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.

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.