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.        

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On Being as Big as You Need to Be

I was multi-tasking yesterday–eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, and listening to my local NPR station–when I heard familiar words. Oh, that was me I was listening to, reading an essay I'd written last fall and recorded at the station a few months ago. Although I had an e-mail afterward from the station asking when I could record a couple more essays, and another e-mail complimenting me on the essay's content and my "clear, beautiful voice," it wasn't a great performance.

Which is always a learning experience. Why wasn't it a 10? After I heard the playback at the recording session, I realized that I hadn't connected fully with my imaginary audience on the other side of the microphone. I had confined my energy to the tiny recording studio. I thought I had learned that lesson 50 years ago.

I didn't remember, until I began this posting, that just prior to recording I had spent 4 hours answering phones for the station's spring fund drive. And using my energy to shield myself for 4 hours from the woman across the table from me, one of the most socially inept–or actively obnoxious, take your pick–women I've ever met.

Lesson learned. Again.      

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Hook

Public speakers are encouraged to begin with a "hook," a line that will engage their listeners. I heard a speaker last week that so engaged me that I noticed several times I was leaning toward her. I have no idea what her first line–her "hook"–was. It certainly wasn't a joke, which is so often recommended. I also found myself making small noises of approval, somewhat like an "amen, sister," at a church service. I hadn't interested in her subject; in fact, I had only attended the event out of a sense of duty. So how did she get me to respond as I did? First, she was passionate about her subject, and passion is a prime communicator. Second, she involved us directly in every step: She had found a research treasure trove at the Duke library. Were any of us Duke alumni? Her research subject had lived on such-and-such a street in Raleigh. Were any of us from Raleigh? Did we know that street? Third, when she couldn't remember a name, she asked us for the name, without any embarrassment over her lapse of memory. Most important, she treated the event, not as a lecture, but as a communal gathering of intelligent people with whom she was sharing her passion.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

Stage Presence

The manager of an events venue told me this week that he'd decided that the difference between a hobbyist and a professional was stage presence. That he liked to encourage performers who were just starting out, but had begun to realize that they were never going to move up to his main floor venue if they didn't know how to communicate with their audiences. And that he saw the same problem with fine artists when he staged an art show. "They don't know how to talk to potential buyers," he said. "It's all about presence."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Technique vs. Communication

I watched a classical guitar player a few weeks ago. I say "watched" rather than heard because no matter how often I tried to force myself to listen to the music, I found myself watching his hands instead. Marvelous technique. How does he manage to do that? Wow, look at those hands move. I can still mentally see the performance, but I can't hear it at all. How great it would have been if he had included the audience in the music.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Critics

Richard I. Garber commented here about voluntary/involuntary audiences. Yes, indeed, I refer often in "Speak Up" to the differences between the two and how they need to be treated. But how do we treat the 1 or 2 members of a voluntary audience who are there to critique or distract or who knows what? What do you do when you can see your competition in the audience and know that they're there to criticize? I didn't have an answer until a few days later when I attended an orchestra concert at which a group of conservatory students in front of me wanted to make sure that everyone knew that they, too, were brilliant musicians. No matter how loud their comments, they only affected 6 people at most. The rest of the audience–probably 800 people–remained attentive to the stage. Although one would ordinarily treat the show-offs as an involuntary audience, their effect was so minimal that they weren't worth consideration. At a presentation I did a few days ago, one man arrived early, took a seat at the back of the room, and began to read a newspaper. He read his paper for the next hour and a half. I have no idea why he was there. But his disinterested energy was far outweighed by the enthusiastic energy of the larger audience and, therefore, didn't deserve special treatment.

Monday, May 23, 2011


We all know that public speaking terrifies more people than snakes, spiders, or airplane trips. Those who are the most terrified of public speaking itself, are terrified of taking a class to learning how to speak in public without being terrified. I led a workshop on "Writing after 50" this weekend at the Blue Ridge Bookfest, and one woman told me she had been afraid to write because of what she might find out. But it had occurred to her that if she wrote about her fear she could write a different ending. Yes, I said, and you could create a character that isn't you to live through whatever frightens you. So why not create a different persona to speak in public? We create different personas all the time in our daily lives. Hopefully, we present a different persona at work than we present to a child, a different persona to a lover than to a father. I have a chapter about creating a performing persona in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer. One of the exercises asks the reader to choose characteristics they want their performing persona to have–confidence, to be respected, etc.–and then to use body memories of a time when they were confident, and a time when they were respected. Sometimes workshop participants will realize that they don't really need one characteristic that they thought they were missing in their everyday personality; always do they realize that they really can create who they want to be.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Don't Tell Me What to Think

The last issue of Zoetrope: All Story has one of the best short stories I’ve read in years–”Rothko Eggs,” by Keith Ridgway. The narrator, a teenage girl, liked art that’s “empty.” “Really good artists” left a lot out so that “she could take her own things into the painting.” She didn’t like an artist who didn’t leave much room and was just “trying to look like he had amazing ideas.”

I went to a performance recently that didn’t let me take anything into it. I was told what to think about the theme; the emotions expected of me were obvious. I was being presented to, preached to; there was no room for me in what was happening on stage. I predictably responded by refusing to think or feel as instructed, and left the performance angry.

I also saw recently a production of Sondheim’s Assassins. To my mind, it’s theme is that presidential assignation attempts are the logical extension of the American dream, the way to become “somebody.” That’s a crazy statement, and yet I walked out of the theatre accepting it as rational. Because I was allowed to laugh at the idea, to bring my own experiences to bear on it, to think about it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Communication vs. Content

“We’re communicating on a human level: The content isn’t important anymore.”
That’s a quote from an interview with Nick Kendall, a violinist with Time for Three, in the Indianapolis Star. Nick is wrong about the content not being an important part of the success of Time for Three. I’m a huge fan, and it’s just plain fun to watch these classical virtuosi, technically some of the best in the country, break into Irish fiddling, reach over and play each other’s instruments, and act like serious clowns. He's exactly right, however, when he says that the content becomes less important than the communication. I’ve written in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer about a high-school-age actress who was given an unfortunate set of lines: “In 1865, . . .”; “Then in 1890, . . .” and about a dozen more. She played those lines so engagingly that I didn’t notice until afterward what terrible writing she’d been given. “Commune” in all its forms is a variation of the word “common,” something that is shared. We communicate when we talk together, when there is a mental or spiritual exchange. We can also participate in a mental or spiritual exchange when the medium is not words, but music or dance or even silence. Communication at the human level is what all performances should be about. If we’re not communicating when we perform, we ought not to be on a stage.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Audience Feedback

Another argument for not “projecting” to an audience:

I wrote in my last Community Arts Cafe column that when we involve the audience in a presentation, rather than projecting at them, we can pick up valuable information. I used, as an example, a reading that I gave from When Last on the Mountain, an anthology that I co-edited. I had thought that the eponymous piece would be a great ender. Very inspiring, I thought. Wrong. I could feel from the audience that it had not been inspiring, but a big downer. So I looked at my watch, noted with “delighted surprise” that we had time for one more, flipped through the book and landed on a piece that left them laughing.

I had a similar experience a few weeks later. I was reading the first 5 minutes of a new short story at an open mic. I’d had 7 other writers critique it, had revised it many times, and had thought it wasn’t the greatest story ever, but good enough to send out.

The first page went well–laughter in the appropriate places–but during the second page, I heard a voice in my head saying, “This is so banal.” A voice, not one of my own thoughts.

So I took the story to my best critic and, without telling him why, asked him to read the first 3 pages. He immediately told me what was wrong with it. So now I have to rewrite the whole story, and I’m embarrassed that I ever sent it out.

Audience feedback is a marvelous thing.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Writers Reading

I went to hear 5 writers reading their work last week and, though all 5 were present, I ended up hearing 1-1/2 of them.

I got a coughing fit, which I do when I don’t realize that I’m angry. The knees of the publisher sitting next to me were jumping out of control. Because we couldn’t hear most of what was being read to us.

Always on the side of the performer, I’ve tended to blame the sound system for my hearing problems in that hall. But not this time. Not after being able to hear 1 out of 5 clearly.

What went wrong? Let me count the ways:

Did they practice with the sound system? I doubt it.

They rushed, giving us no time to hear a word before they went on to the next one. An audience of 100 people needs more time to assimilate what it hears than does a group of 6.

They were not sharing the work with us. They were reading into an auditorium with people in it.

They were not reliving the stories they’d written. They were just reading the words.

1 of the writers avoided all these problems. She was engaged in her stories; she embraced the audience; we heard every word.

Did I mention that I was sitting next to a publisher? His knees stopped jiggling. He said, “I need to sign her.”