity. That creates a powerful learning experience. In no time, our bodies absorb and memorize that feeling. We want more of it. We’re able to repeat it again and again, easily and with joy.

When we know and enjoy how it feels, the desired result becomes effortless and authentic.

Quality feels good

March 30th, 2011

Several days ago, I had the privilege of viewing, Between the Folds, a documentary about the art of origami. If you thought origami was about peace cranes and paper frogs, think again. The state of the art, today, is mind boggling! The level of technical complexity and depth of soul in the work must be seen to be believed.

Paul Jackson, a well-known origami artist working in Israel, observed, “The process of making is the point of it. The object looks good if the process felt good. This needs to be a kind of ballet.”

When he said that, I thought, “Oh, that’s so true of public speaking.” When we approach presentation as content and delivery, words that need to be spoken to listeners, delivery techniques that have to be flawless, it never feels good. So the speech doesn’t look good, sound good or engage listeners.

Great speakers love the process of communicating. They’re working from their center, flowing with their passion, living what they’re saying. It’s a feel-good experience. Then the magic happens. We take their experience and turn it into our experience. We feel what they’re feeling. From a public speaking standpoint, they might make every mistake in the book, and we won’t care. Because they’ve gone beyond words and presentation techniques. They’ve started a conversation, formed a relationship and enabled us to feel something new.

SMART PRACTICE: Moving from Mundane to Mastery

November 17th, 2010

Are you wasting your practice time? Everyone knows practice is a critical component of skill-building and behavioral change, and author Malcome Gladwell has popularized the fact that we need at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery in any area. But there’s a catch: it has to be smart practice. Skating around an ice rink for thousands of hours won’t make you a champion figure skater. Since, it’s hard to make time for practice, how can you be sure you’re using that precious time most effectively?

Pay attention. Mindless repetition doesn’t deliver results. In his wonderful book, The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge asserts that paying close attention is essential to long-term change. Learning with divided attention doesn’t lead to lasting change in your brain maps. It’s not just repetition that leads to improvement; your ability to notice what’s happening while you’re performing the task enables you to recognize obstacles and reinforce gains. Stop daydreaming, get focused, and notice what’s happening.

Be curious. Expecting immediate results puts you in the wrong frame of mind for effective practice. It’s tempting to treat an exercise like a vending machine: you do the exercise and you get a result. It’s common to hear someone say, “That exercise didn’t do much for me.” As if it’s the fault of the exercise… In reality, an exercise is more like an experiment: it’s a chance to observe and learn something, and there’s no way to predict what that might be. Get curious. Give yourself permission to explore. The discoveries you make will open doors for real change.

Be patient with yourself. Focusing on “doing it right” is a distraction and a recipe for frustration. When your attention shifts from “what am I observing” to “am I doing it right” you are no longer learning. Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “You become discouraged with your practice when your practice has been idealistic. Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this, we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.” Give yourself permission to fail, because failure reveals what you need to learn. It’s a guide, not proof that you can’t succeed.

Focus. Trying to practice everything will prevent you from perfecting anything. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 1,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 1,000 times.” Focus on one thing at a time. Don’t worry about the other mistakes that may be happening. Good practice requires that you allow one thing to fall apart while you focus on another. Trust the process. Know what specific skill you’re practicing. Give it your full attention. Spend time absorbing one thing, and it will most likely be waiting for you when you revisit it.

Top performance does not stem from innate talent or genetic advantages. It comes from diligent practice of clearly, carefully defined skills. Making your practice hours count requires focus, patience, curiosity, and attentiveness. The ability to practice effectively will impact every aspect of your life, personally and professionally. It will ultimately distinguish you from your peers and put you at the top of your game.