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.