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.

THAT BODY-VOICE CONNECTION: Finding the Magic

September 19th, 2011

Well, it happened again, this morning. I was in the middle of a consultation, comparing someone’s before-and-after speech samples. After just 15-20 minutes of work, the person’s voice sounded, well, personal. Same words as before, but a completely different experience for the listener. Beyond the words being spoken, I could hear the person behind the voice. The effect was rich, engaging, and powerful.

The human connection makes communication alive and powerful. Time and again, in my own office, I’ve heard clients produce simple sounds such as “hay”, “hoe” or “huh”, with such openness, such authenticity that it makes the hairs stand up on my arms. It’s as though the sounds become alive. It’s like I can hear the person behind the sound, even though they’re not using words and sentences. I believe this dynamic has potential to raise ordinary communication to extraordinary levels. It’s the difference between your listeners understanding what you’re saying and being moved by what you’re saying.

And the cool thing is that it starts right in your body. You don’t get that result by pretending, or trying to make it happen. You just cultivate the right conditions at a physical level. If you find that grounded, open, engaged state of being, it will happen, naturally, effortlessly and authentically. You will be compelling.

BEING LIKE A BELL: Becoming a More Confident and Engaging Communicator

September 2nd, 2010

In the south tower of the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, hangs Fat Peter. He’s not some unfortunate character who met a mysterious and untimely end. Fat Peter is a bell, officially known as St. Peter’s bell. Bigger than a bedroom and weighing as much as a fully loaded cement truck, it is easily one of the largest bells in the world. When Fat Peter sings, you don’t just hear it, you feel it in your bones. You are immersed in vibrations. It’s not just sound. It’s an experience.

St. Peter’s bell has something to teach us about how to communicate effectively. It’s interesting to note that bells have ears, eyes, mouths, lips, tongues, necks, shoulders and bodies. They even have crowns and belts if you’re into accessories. But I want to discuss more than superficial similarities. The way a bell produces sound has profound lessons for us, its human inventors. Specifically, a bell works with 1) economy of effort, 2) total engagement, and 3) complete generosity. I will elaborate on each of these three points and, at the end of the article, provide sample exercises for your exploration.

Economy of effort
A bell is never working hard. It swings at its own rhythm. Force it beyond its natural rhythm and you get less from it, rather than more. The same is true for human speech. You don’t get more from your voice by increasing your level of effort. Increased effort causes contraction, which results in less space for sound—you end up with a smaller bell! The trick to getting maximum sound and impact from your voice is to get out of the way and allow it to work rather than forcing it. You must work with your voice rather than pushing it. Time and again, my clients discover they can cut their effort by 50% and still produce the same amount of sound or even more. (See Sample Exercise 1.)

Total engagement
When a bell rings, the whole bell vibrates with sound, from top to bottom. The same is true for you. When you speak, ideally, it’s not just your vocal folds vibrating. It’s not just that hole in your face where sound comes out. Your whole body vibrates. There’s no body part that doesn’t have the potential of vibrating in sympathy with the sound of your voice. When your whole body vibrates there’s a pretty good chance you’re speaking with your whole voice. And when you’re using your whole voice there’s a pretty good chance you’re communicating with your whole being. But if you’re using only part of your voice your listeners are only getting part of you. (See Sample Exercise 2.)

Generosity
A bell is never holding back. Think about it. Every last vibration of sound is traveling outward, being given away, generously. There’s no reservation. That’s the way you could be speaking, but in the real world all sorts of things tend to happen. Your voice will sit in your chest, get stuck in your throat, die in your mouth—it seems humans will do virtually anything to avoid putting their whole voice out there into the world. There’s very little generosity in the way most people speak. Few people speak with their whole voice. Most are accustomed to using just a small part of their voice. (See Sample Exercise 3.)

It’s easy to assume great speech is about words, but that isn’t half of it. It goes beyond what we’re saying or even what we’re doing—it’s about how we’re being in the moment of communication. Great speakers make powerful connections and have profound impact because they’re relaxed, fully engaged and totally available to their audience. Listeners love that. We are willing to overlook all sorts of imperfections in the delivery if someone will show up and let us see who they really are. That is the challenge of great speaking: the ability to be fully open, fully engaged, fully available.

You don’t have to be a gigantic bell to fill a room and make an impact, but you do have to feel like one. To explore this process more fully, contact me and ask about the Open Being Program. Learn how you can master these three principles and discover your unique potential to be a confident and engaging speaker.

Sample exercise 1: The Sigh of Relief (Economy of Effort)

Allow an in-breath to flow down into your belly then release it outward with a feeling of relief. Notice how easy it feels. Now do that with sound, an extended “Haaaaaaay” for example. It shouldn’t be breathy, but it does have to be easy. Use the feeling of a sigh of relief to monitor the level of effort you bring to your speaking. If you ever notice you’re working harder than a sigh of relief, you’re working too hard. You should be able to speak for hours, even a whole day, without your voice feeling fatigued. Speaking should always feel great. If it ever feels effortful, like strain or hard work, you need to examine what you’re doing. Ask yourself: If speaking was a feel-good experience, how would that change the way I communicate? How would it change the way my listeners perceive me?

Sample exercise 2: Noticing Sound Vibrations (Total Engagement)

Let your fingertips rest lightly on your lips. Close your eyes, concentrate on your sense of touch, allow an in-breath to flow down into your belly, then sigh out a delicate “M” sound: hmmmmm. Can you feel and cultivate sound vibrations on your lips? Do the same thing with your fingertips on your nose, then on the top of your head. Now place the palm of your hand on your chest and sigh out an extended “Ah” sound. Can you feel sound vibrations in your chest? How about your side ribs or even your back? Now rest your arms at your sides. Close your eyes and sigh out extended “M” sounds, or “Ah” or “Oh” sounds. Can you feel sound vibrations in your body without having to touch yourself? What parts vibrate easily? What parts don’t vibrate easily? Why not? Ask yourself: What would it feel like to have my whole body vibrating with sound when I speak? How would that change my experience as a speaker, or that of my listeners?

Sample exercise 3: Sound Forward (Generosity)

Stand in a large room or in front of a window overlooking an open space. With your eyes open, allow an in-breath to flow down into your belly, then sigh out “hmmmmm-aaaaah”. Feel sound vibrations on your lips, then, without changing anything, relax your lips open and allow sound to flow forward into the space. Open your arms outward as you open your lips, as though you were physically giving away the sound. There’s no need to push or “project”. As long as breath is flowing forward, sound will flow forward. If you feel your throat closing, or if the sound gets scratchy toward the end, you’re letting it fall back into your throat. (Notice how often this happens in conversation, at the ends of sentences.) Ask yourself: What would it feel like if every last vibration of sound could flow forward, outward? What would it feel like to use 100% of my voice, not just the 75% I’m used to, or the 40% that feels safe when I’m under pressure? How would that change my perception of myself at that moment? How would that affect the impact of my message?

Engaging Speech: Getting the Feel of It

August 23rd, 2010

Daniel Webster, 19th century statesman and orator, said, “True eloquence does not consist in speech. Words and phrases may be marshaled in every way, but they cannot compass it. It must consist in the man, in the subject, and in the occasion.”

Preoccupation with the content and mechanics of public speaking is a great barrier to effective communication. Attempting to think your way through a presentation is a recipe for frustration and failure. The secret to great speech is your state of being. Passion, charisma and personality are rooted in feeling, not thinking.

Get out of your head. Your conscious brain can focus on only one thing at a time. Thinking limits your performance of complex tasks such as giving a speech. A golfer, dancer or table waiter would never approach the task as a sequence of consciously controlled actions. They would be paralyzed. When you learn speechmaking by breaking it down into small components, then creating a checklist of mechanical steps, the wheels come off the wagon in short order.

It pays to get physical. Your body, by contrast, can process many sensations at once. Imagine eating your favorite food, appreciating taste, texture and appearance as one seamless experience. Working with body awareness allows you to integrate the many facets of communication (relaxation, breathing, vocalizing, gesture, eye contact, etc.) in a way that feels natural, genuine, and spontaneous. Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexity of presentation, you feel calm, centered and highly attuned to the interaction. To borrow a phrase from Arthur Lessac, you look good, sound good, feel good and communicate well.

Great communication is not about what you’re saying and doing; it’s about how you’re being. That’s not something you control from your head; it’s something you feel: physically, vocally and emotionally. By cultivating the optimal sensations, your desired outcomes happen automatically. You’re free to move beyond content and technique. Your speech becomes an engaging conversation. Your communication ignites relationship. And you create a captivating experience for your listeners.