Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Source Memory

A New York Times article (2/15/15, p. SR12) about our relative inability to remember the sources of our memories led me to a few questions. The two studies referenced in the article asked college students to read historical essays and then view movie clips in which the same historical events were inaccurately presented. When tested, the subjects believed a third of the inaccurate "facts" from the movie clips, rather than the essays they'd read. Even though they'd been warned that the films were inaccurate.

The article went on to a discussion of source memory, which is known to be fragile and unreliable. The author, and perhaps the researchers, did not take into account the difference between our emotional engagement in a film vs. an essay that I presume was written for college level students. Such essays are dedicated to presenting data, and they very often deliberately avoid any emotional involvement of the reader, lest the author be accused of being too "popular."

But data by itself seldom has any meaning for us beyond the next exam. Unless it has an emotional component. I'm a footnote junkie. Several decades ago, my college drama textbook said that the French dramatist, Corneille, had left Paris for political reasons and had written nothing after 1650. Those "facts" have since been corrected, but at the time none of the reference books listed in the syllabus contradicted our textbook. There was, however, a footnote that led me to research that period of French history and to discover what Corneille had been writing during the decade that followed his exile. And to a Eureka! sense of discovery. And meaning.

Do we remember only what has meaning for us? Or do we only store retrievable memories that have an emotional component? And what does that tell us about our belief systems?


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Power of Silence

Vicki's comment, as usual, is worth a post.

When Vicki pays attention to what her voice is telling her - not to talk - she's right on. Our bodies do pick up on energy that is antagonistic, or self-aggrandizing, or a wall that can't be breached. Silent energy, but nonetheless powerful in it's message that communication is not possible.

Several decades ago I attended a leadership workshop for entrepreneurs where I was stunned to learn that one of my talents was not to talk, but to observe and then summarize what everyone else had said. What? I was a performer, a teacher. I had thought I was failing because I hadn't contributed to the discussion.

As soon as we're enrolled in school, our grades suffer if we don't participate in class discussion. We learn to attach a value to talking, and to believe that we won't be valued in a business meeting, for example, unless we talk. So what a great lesson to learn in that workshop that observant silence was a talent.

Thinking about silence led me to dig up an old article on that subject:

"I'm curious if one can own the silence between songs in a strong way.  To recognize that the silence is good and important.” (A question from the lead singer in a local rock band.)

Most people, not just performers, think of silence as an empty space that has to be filled. Musicians have the opposite problem: the symbols for silence in a musical score are called “rests,” leading us to think that we should drop out, that if we have a whole page of rests, we might as well pick up a book.

Silence is more than the absence of sound. We use “dead silence” to describe a problem with an electronic device, but we also use it to describe a shocked silence or an embarrassed silence. So silence has an emotional content. We differentiate between “a heavy silence” and “a soft silence.” So silence has a discernible density. We can use silence to agree or disagree with an argument or a vote. So silence can have a meaning that is recognizable and recorded in the minutes of a meeting.
If silence has emotional content, density and meaning, then silence is neither a void nor a rest, but a form of communication.
Silence is used as a powerful tool by professionals in many fields. A theatre director may ask the actors to take a “beat” after a line. He intends to use a moment of silence to draw the audience’s attention to the previous line, to make it more important. A film director will often use silence, rather than music, to heighten horror  or suspense. A trial attorney may use a nonchalant silence, implying that she is finished with a witness, before she turns and throws her “zinger” question.

The directors are using silence to heighten the attention of the audience; the attorney is using silence to relax the attention of the witness. Performers can also use silence both ways.

How a performer uses silence is a matter of style. An orchestra conductor may want complete silence before she begins, and will wait and wait and wait on the podium until she can feel that she has it. John Nelson, on the other hand, rushes on stage, picks up his baton, and gives the downbeat, gathering the audience through speed and his own energy.

Some performers will use silence after a song in order to prepare the audience to move from, for example, sadness and loss, to the upbeat song that will follow. Others want to move as quickly as possible into the next number. Still others want to use patter or tell stories to bridge numbers.

Some performers will use silence to release some of the audience’s attentive energy at the end of a set or performance. Others will finish big, with the expectation that the audience’s response will release energy.

Performers can use silence to pick up, hold, and release an audience. They can use silence to communicate with an audience–Pay attention here! or Wait, here comes the laugh line! They can also use silence to gather information from the audience–Is it an uncomfortable silence? Is it an on-the-edge-of-the-seat silence?–and can respond accordingly.

Because silence is a form of communication, both performer and audience can “own” any silence during a performance. But because performance is a specialized form of communication, the audience will be more comfortable if the performer is in control of the silence, is using it with intent.

That intent will determine how “good and important” a silence is.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Another Thought about the Relationship of Voice and Power

Last week I wrote about academic studies that connected male (but not female) low-pitched voices to power, money, and leadership. Here's another thought:

The range of pitches at which we speak is technically determined by the length and thickness of our vocal cords. Longer, thicker cords can produce lower pitches. Young boys and girls speak at about the same pitch level, until boys reach puberty and their vocal cords begin to lengthen and thicken.

I received a note from a kindergarten teacher complaining that my daughter spoke at "too low a pitch." Nonsense. I'm a contralto, her father was a bass so, genetically, it's likely that our daughter's vocal cords were slightly longer and thicker at birth than those of the other girls in her class.       

But there's another element at play here. Children learn to speak, not by imitating sounds, but by imitating the muscle movements of their primary caretakers. I'm a trained singer, so the movements my daughter was imitating when she learned to speak were different than those of her classmates' mothers.

And here we get to the problem in many of the research studies: A well-produced voice is dependent, not on the vocal cords, but on the size, texture, and shape of the resonating chambers of the body. If the body isn't open to the sound waves produced by the vocal cords, the listener will perceive the speaker as having any number of unattractive attributes - shallow, too tightly controlled, narcissistic, are only a few examples. 

How we hold our bodies, our posture, is the physical representation of our emotional state. Our voices are the aural representation of our bodies, and therefore our emotions. If a man walks into an interview with a weak neck (which subconsciously is perceived as subservient), it won't matter a bean how low his voice is pitched. 


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Voice, Power and Charisma

More studies of the relationship between voice and power have appeared in my study, this time courtesy of a friend who sent me a clipping from The Wall Street Journal ("Hear, Hear! Scientists Map What Charisma Sounds Like," 12/2/14).

Controlling for meaning, and even using recorded speeches in French, Italian, and Portuguese, studies at UCLA found that speakers with lower-pitched voices were perceived by listeners as more powerful. A study at Duke University found that male CEOs with lower-pitched voices tended to manage larger companies, make more money, and hold their positions longer than those with higher-pitched voices.

Women in positions of leadership were not included in most of these studies, although a researcher at Duke reported that young women who adopted a distinctive low way of talking were perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive and less hirable.

Dr. Rosario Signorello, who conducted the UCLA studies, came to the conclusion that speakers could be trained to use their voices more powerfully, as singers and actors are trained. He did not, however, recognize in his analogy that the heroes in nearly every opera are tenors, with higher-pitched voices, whom composers have used for centuries to evoke the studies' charismatic traits: dynamic, charming, courageous, convincing, captivating, and visionary. Baritones and basses, men with lower-pitched voices, sing the villain, loser, or father roles. Given that Dr. Signorello used nearly four times as many women as men to rate his speakers' charisma, was the research somewhat skewed by that imbalance? Were the women perceiving the speakers in a fatherly, therefore more powerful, role?

Correspondingly, operatic sopranos, women with higher-pitched voices, are cast as the heroines, with lower-pitched contraltos playing witches, servants, young boys, or mothers. I doubt anyone participating in the study would want to assign any of those low-voiced characters very much power.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Believe with Your Body

As a past president of Winston-Salem Writers (at 163 members, this group may be the largest local writing group in the country) I've been asked what I thought of a board member as a possible future president.

My reply was, "She's heavily corseted." I wasn't sure exactly what I meant until I saw a TED video last week. That speaker reminded me of the possible president, and I got to watch her for twenty minutes and analyze why she was so offputting.

What she had to say was worthwhile enough for me to forward the link to someone. Her delivery, however, led me to believe she wasn't personally trustworthy. She was eloquent, smiling pleasantly, evidently a practiced public speaker, but she came off as a phoney.

Because she was involved in what she was saying only from the neck up. She was indeed a talking head, completely disengaged from her body.

We tend to think that our beliefs are in our minds but, unless we're also believing with our emotions and our bodies, we're not believable.  

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Body Memory vs. Mental Memory

Academic sociologists have been getting a lot of press lately about their research into the value of appearing confident or powerful in interviews or business meetings. Sitting in a confident position and/or speaking with a powerful voice produce measurably positive effects.

In the voice study, one group of research subjects were instructed to remember a time when they felt confident or powerful; another group were told to think of a time when they had less power and status. Another group listened to recordings of the subjects reading the same material and were able to correctly identify which were the most powerful 72% of the time.

Amazing! Perhaps more amazing that these academics evidently have never heard of Stanislavsky's acting methods, or have never realized that this is what actors do.

The published result: If you really relive a powerful moment in your mind, your body reacts as if you really did have power.

But these results are not body "reactions." When we have an experience of power, our emotions respond first, our bodies second, our minds third. Our cells remember that moment, our muscles remember that moment.

And it's our bodies that will retain the memory most accurately and recall it most efficiently. An earlier study that asked subjects to write about the time they felt powerful before going into an interview found that the effect faded over time.

I use a different method in which the effect doesn't fade, but strengthens over time. (Chapter 6 in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer.) Mental memory can shift and change, acquiring different nuances and meanings, but body memory seems to remain stable.

I stumbled on this idea by chance: I had stopped performing during the last few years of a "Gaslight" marriage in which I had lost all confidence in my mind - in fact, had become convinced I was crazy. Shortly after my divorce I was asked to sing again. As I walked through a pair of swinging doors onto the stage, I felt my posture immediately change, a change so complete that I thought, "What the hell just happened to me?"

After the performance, when I had time to analyze what had happened, and to shift back and forth between the body on one side of the doors and the body that appeared on the other side, I recognized the latter as my "star body," a posture I had not used for many years. I had never consciously developed that posture, so no mental memory was involved. But my body remembered.  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Body Language

Beginning performers often ask, "What do I do with my hands?" They've suddenly become aware that they have a couple of appendages hanging off their arms, or tightly clutched in front of them.

I guide them through a few exercises until their hands are connected to their backs, at about waist level, where gesture naturally begins. "Now," I ask, "what do your hands want to say?"

Our bodies do want to get into the act, if we're connected to them. And if we're not restraining them with such mental projections as "I'll look foolish."

Physical communication is primal. Babies universally respond in the same way to outside stimuli with their bodies. They shudder, they spit out a nipple with disgust, their faces redden, their arms wave before they utter a sound. My grandson, three and a half years old when he was adopted from a Chinese orphanage, could not speak or understand oral language, but he'd created his own sign language.

So it's likely that humans developed sign language before spoken language. When Europeans first came to this country, Indian tribes were still using at least 65 different sign languages to trade and communicate with other tribes.

If communication is a human necessity, and if we are born with the means of physical communication, why don't we recognize the value of using our bodies to communicate when we become adults?