Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Control" of the Diaphragm

I was looking forward to seeing “The King’s Speech” (my field, after all) until I read that Lionel Logue wrote, after his first consultation, that Prince Albert had poor control of his diaphragm.

No kidding! If we could control our diaphragms, no one would ever hiccup.

Back in college I had a singer friend who was very proud of her diaphragm, which she would display. What she was showing off was what looked like a role of fat below her ribs. Her vocal teacher had told her that that was her diaphragm.

The word “diaphragm” is bandied about by voice and speech teachers who don’t have a clue what the diaphragm is–a horizontal set of muscles between the lungs and the guts. A muscle set that gets pushed down by the lungs when we inhale, and that gets pushed back up the guts when we exhale. A muscle set that gets pushed around, not one that we can “control.”

At least two prominent voice coaches advise bouncing one’s voice off one’s diaphragm. They don’t explain how this can be accomplished anatomically. Nor do they seem to realize that, in advising a student to bounce a sound anywhere, that student is likely to tighten some muscles in the throat to act as the bouncer.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Even the Best

I recently attended a performance by a well-known radio personality that was irritating as hell. My party was seated in the balcony. The performer was positioned so far forward on the stage that we either had to assume a partial-standing position so we could see him, or close our eyes and pretend we were listening to him on the radio. You can imagine what happens when, at my age, I close my eyes.

My host at the event became so angry that he vowed to complain to theatre management. How could they, in all conscience, cut off the sight lines of an entire portion of a paying audience?

But I had seen this performer a decade ago at the 92d St. Y in New York, where I could see him clearly, and where, even though a decade younger, I fell asleep at least twice.

The first time, I assigned blame for my snooze problem on his material, which wasn’t that interesting. But at this performance, he had great material, and his deliverythe ebb and flow of tension and release, the timing–could have served as a “how-to” course for any public speaker. And yet, there I was, off in dreamland again.

Inconceivable as it seems, even to me, this performer has not learned, after decades on stage, the difference between the energy required for a radio audience and a live audience.

Radio requires intimacy. The performer’s energy is concentrated through the mike to a virtual audience of one person or one family, listening in car or a living room. Very different from a three-balcony theatre where, even though one is using a microphone, the energy has to expand to include everyone.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Claim the Job

Another inspiration from The New York Times business section: This time a man hunting for another job describes his transformation from question-answerer to question-asker.

His interpretation of the change is that he became more assertive. True. My interpretation is that he recognized that he had more power, and therefore more responsibility, in a job interview than he had thought.

A job interview may be conducted one-on-one, but it nevertheless involves many aspects of public speaking.

Claim the job, just as you would claim the stage. In the interviewer’s mind, the subject of the meeting is the company and its needs and how well you fit both. Too often, the interviewee thinks the subject of the meeting is him or herself.

Do I need to say that when the speaker and the audience are not in agreement in their expectations, they’re off to a bad start. I once talked three friends into attending a film that had been billed as a romantic thriller. So much blood and violence that one friend left the theatre, and I pulled my sweater up over my face and missed the crucial murder. No one would talk to me on the way home.

“When we claim . . . the job as our own, we begin to fall in love with it. We nurture it, care for it, give it our full attention. When we focus on our material, we find the courage to live through the anxiety of performance, and the drive to learn how to perform it well.” (Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer (Press 53, 2010), p. 104.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tell a Story

Read Chrystia Freeland’s essay, “How to Succeed in Business Journalism,” in the August 22d issue of The New York Times Book Review. I could quote here 2 or 3 full paragraphs, changing no more than a phrase or two, and make them directly applicable to public speaking.

I’m going to quote, instead, from Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer, where I give advice to public speakers that is similar to Freeland’s advice to business journalists.

Humans are storytellers. We try to understand our lives and the events around us by creating stories. Until we learned to scratch symbols that represented our words, we told our history, our beliefs, our warnings, and our fears in stories, in parables, and in myths.

“We remember best what we hear or read in story form.” (p. 11)


“In our culture, we often believe we are oriented to the bottom line and that facts are the only reliable bases for decisions. Human brains, however, are not as well equipped to work mathematical of logic problems as they are to make judgments based on intuition and experience. . .

“An attorney asked me how he could get a jury to understand the complex financial instruments that led to the recent economic collapse. He said, ‘I spent days trying to work through them myself. Finally, one night at two a.m., I got it. So how do I reduce all the work I had to do into something a jury can understand?’

“By telling the jury that story. Tell them the process that led to your discovery. Tell them about the wrong paths you went down, and your frustration, and how stupid you felt. Give them a chance to empathize with you. They might not fully grasp all the complexities themselves, but they’ll feel a connection to you and to your side of the argument.” (pp. 75-76)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Are You Ready?

The New York Times business section is providing more advice that can be applied to public speaking. In the October 10 paper, Howard Schultz, chairman, president, and CEO of Starbucks, was asked for his advice to new CEOs.

He said that very few people coming into the job believe they’re qualified. Every time we speak in public, it’s a new situation. Very few of us believe we’re qualified, or have rehearsed enough for this new subject or that new audience.

So, his advice about insecurity? Use it as a strength, not a weakness. Let people see that you’re vulnerable, and you’re showing them that you’re human.

Translating that paraphrased statement for our needs: So what if you make a mistake or two? Steve Allen once said that a performer would have to fall off the stage into the bass drum before someone noticed. I’ll add that if you do fall off the stage into the bass drum, hitting the cymbals as you go, everyone in the audience will be thrilled that they were there to see it, and will buy more tickets with the hope that you’ll do it again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Apologies Not Accepted

When I was growing up in the midwest, a hostess cooked twice as much food as her guests could eat, and then apologized for whatever she presented or had failed to present: “I don’t know what happened to the corn pudding;” “My cake didn’t rise like usual;” “At least I remembered to take the Jello salad out of the refrigerator this time.”

Dinner began with assurances from the guests about the quality of the corn pudding, was interrupted with the story of the missing salad, and ended with a slight argument over the lightness of the cake. Not leaving much room for conversation about politics, or even the weather.

I attended a presentation this week that followed that pattern. The presenter began with a story about having failed to appear at a presentation the week before, and segued into an apology for having arrived late with disorganized materials. He said several times that if his wife/business partner were there, she would be able to better explain this concept or answer that question.

Why apologize as you’re serving the corn pudding? If the guests had previously loved the hostess’s corn pudding, now they’re forced to reconsider. Maybe it doesn’t taste that good after all, or maybe their taste discrimination is off.

What is the value of telling an audience, in detail, that you forgot to keep an appointment? Are we going to trust anything else you say?

Last month I heard a band member say, halfway through a performance, “and we’ve only practiced twice.” Now the audience is sitting there reassessing the entire evening: “Maybe it was more ragged than we thought.”

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Virtual Meetings

The “Career Column” in the 9/26 issue of The New York Times was devoted to professional virtual meetings. Good advice was given: don’t eat potato chips during the meeting; take your headset off before you head for the bathroom; don’t wear stripes.

But, as I thought about why virtual meetings can be so deadly and why we would have to be warned not to eat potato chips, one of the answers was because it’s not a “real” meeting. We’re not meeting; we’re not able to pick up, assess, build on, or counteract the energy of others.

We’re advised in the column to “use the same kind of body language and facial expressions as in a face-to-face meeting,” which implies that a virtual meeting, like a virtual world, is theatre and requires the suspension of disbelief. We need to “act” as though we’re in a meeting, even though we’re not.

If all the participants were acting (or pretending), then potato chips and bathrooms would no longer be issues.

But we would still have the problem of technology usage. If we look at the camera and talk to the microphone, we are substituting pieces of equipment for the people we would be looking at and talking to in a meeting. The speaker must also be an actor, speaking through the technology with his or her imaginary audience.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Limbic Resonance is Real, But . . .

Limbic resonance seems to be the new fad term. If the first dozen googled items are any indication, most people don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t trust people who are quoting from quotes–it’s like the rumor game, distorted because they’re out of context.

And it becomes more fodder for the motivational crowd. Never occurred to me before reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided that the positive-thinking business is Calvinism revisited.

Does limbic resonance exist? Absolutely. We have all those clichés in our language–”she gave me the cold shoulder”; “an icy glare”; “a cool reception” or “a warm reception”; “fiery glance”; “hot mama”; “he’s a cold fish”; and on and on–that, like most clichés, are literally true. We respond physically to the emotional energy of other people.

But I worry that the term is going to be used to guilt us into thinking that we have to be happy all the time.

All the emotions have to be available to the public speaker. How can we speak up about injustice without anger? How can we give a eulogy without sorrow? And don’t we want our audiences‘ limbic systems resonating to our anger and sorrow?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Creativity and Aging

A truth that I hadn’t known before came out of my mouth yesterday.

I have a client who’s probably in his 60s (I’ve never asked), with a good deal of physical pain, recent knee surgery, recent mouth surgery–the list goes on. He performs poetry professionally, but we always warm up first with vocal exercises.

I said, Your voice sounds as though you’re about 32. Then I heard myself say, Inside you is a healthy body.

Then I had to figure out what I’d said. What I could “see” was an inner “lining” of his body that was in a vibrant, young, healthy condition. If that were not so, it’s aural manifestation would not have been vibrant, young and healthy.

So what I’m wondering is, Is that what any creative activity does for us? Keeps us young? Not just “young in spirit.” Might creativity actually keep some parts of our body young?

That’s what some recent research on the relationship of creativity and aging is saying–less visits to the doctor, less falls.

Worth pondering.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bad Advice

As I troll through websites on public speaking and stage fright, I see and read appalling stuff: Videos of public speaking coaches waving their hands wildly for no perceivable purpose. That awful advice to “look each person directly in the eyes, make a statement, move to the next person, look them . . .”

The worst advice of all? “Imagine your audience naked.” “Imagine your audience in their underwear.”

If I thought that a speaker or performer were imagining me naked or in my underwear, I’d walk out of the room.

What about the job interviewee with performance anxiety? Is he supposed to imagine the interviewer, who’s perhaps a potential boss, naked?


Friday, August 27, 2010

Ourselves as Product

I wrote my column for Community Arts Cafe this month on “Choosing Your Audience.” I mentioned that we ought to start by viewing ourselves and our performances as a product. How do we know who are audiences are if we don’t assess what we’re offering them?

How do we do that? By listening to our audiences–what they say; what they applaud.

A former client told me this week that what I do is “teach people to be a strong presence.” I had thought I was teaching people not to be afraid of their stage fright or their audiences. But, of course, the result of losing those fears would be a stronger presence.

The title of the new book, Speak Up (available now from Press 53 and Amazon and . . .), turns out to be a perfect fit, too.

That one phrase has changed the audiences I’m looking for.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Third, the interviewee liked the idea of creating a “performing persona.”

In his case, he was switching careers–from finance to marketing–and he understood that he needed to think of himself and be a marketer now in interviews.

We’ve created different personas for different relationships all our lives. You learned, at least by the age of 5, that who you were on mommie’s lap was not who you were in kindergarten, and vice versa. Successful social relationships depended on your making a distinction between who you were as a son and who you were as a student and who you were as a playmate.

Pity the high school cheerleader who never learns another role–never becomes a wife when she marries, a mother when she has children–and is still a cheerleader at 65. Pity, too, the high school brain who tried to imitate the cheerleaders instead of learning who she herself was.

Paradoxically, we create ourselves, learn who we truly are, by shifting from role to role. In each role we have different responsibilities and different benefits, display and use different strengths and weaknesses.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Second, the interviewee liked the idea that the “performer is more powerful than the audience.”

Which sounds all wrong. The interviewer has the power to give or withhold that all important job.

Not exactly. The interviewer’s job is to fill a vacancy. He wants to hire someone, has to hire someone, hopes that you’re that someone. The interviewer’s interests, like those of any voluntary audience, are best served if you do well

Where an interview differs from other performances is that your resume takes the place of your lecture, and we jump right to the Q & A. The questions are just prompts; your answers become the performance.

As in any Q & A session, some of the questions may seem obvious, odd, or plain squirrely. As the performer, you have the right to rephrase the question, ask for clarification, take a moment to think about your answer. In other words, turn the question to your advantage.

In a recent interview, an applicant was asked the usual, “What do you bring to this company?” The usual response, if she had assumed that all the power lay with the interviewer, would have been to regurgitate the job description and how her qualifications fit it.

That’s not what she did. A pie chart was lying on the desk, with a large piece of the pie labeled “Intangible.” The applicant put her finger on that piece and said, “That’s what I bring.”

“Wow! That’s the best answer I’ve ever heard.”

She, of course, went on to list some of the intangibles that no job description can cover.

(to be continued)

Friday, August 6, 2010


Where to begin? So much going on, so many ideas circling round my head.

First, a revised version of my public speaking book, is being published next month by Press53 with the title, Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer.

And I’ll be doing a workshop on the book at the Bookmarks Book Festival in Winston-Salem on Sept. 11.

What comes up first, amidst all these goings on, is Interviewing. One idea from the book that’s been helpful to an interviewee is: “performance is a creative activity.” He says that going into an interview with a creative mindset and understanding that mistakes are a part of any creative process helps put nerves at ease.

An interview is a performance. The audience may be only one person, but all the aspects of performance apply. The spotlight is on you; the interviewer expects to be entertained (that is, for you to hold his or her attention); in order to do that, you’ll need to fill the room with your energy.

An interview is a creative process. No two interviews will ever be the same, even if the interviewer begins with a list of prepared questions and you’ve rehearsed some answers. You’re bringing something new into the process just by being the unique person you are.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


“To err is human,” and all that, but most of us have been punished in one way or another for making mistakes. So, making a mistake in public? In front of a lot of people?

I don’t know what train of thought last night led me to a memory of a conversation with Temple Painter, the harpsichordist. He said he was always relieved when he made his first mistake in a performance. He said he didn’t have to worry any longer about being perfect. “O.k., done that and survived. Now let’s move on.”

Notice that he used the word “first.” That first one was a reminder that he would make more mistakes, and that they weren’t, after all, that big a deal.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Broken Voices - 2

I saw the 2d episode of “The Choir” last night. (I said I was a fan.) In which, the conductor was bemoaning the lack of male voices in his adult choir. The camera panned over the hefty female sections and the sparse men’s section.

“I sometimes wonder,” he said, “if after their voices break, they lose interest in singing.”

I wouldn’t be interested in singing if I thought I had a broken voice. (see last week’s blog, “Lost Voices; Broken Voices")

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Monotone: One Tone, No Meaning

I heard the pastor of Rising Ebenezer Baptist Church speak at an event the other night. He used his voice over a wide pitch range–over an octave, from low to high, in one of his phrases. I commented to someone afterward how his vocal range gave a depth of meaning to what he was saying that might otherwise not be there.

Vocal range is not given much attention in public speaking training in this country. There may be a statement that it’s an ideal, but no information about how or why.

As I was thinking about the relationship between a varied speaking pitch and meaning, I remembered John, a middle-school teacher who had been sent to me by his principal.

John spoke with a limited pitch range and, when reading aloud, read in a flat monotone. His entire body was somewhat rigid, and he was in danger of losing control of his class because the persona he was using there was rigid and fearful.

We found several issues that had inhibited not only his voice, but his entire body. A key discovery was how he had been taught to read. He had carried over into adulthood a focus on one word at a time. “Because it was important that I get each word right,” he said. In the beginning the instruction makes some sense–there’s little loss of meaning when we read “Dick” and “and” and “Jane” as separate words, and we have the picture of Dick and Jane there to help us understand who we’re reading about.

But, after we become more adept at deciphering single words, we read in phrases, our eyes see “Dick and Jane,” then “Dick and Jane ran fast.” The wider our eye focus, the more words our eyes see at one time, the more meaning the words have for us. A word like “past,” for example, can be a noun, as in “the past,” or an adjective, as in “the past mistakes.” John was still reading “the” and “past” and “mistakes” without any meaningful connection between the words, and “mistakes” can become a slight surprise after the mind has settled on “past” as a noun.

When I “allowed” him to see more than one word at a time, he found meaning in the words he was reading. Not only did his monotone disappear, but his body and persona loosened, and he discovered that he could use a hitherto repressed sense of humor in the classroom.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lost Voices; Broken Voices

I saw the first episode of “The Choir” on BBC America last night and loved it. I loved the conductor’s approach to music and to teaching, loved that he congratulated a girl for her courage in singing a solo on a large stage.

But I had never heard a maturing boy’s voice referred to as “broken” before. In this country we say that a boy’s voice “changes,” a more accurate description of what goes on in the vocal mechanism during male puberty. The laryngeal cartilage can be broken by a blow to the throat, muscles in the vocal mechanism can tear, but the voice itself cannot be broken.

Word usage has intense power. When something “breaks,” we either repair it or toss it in the trash. The conductor had trouble finding enough broken male voices for The Choir and had to make do with a few unbroken ones. So I wondered about the effect of that word on English boys entering puberty, and thought that if puberty meant that some part of me was about to break, I might want to delay growing up as long as possible.

If a public speaker “loses his voice,” he panics and mentally goes in search of it. It isn’t, of course, lost. It’s where it always was and where it will be again. What may have happened is that stress breathing has closed his vocal cords–that’s how stress breathing works, that’s how the body functions during stress. All he needs to do is breathe deeply. We say we’ve lost our voice when we have laryngitis, when the vocal cords have become inflamed and swollen. Allowing the voice to “rest” is the best cure; but it’s not lost. It’s where it always was if we speak at a lower pitch.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

For, To, At, With

What’s the difference between speaking to an audience, speaking at an audience, speaking with an audience? That question’s been running around in my head for a couple of weeks–how to make the distinction clear?

This morning another preposition–for–added itself. Probably not a light bulb big enough to say Eureka!, but big enough to get the question out of my head.

Here’s the theory:

Public speaking is a communal activity, something one does.

If we change the word “speak” to “do,” and “audience” to “me,” we get . . .

Doing for me. Implies condescension, makes me think of missionaries. Did I ask you?

Doing to me. I have no control over the interaction, and am likely to get hurt.

Doing at me. I’m going to put up a shield so I won’t get hit.

Doing with me. Great.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Finding Your Voice

I’ve been going through an old file looking for blurbs that would work on the public speaking book jacket, and have been struck by the number of former clients who thanked me for “finding my voice.”

That phrase usually has two meanings: that they found their natural speaking voice, and that, having found that voice, they used it to speak up.

We learn to speak by imitating our primary caregiver. Not just by imitating the sound, but by adjusting physical musculature in order to produce that sound. My daughter’s kindergarden teacher sent me a note, warning me that something was wrong with the child’s voice–she spoke at too low a pitch. I’m a contralto, my husband was a bass. Yes, she spoke at a low pitch, but not “too” low.

Little thought seems to be given to voice training in theatre programs in this country. Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart–their voices were distinctive and instantly recognizable–but today one actor’s voice sounds pretty much like every other actor’s voice. I said as much to the Dean of a university program. He agreed, but said, “Where do I find the teachers?”

Friday, June 25, 2010

Performance Readiness

I’m back. When I write I find that my focus is so internal that I should be wearing a sign–one of those reversible “Open”/”Closed” signs–and I ought not be allowed to drive.

My focus for the last month has been on the revision of my public speaking book. Which is more or less finished (I’d love to tinker some more, but . . . ), so my mind is more or less “Open” again and I’m back in the world.

I was late starting my monthly column (, didn’t even pick the topic–performance readiness–until yesterday.

And then I got a call this morning from a former student that dropped that subject neatly into my lap. She had sung at a wedding last weekend. I asked her how it went.

“Not well,” she said. “Something strange happened in the ceremony and I was so startled that I forgot the words and had to make something up.

“I’d written a new song for them, and it wasn’t in my bones yet. I should have rehearsed more.”

Lack of rehearsal, wasn’t the issue. When she explained what the couple had done, which was so odd that trying to explain it would take an hour, I saw 2 other performance elements at work.

First, she couldn’t have possibly been prepared for such a bizarre happenstance.

Second, she was too emotionally involved in the ceremony. She wasn’t thinking of it as a performance.

Weddings are like that. Funerals, too. We have to think of them as performances, have to put some emotional distance between ourselves and the event.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Surround Sound

I love first-time performance experiences. I had one yesterday.

This was a performance of Rumi poetry in which some of the poems used piano and vocals. Both the reader and the singer are my clients.

During one of the poems I heard the word “waiting” coming from behind me. I always sit in the back row so that I can feel the audience response, so I thought someone standing behind me had said “waiting.” I turned around–no one there.

I heard it again, turned around again–no one there.

Then I realized that the words had been said by the singer on stage, even though the sound had seemed to come from behind me. So I checked to see if there were a speaker on the floor or mounted on a wall–there wasn’t one.

I’ve never encountered that phenomenon before, and am not sure how to explain it. She had been trained not to “project,” so she wasn’t consciously bouncing the sound off the back wall.

My guess is that she had gotten more deeply into the poetry and the music by that time, and had involved us, the audience, more deeply, so that the words seemed to be “happening” among us rather than recited and sung to us.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Interview is a Performance

I had an e-mail this morning from a friend whose son, with a brand new MBA, is having trouble with interviews. “He gets anxious, can’t seem to talk, or to get his breath.”

My daughter had trouble with interviews when she first graduated. She had bought a navy blue suit for the process, had wiped her wet, sweaty hands on her skirt and discovered, to her horror, that her hands were blue.

The anxiety symptoms may be different, but the antidotes are the same. Here are two:

Breathing: The body has 2 modes of breathing; the normal mode, when sleeping, say, and the stress mode. When we're in the stress mode, our breathing is intended to close off the throat in order to give us upper-arm strength. Then we panic, and concentrate on where we feel the constriction - in the chest and throat. This is NORMAL - THE BODY IS GOING TO DO IT DESPITE US. However, we can override that breathing mode.

At home, lie on your back and observe your breathing - observe, don't try to do anything - feel the abdominal muscles expand and contract. Then sit on a chair, place your elbows on your knees and observe your breathing - feel your back muscles open and contract. Now sit up in a chair, as you would in an interview. Find a posture in which you can feel both sets of muscles expanding and contracting. Practice this breathing, and your muscles will remember how this feels - you'll be able to move more quickly into this mode eace time you repeat it. Then, before you go into an interview, practice your breathing. If your mind switches into "what am I going to say?" switch it back to breathing.

Objective: If you focus on the interviewer, rather than on yourself, your anxiety will be reduced. If your objective is to find out whether this job would be a good fit for you, rather than to prove that you will be a good fit for the job, your anxiety will be reduced.

Monday, May 17, 2010

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

I am audience oriented. Performance is audience oriented. If there’s no audience, there’s no performance.

I used to be focused on technique. I learned the hard way that no one cares that you dance well, or sing well, or that your band has created a new genre, if you’re not communicating with your audience.

Why don’t conservatories get this? Or business schools and universities, for that matter?

When my first public speaking book came out, I was paired with a communications professor from Rowan University for a radio interview. He told me before we went on the air that Rowan had just established a course in public-speaking as a graduation requirement.

“Marvelous,” I said.

“Where do you think I’m going to find that many adjunct public-speaking professors for $2,000 a semester?”

That was fifteen years ago, so the situation must have improved, right?

Except that I recently found a blog where professors who had just been told they were to teach a public-speaking course at various institutions of higher learning were asking, “Anybody out there know a good book I could use?”

We have a communications industry that contributes over half a trillion dollars a year to the U.S. economy. Universities have recognized that preparing their students to communicate might be a good idea. But those same institutions are not regarding public speaking as a discipline; they’re assigning professors from other disciplines to teach that “necessary” public- speaking course.

About a third of the answers on that blog, presumably written by public-speaking teachers, were variations of, “You don’t need a book; they just need to practice.”

Excuse me? Practice what?

A piano teacher doesn’t say, “This is a piano, kid. Now sit down and practice.” A football coach doesn’t introduce his team to each other, and then tell them to go on the field and practice.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Thank You's

When I write my monthly column for Community Arts Cafe, I try to be positive–writing about what works in front of an audience, rather than what doesn’t.

But it occurred to me this morning that perhaps I could be as negative as I feel when blogging.

So, I get irritated when performers say, “Thank you,” as soon as they’ve finished a song or a speech, before the applause begins. What are you thanking us for? For listening to “poor little you?” Ugh!

Applause is the traditional way for an audience to say, “Thank you.” They get to say it first.

Then you get to bow, or applaud back, or say, “Thank you” back. Not before.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The View from the Mountain

Stage fright is reduced a great deal when public speakers learn that their audience is not the adversary. That the performer’s responsibility is to take care of and nurture the audience. And that an audience is most comfortable when it’s treated as a unit, rather than as an assembly of individuals.

Why had it never occurred to me to say, as I did to a client on Friday, that focusing physically and mentally on the entire audience is more comfortable for the public speaker as well?

If you’re communicating with an audience as an entity, the actions of individuals become incidental, not distractions. The man in the front row who falls asleep, the man twelve rows back who is looking frantically through his program as though he’s wandered into the auditorium by mistake, a crying child, four young women on the left who are literally bent double laughing and the man on the right who’s not laughing.

All these become merely a part of the larger landscape. As if one is standing on a mountain and notices smoke rising from a chimney in the valley below, the shadow pattern on the next mountain, and the movement of the clouds above. Each of these form a part of the view from the mountain; no single of them need distract one from the panorama.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Researching the Audience

I’ve been writing about the differences between a voluntary and an involuntary audience, and about researching one’s audience for my forthcoming book, Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer. Which reminded me of the first docent training I did after I moved to Winston-Salem. I had trained museum docents. I had trained the guides for French-speaking tourists of Philadelphia. All I had to do for this assignment was fit my usual training into the allotted time, revise my hand-out slightly, and I was done. Except that I began to hear mumblings from a docent or two that I met–“We’ve been doing this for years, why do we need training?”– and to see raised eyebrows and rolling eyes that said, “Lot’s of luck, you poor fool, you.”

Whoops! The person who hired me thought the docents needed training; the docents were darn sure they didn’t, and already resentful of anyone (including me) who thought they did. So I changed course–no apparent training, I would entertain them with an over-the-top improv skit demonstrating what could go horribly wrong in a docent’s day. The first time in thirty-four years of teaching that I’d ever tried this approach, but it worked. The audience’s former resentment became irrelevant, some learning occurred, and everyone had a good time.

So audience research isn’t necessarily about digging deep, but more about keeping one’s antenna up.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Look Me in the Eye

How did “Look your audience members in the eyes” come to be a public-speaking maxim? If you’re visiting Manhattan for the first time, you’ll be warned never to make eye contact with other subway riders. People on trial for assaulting a stranger describe a sense of terror “because he looked at me.” If a public speaker makes direct eye contact with an audience member, that person feels uncomfortable and everyone else feels excluded and resentful. An attorney who wants to intimidate an unwilling witness will look her directly in the eye. So why would novice public speakers, who want to develop rapport with their audiences, be taught to use a device that frightens, intimidates, or alienates them? Tis a mystery.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Definition of Stage Fright

The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines stage fright as “extreme nervousness experienced by an actor on the stage, esp. on his first appearance.” Performance anxiety, the clinical label for stage fright, expands the definition to include any situation in which we are exhibiting ourselves to or entertaining an audience. Both terms limit our understanding of an anxiety that is so common that we accept its milder manifestations in our everyday, nonstage life as normal.

A first date, a job interview, a business meeting–the intensity of the symptoms may vary, but all of us feel some amount of anxiety whenever we present ourselves to people by whom we expect to be judged. When we are “stage frightened” we are assuming that an uneven distribution of power exists–it’s us against them, and they’ve got all the power. When we are “performance anxious” we are anticipating rejection, failure, and consequent humiliation.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Creative Stage Fright (cont.)

When I quoted from my book yesterday I was thinking of a singer/songwriter who had been a back-up singer. I had scheduled her to perform her own music as lead singer with a band for the first time. At her last lesson before the Showcase, she cried about the mess she had made of her life, about her boyfriend, her landlord. I was all motherly compassion until I figured out that the tears had nothing to do with her boyfriend and her landlord; she was in that creative stage fright depression. Aha! Breakthrough time. And she did. She was so terrific that the act that I had scheduled to follow her didn't want to go on. (They did. A little competition isn't a bad thing.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Creative Stage Fright

This is a quote from my Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer that will be published this fall:

Performance is a creative activity. When we perform, we are creating something that has never happened before in exactly the same way. Even if we have given the same speech many times, the audience will be different each time. Because each performance is new, there is no way to foresee every detail that could affect it negatively.

During any creative process we are likely to encounter a different type of anxiety that may be a normal, perhaps even a necessary aspect of creativity.

Partway into the process, usually after we’ve made some progress toward our goal, we hit a spot where nothing goes right. We reread what we’ve written and find it horrible, or we have a rehearsal or practice session filled with disasters, and we go into a funk: “What I’ve written is trash.” “I can’t sing.” Why did I ever think I could act/practice law/market this product?” If we have the pressure of a deadline to meet, we add several despairing, panic-filled thoughts: “I’ll quit my job tomorrow,” “I’ll run away,” or worse.

Painful as it is, this type of anxiety-ridden depression is often the turning point in the creative process. I believe that the courage to work through this type of anxiety is the defining characteristic of the successful creator.

Anxiety is a natural part of the creative process because we are creating something new, something that’s never been said or written or interpreted quite this way before.

If we are truly creating something that is new, something that we’ve not previously known, experienced, invented, or understood, we literally won’t know what we’re creating until we’ve created it. We had to start from an old or known perspective; there’s no other possible starting place. The reason you hate what you’ve written or how you interpreted that song is that during your work on the project you lost your old, familiar perspective and are now in new, uncharted territory. You’ve crossed the boundary from old to new, and in doing so you’ve changed and the original goal must now be changed. Anxiety floods in when you recognize at some level of consciousness that what you are doing is completely different from what you had thought you were doing.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Convincing Despite

I wrote the first draft of my monthly column for Community Arts Cafe this morning ( My subject was an analysis of Dan Barber's TED talk about sustainable food production. I'd studied that video off an on for a month, loving every minute I spent with it. I hadn't realized until I'd finished the draft that I hated the subject. I grew up on a farm and hated it. I hated the slaughtered carcasses that had been hung on a tree in the back yard to bleed out and age. I hated the stupid baby chicks that would rather cluster under the rainspout and drown during a storm than go inside the dry coop. But the power of a public speaker can be so mesmerizing, so convincing that I never tire of watching and listening to Dan Barber talk about a subject that I hate.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Breathing Through Stagefright

Stage fright, or any kind of stress, changes our breathing.

The body breathes in two different ways. We breathe deeply, all the way down to the pelvis, when we're asleep and when we're not stressed. But when we're stressed or anxious, we breathe shallowly, with increased blood pressure and heart rate, sweaty palms, dry mouth–begin to sound familiar? Like stage fright?

Stress breathing happens automatically when we're anxious. But it's an autonomic function–that is, one that we can change if we want to. We can learn to override the function and reduce nervous system activity.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I've been thinking about the need for branding since last Friday, when I saw a band that didn't know who they were.
It looked like a girl band, but why the gray-haired guy with shades on guitar? The girls' bustier costumes and headbands were sort of Janis Joplin lite, but they didn't write or play hard rock. The girl on fiddle promised country, or new age, or something other than what I was hearing.
I spent the half hour before I left, trying to figure out who they were, rather than listening to their music.
Anyone who appears before the public needs to know how they want that public to perceived them. Beginning with the "costume"–walking out in a tux sends a different message from walking out in vintage Converse hightops; walking out in both tells the audience something else.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

everyone is born with fear

"The Stage Fright Whisperer," that's what Pat Barber called me this week.

I have never considered myself to be a whisperer, but Pat may be right. I do know how to talk to Stage Fright, and how to teach people to manage it so it doesn't create all kinds of havoc–making them think they're going to faint or vomit, sending tremors through their hands and legs, choking off their voices.

The tips and suggestions for getting rid of stage fright that I've read on line and elsewhere are less than useful. We can't get rid of stage fright. We can learn to understand the how and why of it. We can learn to avoid its most disabilitating symptoms. But we can't get rid of it.

And if we think we ought to be able to eliminate our performance anxiety (the clinical name for stage fright), that there's something wrong with us if we can't, we make matters worse. We set ourselves up for failure, give ourselves more proof that we ought never to speak or perform in public.

The day that we don't feel some anxiety before we walk on stage, or stand in front of a mike, is the day we ought to think about retiring. We can't give a decent performance or presentation without it.

No one is born for a life on the stage or behind a podium. Everyone is born with fear and anxiety mechanisms built in.