STAGE FRIGHT: A Colleague Weighs In

August 3rd, 2011

I met Lizabeth Phelps at a seminar, recently, and immediately sensed a congruence in perspective. Here are some of her thoughts regarding stage fright. Points 3 and 4 would appear on any list I might have written. Have a look, and then read the follow-up post that expands on her main points.

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.

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Doing What Is Commonplace

June 8th, 2011

I spent the weekend reading Steven Pressfield’s novel, Gates of Fire, and I can’t stop thinking about one line from the book.

“The supreme accomplishment of the warrior [is to] perform the commonplace under far-from-commonplace conditions.”

Isn’t presenting and public speaking very much like that? In one sense, it’s just a conversation. After all, you talk all the time. You interact. You strive to influence, persuade and entertain others, every day of your life. Commonplace.

But doing that when the pressure’s on—in an interview, in the boardroom, in front of the cameras—that’s far from commonplace.

I’ve always said that effective communication is about making a connection. And making a connection challenges you to be fully available. To do that, you have to be open. Sounds simple. But you soon discover it takes practice to stay open. It takes practice to stay open when you’re under pressure, when you have to perform, when the team is counting on you. In those situations, everything conspires to close you down.

In Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says, “So to find your own way under some restriction is the way of practice. When the restrictions you have do not limit you, this is what we mean by practice.”

All those weird exercises we do in public speaking training have one objective: reinforcing your ability to stay open, even under restriction, even with distractions, even when things get complicated. You’re developing the ability to perform the commonplace under far-from-commonplace conditions.

HEART AT PEACE: Seeing The Humanity In Your Listeners

May 5th, 2011

Recently, I revisited an audio book, The Anatomy of Peace, by The Arbinger Institute, well-known for their previous book, Leadership and Self-Deception. The authors maintain that our way of being is even more important than our words and actions. If our heart is “at war,” than we see others as objects, obstacles or vehicles for getting what we want. Saying and doing “the right thing” is hollow and meaningless when our heart is “at war.” When our heart is “at peace,” we see others as unique human beings. We say and do the right thing from a place of sincerity and care.

I couldn’t help but think about how this plays out in presentation and public speaking. When our own heart is not at peace, we treat our listeners as objects, a collection of faces. Then any number of common problems arise.

  • The experience becomes all about us, instead of creating an experience for our listeners.
  • The presentation becomes all about getting through the content, instead of making sure our listeners understand.
  • We become fearful and defensive, instead of being fully engaged and making ourselves fully available.
  • We become pushy and competitive, instead of being flexible and cooperative.

 

I know I’m constantly preaching that cultivating the optimal physical state of being will encourage the optimal vocal, mental and emotional state of being. But—heart at peace—I’m not sure I know how to get there… I’m sure a peaceful physical state will get us moving in the right direction, but will it get right into the center of our being, where it can change how we view our listeners, how we feel about them? I know it’s crucial, but I don’t feel I have the answer to that, yet…

FEAR IS EXCITEMENT WITHOUT THE BREATH: Guest Post by Peter Loffredo

April 10th, 2011

I’ve always loved the quote that starts this post, and feel it’s particularly relevant for speakers.

Peter Loffredo, of Full Permission Living, has kindly allowed me to reprint his insights on the topic.
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“FEAR IS EXCITEMENT WITHOUT THE BREATH!!”
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That quote was from Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy. 

And it’s a beauty!

So, what does it mean?

Well, when explaining this to patients, I’ll usually start by describing what happens in the body when we are excited or exhilarated: adrenalin starts pumping. This serves to focus your attention on the pleasurable circumstance by heightening the senses, encouraging your body and mind to continue moving towards the pleasure. Cool, right?

Yes, but… fear also causes adrenaline to be secreted, so that in situations of actual danger, your senses will be on high alert, enabling you to quickly engage in a fight or flight response. Unfortunately, because of early life experiences and associations, we can mistakenly react to pleasure as if it were something frightening. This is so embedded in us that is almost at the level of a reflex, and therefore, almost impossible to control.

Almost.

There is one action that can decrease the fear reaction in the body, and it sounds so simple or cliche as to almost be unbelievable – breathe. Yep. A few deep breaths can reduce the fear state and actually bring you back to the pleasurable feelings.

Here’s Gay Hendricks from his book, THE BIG LEAP, a good read for every advanced student of happiness:

“When scared, most of us have a tendency to try to get rid of the feeling. We think we can get rid of it by denying or ignoring it, and we use holding our breath as a physical tool of denial. It never works, though, because the less breath you feed your fear, the bigger your fear gets.”

I believe that the breathing works because adrenaline needs to be used quickly and discharged through action, and if you actually don’t have to discharge the energy by fighting or running away, you can discharge the excess hormonal energy through deep breathing. In other words, breathing through your fear is meant to be taken literally as an antidote to fear, and a way to get back to pleasure.

Peter Loffredo, Full Permission Living, <http://fullpermissionliving.blogspot.com/>

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.

SEATING ARRANGEMENTS: Presenting from a Chair

March 21st, 2011

Do you spend much of your working day in a chair? Is most of your presenting done while sitting at a table? If you’re not aware of what you’re doing, this can be a real trap. When you sit down, your energy tends to sit down, as well. It’s so easy to relax back and allow the chair to support you. Your body collapses, your breath is restricted, your voice doesn’t engage fully and you fail to make an impression in the room. How can you make sure you’re cultivating a strong presence and maximizing the impact of your performance, even when you’re seated? The essential principles for success are the same as for standing speech.

Grounding. When speaking from a chair, you still want both feet flat on the ground, but now, you have “a second pair of feet,” your sit-bones. (You can feel those bones under your bottom when you’re sitting erect on a very hard surface.) Your sit-bones become a second point of connection to the ground. If you’re on your sit-bones, your body naturally aligns and supports itself. Sit on the front edge of the chair. Allow yourself to fall back onto your tailbone. Notice what happens to your alignment. Now come back onto your sit-bones and appreciate how the rest of your body aligns. You don’t need to be rigid. There’s no need to look like stiff. But you do want to be in charge of your own support, not collapsing into the back of the chair.

Breathing. When your body is relaxed and aligned, you can still breathe deeply, even when seated. (In fact, some people find it easier to feel their breath in a seated position, than when they’re standing.) Keep your belly relaxed as you inhale through your mouth. Avoid lifting your chest. Feel the in-breath expanding your entire waistline. You can even imagine your in-breath flowing down and filling the seat of your chair. Now, fall back onto your tailbone. Notice how the area under your sternum tends to collapse. Come back onto your sit-bones. Feel how the belly area becomes open to the in-breath. Even when seated, you have access to the same breath power that’s available when you’re standing.

Resonance. When your body is grounded, relaxed and expansive, and when you’re breathing deeply, you have all the basic ingredients for cultivating sound vibrations. Look for torso vibrations (chest, sides and back) and skull vibrations. Allow your body to collapse backward into the chair. Notice how sound vibrations feel muffled. It’s like laying a bell on its side. Come back onto your sit-bones. Feel how every surface of your body is now free to transmit sound vibrations, like a bell suspended from its center. When your whole body vibrates with the sound of your voice, you’ll be speaking with real impact.

Of course, you don’t want to be conspicuous and look like an over-eager student when the rest of your colleagues are relaxing back in their chairs with their legs crossed. But when you have the floor, there’s no reason you can’t come forward in your chair, feel the ground under you, sit up to your full height, breathe deeply and speak with your whole body. You’ll feel strong, look confident, speak with authority, and make a real impression.

INVEST: Putting Yourself in the Game

February 22nd, 2011

A long time ago, I attended the end-of-term evaluation for a singing class. Each member of the class was required to perform one song they had prepared during the previous weeks. Out of the whole group, one singer was memorable. Not because of the song she chose or the interpretation she brought to the piece; we’d seen her do it all before—maybe too often. She stood out because she got up there and threw herself into the performance, almost literally. For a couple of minutes, she pulled out all the stops. The other performers sang all the words and hit all the notes, and I don’t remember them. She took a risk, put something out there and made an unforgettable impression.

As a speaker, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming it’s all about the words. Your voice gets quiet. Your gestures get smaller or disappear, and your face becomes expressionless. You pull back. You dial down the energy. You stop putting anything forward. Then, your listeners become unresponsive because you’re not giving them anything—and that makes you feel bad. You disappoint yourself. You feel weak. Instead, you should be coming out to play.

Your goal as a speaker is to make a connection, and that challenges you to be fully available to your listeners. So turn it up a notch. Give 110%. Throw yourself into the speech. Remember why you need to communicate your message. Reignite your passion and invest yourself more intensely in the delivery.

When you’re completely invested in the delivery of your message, you reinforce yourself. It’s invigorating. You feel strong. So take a chance. Look’em in the eye. Let your voice fill the room. Allow your gestures to take up more space. And remember this: an imperfect speech, delivered with passion, will always trump a polished but lifeless performance.

FOCUS: Knowing the Real Task

February 14th, 2011

I had a potential client, last week, whose primary concern was dealing with the nervousness undermining her credibility and impact in meetings. She discovered voice training has the unexpected benefit of giving her a constructive focus, an alternative to focusing on how miserable she felt.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the presentation is about you. Yes, you may be at the front of the room. You may be the only one speaking. You may indeed be the center of attention, but ultimately it’s not about you. It’s about your audience. They have to get the message, or the whole exercise is a waste of time. Acute nervousness is a sign you’re focused on the wrong thing, yourself, instead of getting your message to those listeners. The more you focus on your discomfort, the less attention you have to devote to your listeners. If you become preoccupied with your nervousness, you become disconnected from the conversation. That will begin a downward spiral of self-consciousness that really could cripple your speech.

In addition, when you notice symptoms of nervousness, it’s easy to feel you’re doing a bad job. That’s a trap. A pounding heart is just a pounding heart. Shaky knees are just shaky knees. Not a sign from the gods that you’re going to fail. Let the symptoms of nervousness, your pounding heart, your shaky knees, remind you that you have an important job to do: get this message to those people. Your audience needs you. Cultivate the ability to care for your listeners and maintain a fierce focus on your task as the messenger. Nervousness and anxiety will fade into the background and perhaps disappear altogether.

THE POWER OF PREPARATION

January 3rd, 2011

TED curator, Chris Anderson, has a fascinating article in the January 2011 issue of WIRED magazine, entitled “Film School,” where he discusses how online video is encouraging powerful “crowd accelerated innovation.” His second example reinforces a point that is very relevant for speakers.

“When we decided to post TED talks free on the web four years ago, something unexpected happened: Speaker behavior changed. Specifically, they started spending more time preparing for the talks. The slots were 18 minutes long, but in many cases the speakers had crammed weeks or even months of preparation into those 18 minutes.

“For example, Jill Bolte Taylor, whose memorable talk describing her own stroke has attracted more than 7 million views, told me that she wrote the talk over several months and then spent an entire month rehearsing it. It showed. Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight

“Indeed, the quality of talks across the board (as measured by audience rankings) was rising. It seemed that posting the talks online had done two things: It gave speakers a library of examples of what constituted a great talk. And it gave them more reason to shine.

“This was empowerment plus motivation, a significant one-two. And as speakers continued to innovate and improve, they attracted larger audiences, raising the bar each year (but also adding to the toolkit available to the following year’s speakers.”

Granted, Anderson’s point is not about the importance of preparation, but the example reinforces a crucial truth. It takes a lot of work to make something look easy. Not everyone cares enough to make that investment. And not everyone knows how to prepare well. But every great speech starts with great preparation.

“If you are an artist who loves excellence and integrity…. Go the extra mile. It’s a lot of work, and no one holds a gun to your head to do it. But why deliberately aim at mediocrity by saving effort, by being “efficient?” —David Ball, Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays