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Friday, August 15, 2014

The Power of the Less Powerful

"We contend that when people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the action of others." Michael Inzlicht and Sukvinder Obhi

We often talk about powerful performances, powerful books, sculpture. Artists may hope for that result, but our brains have to operate differently. I've been coaching people for job interviews, public speaking, performing, writing for over 30 years. When I ask them for a list of the qualities they want to convey, no one has ever replied "power." One of the great paradoxes of communication is that powerful results don't come from a sense of personal power, but through empathy, sensitivity to others.    

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Thinking by Feeling

Rebecca Lee, in a review of Adam Wilson's What's Important is Feeling, quotes Roethke: "We think by feeling. What is there to know?"

The Enlightenment is sometimes blamed for celebrating logic over emotion ("I think, therefore I am."); I blame Plato, myself. Whoever.

Human physiology says that Roethke's right. An incoming sensory experience activates an emotional response that goes first to the body and then to the brain. The time differential is something like .0268 of a second. If I had a better filing system, I'd be more accurate with that number. But it's the order - emotion, body, brain - that matters.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Proust is Worth Reading.

Proust's work has been mentioned several times recently in The New York Times Book Review, either from an "I couldn't finish it" or an "I ought to read it" point of view. So what does this quote from Le temps retrouv√© say about those who won't or can't read it? "In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. . . . The reader's recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth."

What Proust says is true only if writers, while they are writing, are the writers of their own selves. In that case, the dictum is true of all art. If painters, performers, writers are creating from their complete selves - body, mind, and emotion - their audiences will respond with their complete selves. And will believe in the truth of what they're witnessing or reading.

      

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Art of Performance



THE ART OF  PERFORMANCE


Performance is not often recognized as a craft that, like any other art form, can be learned and practiced.  The theory, even in some of the most prestigious conservatories, seems to be that if we sing well, or act or dance or play an instrument well, those skills produce good performances.
After I began to teach voice, I found that that theory was dead wrong–in fact, the opposite was true.  If we perform well, our audiences don’t care how well we sing, or act or dance or play an instrument.  Leonard Cohen’s vocal technique is wretched, but when he puts out a new recording he gets the front page of Rolling Stone and the Sunday Arts Section of The New York Times.
Nor do we judge the value of the performance by the material being performed. A few months ago I saw an historical play in which a young actress had been given a series of sentences that began with “In 1864, . . .” “In 1892,. . .” and on and on, for nearly a dozen lines.  Boring?  No, her performance was so good that, when I spoke to her afterward, I used a version of that hackneyed phrase, “You could have recited the telephone book and I would have loved it.” 
So, if effective performance has little to do with either artistic technique or material, what is it?
Performance is communication.  We are performing in every interaction we have with another person or persons.  We assume a role appropriate for the “audience”–an employee role for our boss, a parental role for our children; we use a voice and language appropriate for the setting–loud and perhaps profane at a local bar, dignified whispers at a funeral; we convey factual and emotional information appropriate for the situation–perhaps more emotion than fact in a lover’s quarrel and more fact than emotion in a political speech.
Artistic performance uses all those components of communication, but in heightened form.  Our audiences have spent time and money to have an experience greater than their day-to-day existence. The role or persona that we create for the stage must, therefore, be larger than any other role we ordinarily play, larger than the audience.  The intensity of any emotion must be deeper, using the entire body.  We must own the room, fill it with our energy, even before we walk on stage.  We must believe that we are stars, and we must walk and act like a star every moment that we’re on stage.
  How artistic performance differs from other forms of communication is in the level of responsibility that the performer must accept.  In our daily interactions we expect that a boss or a lover will take responsibility for their side of the exchange, but when we are on stage we are in charge of what happens between us and the audience. 
When people collect into a group, or audience, they give up some of their individual armor.  In return for a sense of togetherness, they become more vulnerable.  They want and need a leader who will gather them up and take them into unexplored territory for an hour or two, someone whom they can trust to take care of them while they’re on that journey.
If we love and care for our audiences, they will follow us. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Memory Believes


“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” I’ve been pondering this quotation from Light in August, by William Faulkner, for days. 
Our beliefs, more than our knowledge, are what we act on, what we speak from. Our beliefs are formed by our memories, even when we’ve repressed those memories. A soldier with posttraumatic stress disorder, for example, may respond physically and mentally to a car backfiring in civilian life as if he were still on the battlefield, even though he has not yet processed battle memories. He may “know” it’s a backfire but he “believes” it’s a mortar.
What does this have to do with public speaking?
My most frequent of a client's performance is, "I don't believe you." 
If you don’t believe in what you’re saying, not only will your audience not believe what you say, they won’t remember what you say. 
And your belief has to come from a memory, a story, not merely knowledge that you memorized. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Passionate Presentations

I saw a performance Friday night by “Authoring Action.” About 30 teenagers reciting, singing, dancing the words they had authored. 
I saw tears running down the cheeks of a teenage boy rapping a poem he’d written. And I was reminded, again, of the importance of passion in our presentations.   
I hope we’re in the post-post-modern era of the arts. I hated the post-modern period, probably because I didn’t fit into it well. I didn’t enjoy self-referential, cynical, let’s-have-a-laugh-at-the-past, emotionless performances. I wanted passionate performances.
Passion isn’t fully back in fashion yet, but it may be on its way. I’ve blogged about the clues I’ve been finding in, of all places, the business world. A CEO said in an interview that he’s fortunate that he loves the business he’s in, that he’s passionate about it. The author of an essay about business journalism advised writers to tell a story, rather than trying to explain the facts. She recognizes that readers will probably not remember or understand the facts, but they will remember the story that captures the meaning of the facts.  
We can’t tell a story in our presentations unless we go deeper than the words, unless we find the story we want to tell. We can’t tell a story well unless we are drawing upon our senses–our sight, our hearing, our senses of touch, smell, and taste. Our senses produce both emotion and action, not only in us, the storytellers, but in our audiences.
Here’s one of the definitions of passion in the Oxford Universal Dictionary: “In psychology or art, any mode in which the mind is affected or acted upon . . .” 
If we are presenting our ideas from our senses, our audiences can respond from, and their minds will be affected by their senses. 
 We don’t get good at giving presentations unless we are passionate about the story we’re telling. If we are passionate about our presentations, we will get good at giving them.            
Why present any idea if we are not intending to affect the minds of our audiences? Why present without passion?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Going Too Far is Almost Enough

“That was a great exercise. Why didn’t we start with that one?”

This was a comment at the end of a workshop on “Presenting Yourself.” Made after an exercise in which I’d asked the participants to exaggerate all the presentation techniques they’d learned in the last 6 weeks. “Go too far,” I’d said, knowing after 35 years of teaching that they wouldn’t.

At some point in the process of becoming members of a functioning society, each of us has been warned “to quiet down,” “to be seen and not heard,” “don’t draw attention to yourself,” and the like. Those are the demands of the schoolroom, sometimes the family dinner table, and enforced when we’re part of many audiences. But not when we’re on stage.

There the opposite is true. No audience will be comfortable unless their leader, the performer, is larger than the audience. Unless the performer’s energy is larger, gestures wider, voice more authoritative.

Fortunately, all the workshop participants understood, after the exercise, that “going too far” was only the beginning of a good performance.