Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Elementary, my dear Watson!

Chairman's Report 2012Well into the frenzy of the holiday season, we could all use some sound, easy-to-implement method for maintaining focus and clarity. We're tired of myriad distractions derailing us from our ever-lengthening to-do lists, and overwhelmed by stimuli at the mall that pull us off course. Just in the Nick of time, a ray of hope shines forth from this past Sunday's New York Times: an article about new research that tells us, with a bit of practice, we can all attain a mindfulness that would make Sherlock Holmes proud.

The author, Maria Konnikova, writes about studies from University of Wisconsin and University of Washington that prove even a small amount of meditation can help us achieve real-world benefits: "As little as five minutes a day of intense Holmes-like inactivity, and a happier outlook is yours for the taking. . . But mindfulness goes beyond improving emotion regulation. An exercise in mindfulness can also help with that plague of modern existence: multitasking. Of course, we would like to believe that our attention is infinite, but it isn’t. Multitasking is a persistent myth. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result. We don’t devote as much attention to any one thing, and we sacrifice the quality of our attention. When we are mindful, some of that attentional flightiness disappears as if of its own accord."

So before you shop, wrap, decorate, bake, or even celebrate. . . take five for Sherlock. You just might discover more joy this season.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Coming in from the cold

Scottish Christmas Walk
© Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association
Holiday season around here kicks off with an event peculiar to our part of the world-- Alexandria, Virginia's annual Scottish Walk. The parade ends with Santa, as most parades after Thanksgiving do. But it honors Alexandria's heritage, and so it includes some unusual elements: marching bagpipe ensembles, Scottie dogs, and lots of tartan!

I must confess, we don't stand along the parade route each and every year, but we always go to a Holiday Open House hosted by a dear friend whose office is close by. When we open the door into her town home office, we notice the aroma of spiced hot cider, and we we are immediately enveloped in a feeling of good holiday cheer. When I attend these gatherings, I always leave with a new friend or business contact. Somehow, the atmosphere our hostess creates invariably allows for easy connectivity.

What is her secret? This past Sunday's New York Times gave me a clue. In their very informative "Gray Matter" column, authors Hans Ijzerman and Justin Saddlemyer describes research linking feelings of connection (and its opposite, octracism) to body temperature: "Research has shown that things like heart rate, levels of respiration and other involuntary physiological responses are affected by social connectedness. Thus, when people feel excluded, blood vessels at the periphery of the body (in the fingertips, for example) may narrow, preserving core body heat. This classic protective mechanism is known as vasoconstriction." Once again, science has given the biology behind our feelings: in this case, the reason we feel "left out in the cold" when we are not included! 

The good news is that the converse is also true, and I can only surmise that my gracious hostess knew that serving warm cider is not only festive, but conducive to conviviality!  ". . .  touching something warm after a feeling of ostracism — like holding a warm cup of coffee — is enough to halt and even reverse some of these autonomic responses. It seems as if the body can be fooled into feeling welcomed by applying a little warmth in the right places. And the effect is reciprocal: studies in our own lab and at Yale have found that adults and young children are more social after they’ve touched something warm."

I think we can all use this news. In professional settings, we can make sure to offer those hot beverages when is seems our connections may be weakening. In our social lives we can keep our spirits and core temperatures up -- if not through clothing (female festive wear is notable for it goosebump-inducing, flesh-baring sparkles) -- through eating or drinking something that gives us that warm and reassuring feeling inside. Or standing beside someone who does! 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Lessons from Beijing traffic

A rare break in traffic across for Tiananmen Square
Walking to a meeting last night in Washington, D.C. I stopped and looked at the chaos that is D.C. downtown rush hour traffic. I realized this was the first time I had experienced this phenomenon after my Beijing trip earlier in the month (a Thanksgiving trip to New England had intervened). I was struck by how the big city traffic here differs from that in Beijing, and began to ponder what traffic can teach us about life - and communication.

In Beijing, the pedestrian has no right-of-way. Vehicles of every size occupy three to four lanes on each side, and there are bicycles and three-wheeled electronic delivery carts in the bike lanes. Traffic signals seem to mean something, but apparently turning on red is permissible for right and left turns. So pity the poor tourist on foot! The best advice I got about walking around town was from a wonderful guidebook, China Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps. The authors said the best thing to do, since a stray bike or random cab can come out of nowhere, was to wait till a crowd gathers to cross the street and go with them. Even if you have the light, as a pedestrian you are vulnerable. Best to travel with a group. Fortunately, you are never far from a crowd in Beijing!

The other striking thing about Beijing traffic, though, is its quiet, almost dance-like flow. In a town with so many drivers that they can only use their cars on alternate days, and six ring roads defining the city, I was expecting to see NYC-style traffic jams, complete with horns blaring and breaks screeching. Nothing could have been farther from what I experienced. 

Beijing traffic flows smoothy. Drivers maintain a uniform pace (maxing out at 25 mph by my guesstimation). No one races to make a light, but plenty make u-turns mid-block (because so many streets are one-way). Those behind the wheel must be used to such things happening in front of them, but visiting passengers are quite unprepared! The first time I witnessed this (from inside a cab) I cringed and held on tight, expecting horns, maybe some loud cursing, definitely a jolt as the brakes were applied. But no, the turn was easily accomplished, and we were on our merry way.

It may be illustrative of what some call the "Chinese character" that drivers work so well, so harmoniously, in such a crowded place. Traffic is bad in Beijing, and I think the system of ring roads is pretty inefficient. But the drivers are all mindful of each other. They all seem to realize what so many of us forget: we are all fellow-travelers, and rushing about and behaving as if our needs trump everyone else's doesn't really help us reach our destinations that much sooner. They watch each other, engage mindfully, and go with the flow.

Lessons to remember the next time we find ourselves in a foreign communications landscape!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Why I give thanks

Thanksgiving is upon us, that most American of holidays. We all celebrate it: a feast of food, family and friends. It is a grand tradition indeed!

But most of us no longer farm. We did not flee religious persecution in our homelands. So our thanks is not for our new life of religious freedom, nor for the bountiful harvest we have gathered in. We may see the Pilgrims  and their 1621 Thanksgiving at Plymouth as a metaphor for a "good year",  a time of abundance, a time of freedom. But can we really relate?

There is an another historical first Thanksgiving in American, though, predating the one in Plymouth. In Virginia, on December 4, 1619, the givers of thanks represent another facet of American identity. Berkeley Hundred was chartered by the Virginia Company of London. Like the Jamestown Colony (est. 1607) it was business venture. The goal of the Company was to gain a foothold in the New World, cultivate some cash crops and send them back to England. These colonies were chartered to reap profits for settlers, speculators and shareholders. How very American!

And yet, even the profit-driven leaders of The Company acknowledged that the safe arrival of the colonizers would be a reason to give thanks to God. By charter, the Captain was directed to hold a service of Thanksgiving upon landing in Virginia. After 13 weeks at sea, Captain John Woodlief led his 38 men in prayer: “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God”. 

And so our first Thanksgiving was a celebration of our safe arrival, and the beginning of a new venture. For those of us who no longer live in an agrarian world, where life's rhythms follow the seasons, celebrating a harvest festival may be a bit of a mental stretch. But I think many of us (especially creative types and anyone who makes something out of raw material, drive, and vision) can relate to the thanks given at Berkeley Hundred. 

When we take a leap of faith into the unknown we are like those first settlers, guided by a hope for a better tomorrow and a prayer that we will arrive safely. Like them, the profit motive may be a factor, but we are also pioneers, journeying toward a new world. We will only succeed with good winds, hard work, and the grace of God.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A pause to reflect

The Forbidden City
I have just returned from a week in Beijing. It was a fantastic experience! I had never been in China before; indeed, this was my first trip to Asia. My husband had been invited to attend a conference, and I tagged along, just for fun.

The Great Wall
His Chinese colleagues were generous with their time, and invited us to several meals. One even shepherded us through our morning of haggling and bargain-hunting at The Pearl Market.  But most days we were on our own, seeing the sights and generally self-navigating the city. Not knowing more than three word of Mandarin, I did a lot of listening. was especially attuned to non-verbal communications.

I rediscovered that a smile can communicate a lot of good will, and that the meaning of joyous laughter is universal. But what also struck me was the essential place of the pause in any language. My husband's colleague graciously took us to the best Dim Sum restaurant near the Lama Temple.  And when she made a phone call, she spoke so rapidly in her native Mandarin that it took my breath away. Only when she paused did I know she had come to the end of a very long explanation. In a tonal language, ends of sentences cannot be signaled by the downward pitch of finality that we use in English. And so the pause becomes even more important as a signal of conclusion. We noted this as well when we had to rewind our (otherwise excellent) audio cassette tour of The Forbidden City. The Chinese English speaker was hard to follow: was she still describing the Hall of Supreme Harmony, or had she moved on the Hall of Central Harmony? She did not drop her vocal tone at the end, which is one of the few tonalities we use in English (as opposed to Mandarin, where every word is formed by one of three tones). So it sounded like she was continuing with the same thought. But if she had paused, we would have known.

It got me thinking of the rhythms of communication, and how essential the pause is in any language. In German, the listener uses the pause at the end of a sentence to match all the verbs with the nouns that preceded them. In English and the Western Romance languages, the listener uses the pause to  absorb what has just been said. If we fail to pause, we are not engaging in the give-and-take of the communications loop, and we lose our listener.

When speech mirrors our speeding train of thought, it is too hard for the listeners to stay on board. And once they have jumped off, it is almost impossible to pull them back on. A pause may seem like a small thing, but it can keep you on track!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Can a connection be made?

One last blog about the Presidential debates.

I find it troubling that facts were the biggest casualties of this series. If I were an undecided voter I doubt I the debates would have led to a decision. Yes, the President gave lots of detail for how he would reach his policy goals, whereas Governor Romney continued to deal in vague, positive-sounding generalities. But some people do not like all that detail and do not want to know how the economy will be fixed: they just want it to be fixed. So this time, "how I feel about the candidate" just might tip the scales.

The televised debates were meant to give us a clearer view of each candidate; to show us what each of them stood for. But, as I said, facts were distorted so much that it was hard to score them on that point. That brings us back to perception and connection. So what's the final score?

I give the ultimate win to President Obama. Here's why: he proved he can learn from his mistakes. His delivery continued to improve as the cycle went on, while Governor Romney succumbed to overconfidence that led to a smug delivery in the third debate. The Governor is already battling the perception that he thinks he is better than at least 47% of us. He should be more careful not to seem snobby and elitist. A dose of humility would have helped.

As the President noted in his interview with Jay Leno on Wednesday, "If you don't have the energy and presentation that make people snap up and say 'I get it'" you lose. He learned to overcome his personal tendency to be cool, cerebral and aloof and come out in the third debate as someone who will fight for the voter. His eye contact with the moderator, the way he cocked his head as he listened, his use of gestures that were congruent with his words (to name just a couple of specifics) all said: this is a real person who just might listen to a voter like me.

Now I know voting is so incredibly partisan this time around that no one can predict what will happen. But I know that many of us in the professional speaking world hope the President is reelected. He is the better speaker, and - best of all - he has shown he can learn from his mistakes! The fact that he is aware that there is always room for improvement endears him to teachers and coaches everywhere. These debates, after all, did provide us with a glimpse of what makes him tick.

Never underestimate the power of making that connection.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Don't forget the audience

Presidential debates are part campaign rally, part talk show interview, part smack down. I found this  week's debate at Hofstra University a particularly interesting example of the genre. First, you can't put anything over on the undecided voters of Nassau County. They were all thrilled (I would assume) to be there, and were given strict orders not to react to the candidates' responses. But the camera did occasionally catch faces showing various degrees of perplexity, disagreement, enthusiasm. It was good people-watching if you were looking for reflexive responses - the kind that can't be hidden!

Regrettably, the main event became the showdown between the candidates, gleefully reported on by every major media outlet in the country. And though partisans seemed to get some basic animal thrill from watching their guys "duke it out," I would not be surprised if the undecided remained undecided. The candidates each began with a massive failure to play to the studio audience, and to the larger audience at home.

My guess is that both President Obama's and Governor Romney's debate coaches told them to look at the questioner when answering to show sincerity and commitment. But that's exactly what they did -  they showed, all right, but who believed them? They both glombed on to the faces of their unsuspecting targets and fixed on them for way too long. I really felt for Jeremy Epstein, the first one to pose a question. It's hard enough to disengage when someone locks you in their gaze, but when that person is the President, what can you do? Jeremy said in a post-debate interview that he felt nervous, and that he felt he couldn't move because Mitt Romney was looking at him so intently.

After the debate, when Jeremy met the candidates, he said felt he was talking to "real people" -- and for him, that was the best part. Hmmmm. I wonder how a candidate could harness that power of connection during the debate? Here's a hint: real communication never takes place anywhere in the vicinity of a stare down. Relax your gaze, look around, open up your body and your gestures to include others in the audience. Take a cue from Oprah: you need to connect with everyone there -- they are likely as concerned as Jeremy about job prospects for young people. And use the camera to convey your sincerity to the audience at home. There seems to be some great aversion to the camera, as if the candidates had been coached not to try to speak to the very large viewing audience. I can only imagine why that would be -- it will seem more "real" if you don't occasionally connect with viewer at home?? Like this is in any way a "real" event we are just eavesdroping on! There is no fourth wall here. Use the tools of your media, fellas. You don't need to direct address us for paragraphs at a time, but occasionally look in our direction.

Both did a better job as the evening went on. By question three you could see the President loosening up and trying to connect. He did start playing to the crowd more, and his body language relaxed, as did his enunciation. But when Governor Romney interrupted him, you could see his defenses go up, his posture stiffened, he disengaged from the questioner and focussed on his "combatant." Partisans had been begging for that since the first debate. So if the evening was about a fight, they gave us a good show. But if I were an undecided voter, I would still have a lot of questions.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The veep stakes

Last week I wrote that the Presidential debate looked very different to me that it did to most major  pundits who proclaimed their opinions far and wide.  The Daily Beast posted an interesting article that helps explain why: "But with the rise of blogging and especially Twitter, journalists are spending more and more time immersed in the world of retorts and clever one-liners than ever before." So thoughtful responses from Obama, because they weren't snappy or zingy, led him to be caricatured as sleepy, tired, unfocussed. 

After last night's Vice Presidential debate, even greater dissection of the contestants was offered up. Fortunately, looking sleepy was not a charge that could be leveled against either Joe Biden or Paul Ryan.

I thought Joe Biden's energy and pugnaciousness were refreshing, and I did not mind his interrupting  Paul Ryan or Martha Raddatz, since he had valid points to make. Often he corrected a point made by his opponent, a move calculated to try to get people to actually think about what was being said (which is one of the only proven ways to counter mis-information). Much has been made about his smiling at Ryan's statements, but Joe does not have a poker face: much better to smile at something you consider a bunch of "malarkey" as he colorfully termed it, than scowl and/or shake your head! Paul Ryan looked far too earnest. Like he was trying reallyreallyhard to convince the moderator (and by extension, the viewing public) that he was right. His bulging eyes, raised eyebrows and furrowed forehead were exhausting to watch. So earnest, so sure of himself; he walked a very fine line between confidence and smugness. He crossed it a couple of times. But I know he appealed to those who were predisposed to see him as the Next Big Thing and Joe as a washed-up glad-hander.

From a professional standpoint, my critique is of their delivery only; there are way too many organizations who have fact-checked their content for me to weigh in on it. I would give this one to Joe. He was at ease, yet forceful when he needed to be. He used vocal variety to express different ideas and thoughts appropriately. He was at home in his body: he moved, he gestured, he breathed. Paul Ryan, for all his confidence, was, oddly and visably ill at ease. He drank way too much water and swallowed nervously throughout. He lacked the kind of vocal cadence you use when you have internalized a message; he sounded well-drilled. He hammered home his messages with pretty much the same tense, I- want-to-really-make-you-understand feeling all the time. Pushing himself at us, not pulling us in. I got the feeling he wasn't a very good listener.

I'll be listening again next week as Obama and Romney meet again. Who knows? Maybe I will hear something new!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Debating the debate

Presidential Debate season is upon us, and that always makes me ponder just what it is the audience for such televised events expect to see. Every four years when they roll around pollsters tell us that debates really don't change anyone's mind.  So why do we tune in?

I think there are many reasons, not the least of which is that these debates are shared media events for a population that often feels overlooked. They are Superbowls for policy wonks, nerds, and student government officers nation-wide. The debate on October 3rd got more than half as many viewers as the most recent, record-breaking Superbowl!

But, contrary to the experts cited in columns across our nation this past week, I did not see it as a "game-changer," a slam-dunk for a "new and improved" Mitt Romney who all of the sudden appeared presidential. Yes, he had some good moments, but those have become legendary as the week has worn on. And for all the "experts" say "optics matter," am I the only one who thought the smile Governor Romney reverted to while listening was tentative and tense? Apparently Jason Sudeikis and the writers and directors at Saturday Night Live remembered it. It reminded me as I watched Wednesday night of the face my Siamese cat used to make when she smelled something really bad. Of course, the President did not do a great job, either: he did look down a lot, and seemed disengaged.

They both rambled. I do not know what debate the other experts and pundits were watching when they proclaimed Governor Romney succinct and to the point: I felt he was suffering from the run-on-sentencitis that Sarah Palin perfected. And the President joined him in the weeds with too many details, too many factoids that the viewing public could not process.

I would say neither man won, in terms of connecting with the audience. Republican partisans I know disagree, but they had set the bar for success for Governor Romney fairly low after his summer of gaffes. They would argue with me, but I stand by my assessment. He had a few good moments, but overall, he sounded like a politician, trying to score points, talking at the audience.

Many people watch these debates for sport, many for schadenfreude, but I have to believe there are still a few (and maybe the most important, the Undecideds) who actually want to connect with the candidates. Who want to see that they are actually talking to their audience, trying to communicate with them. Not lecture to them, talk down to them, or be disengaged for any reason whatsoever.

Only connect, as E.M. Forster would say. It's that simple. And that hard. It will be instructive to see, during the next town-hall-style debate October 16th, if they have gotten better at connecting. In the meantime, the pretty boy of the Right tries to take down the sex symbol of the Left this week as Congressman Ryan meets Vice President Biden. Now that will be good television!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Resurfacing after a success!

It has been quite a while since blog readers have had any new posts from me. But I had a good reason: my play Becoming Calvin had its world premiere this past month in Washington, D.C. It went quite well, and now of course, I am more determined than ever to put it on a larger stage, i.e. get it out to more professional theatre companies or colleges/universities that can produce it. For another opinion about the production, you can read this blog posted by Ruth Everhart (a terrific writer herself!).
The cast of Becoming Calvin with Jonathan Lee Taylor as Calvin

I learned so much during this process. I thought I would share a bit of it with readers of this blog. As Producing Artistic Director of the production I wore just about every hat there was. In the three years since I wrote the play I have been raising funds to get it up and running. I decided I would direct this production myself (having had some directing experience before), because we hadn't raised sufficient money to hire someone else. So I cast all the actors and hired the designers. That was lots of fun; I got to meet so many creative, vsisionary people! As the summer wore on I used the killer logo designed by a talented college student as the basis for putting together promotional materials (thank God for Vistaprint!), and the program. I tracked ticket sales. . . you get the idea. I was doing it all! And it was very instructive to see how much needed to be done.
graphic by Alexandra Pigott

Even more instructive, as my "army" of volunteers dwindled down to two dedicated souls, was how two stalwart, detail-oriented, organized people did the job of at least a dozen less self-directed folks. I was also blessed with paid talent who pitched in wherever needed, out of devotion to the project, and/or the satisfaction of doing a job well. Turns out that as a rookie "job creator" I made some very smart hiring decisions! I went with gut instincts, hiring people who not only excel as actors, stage manager, and designers, but who truly are team players. No over-sized egos (a good thing, because the dressing room was tiny!) And I will always look for that from now on: because creating a universe out of nothing, which is what we do in the theatre, has to be a collaboration. I liked being the boss, yes, and I was ready to accept responsibility for anything that went awry (nothing major did, though). For six weeks this summer I did virtually nothing but oversee every aspect of this play. But it was worth it -- because the people I worked with were fabulous.

Now I return to the solitary writer's role as I embark on the sequel, Being Calvin. I will miss the interaction with such gifted people. But as I stare at so many blank pages, I know now that there will likely be another happy ending, when this play is staged. And even if my role is reduced -- maybe I will only be the playwright -- I will be part of something greater than the sum of its parts. I believe that is what drives artists, always. And why we keep creating, one note, one brushstroke, one word at a time.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Of labor and roller coasters

Happy Labor Day!

In case you need a refresher on why most people in the U.S. get the first Monday in September off from work, why many businesses are closed, etc., check out the handy History of Labor Day from the U.S. Dept. of Labor website. It is interesting to note that workers are celebrated in most other countries on May Day, but here that has long been seen as a day that is too un-American to mark.

But whether we mark the day in September or in May, we should pay tribute to the men and women who protested, marched, petitioned, fought, faced imprisonment and ostracism to make each and every workplace and work site a safer, more equitable place. As a member of three unions -- Actors' Equity Association, SEIU, and the newly unified SAG-AFTRA --  I am grateful for those who paved the way.   

So, we mark the day by not laboring. Many of us relax at the pool one last time and barbeque. Here in my corner of Virginia our kids are getting ready to go back to school. (I believe my son is working, even as I type, on finishing up his summer work packet!) We have an extremely late start date because our lawmakers think it is important our families have one last chance to ride roller coasters and hit the Midway at the amusement park.

I am back at work tomorrow, going into the home stretch for my upcoming production of Becoming Calvin. As Producing Artistic Director of this project, I have been at the helm for 3 1/2 years. As you can imagine, I am very excited to finally get it off the ground. Our fundraising period was successful enough to allow me to hire professional actors who are extremely gifted. Getting the right people to do their jobs has made my job so much easier.  I am grateful to the union that supports my actors, so they can bring the play to life!

Thanks, Labor!


Friday, August 17, 2012

Act like you mean it!

I love actors! (and by this I mean people who act, regardless of gender. The trend among those of us who are actors is to use this gender-neutral term; see SAG Awards, which, unlike the Academy Awards given by the Academy for Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, are given to acting professionals by acting professionals.)

I am in the midst of rehearsals for an upcoming production of my new play Becoming Calvin and am working with some very gifted people. They are professional, experienced actors who know their craft, and really understand the subtleties of human communication. They know that the meaning of a sentence, of a single word, even, can be changed by a slight shift in vocal tone or inflection, a pause or quickening of the pace, or a physical gesture that underscores or undercuts the actual words. They know that what is actually being communicated is so much more than the lines they read on the printed page. When they are exploring a script, as my cast is now, it is fascinating to see the various permutations of meaning they explore for a single sentence. It is important, too, because the way that sentence is read can derail or propel the entire scene.

While we were having auditions for the play there were some actors who felt compelled to "embellish" the text and use it as a springboard for their own antics. The playwright in me was not pleased! There was much to mine in the words that were there. Why did these actors ignore them and overlay the text with tricks that got easy laughs? Needless to say, these actors are not in my current cast.

Watching rehearsals last night I realized (for about the millionth time) how subtle and nuanced human communication really is. No wonder so much of it fails so completely! If people aren't looking and listening closely they can miss important cues as to what is really being said. E-mail is full of these kinds of communications missteps; this has long been understood. But we need work at "being in the moment" for every communications exchange--personal and professional. That is of paramount importance if we have any hope of conveying what we truly mean.

Just take a cue from the actors!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Powers of persuasion

I work a lot in the realm of communications and leadership, so of course the conversation often comes turns to the art of persuasion. As with any art, many people think they are more skilled at it than they are. I have a colleague who claims she "could sell ice to Eskimos," which is a marketing cliche that I wish would die, once and for all! The truth, as any parent can attest, is that you cannot make anyone do anything. Unless they want to.
So when I heardlatest report on NPR's "Morning Edition" last week, "Manipulating People into Saying Yes" I was intrigued. Vedantum reports that new research shows people will comply with requests you make of them, i.e. do what you want them to do, if you first make an unusual request that grabs their attention. And that makes sense, because in that initial approach you are establishing a relationship. Then your subsequent request (what you really want them to do) does not seem to come out of the blue. NPR's radio clip provides some humorously anecdotal evidence of how and why this works.

As I say to my clients and students, you can't make people do anything they don't want to -- unless they see how they would benefit. So how do we convince people of the benefit of doing what we want? Look at human nature. Many of us want to live our lives peacefully, not rocking the boat unless we have reason to. Though we may not actively go out of our way to please others, we also don't want to cause undue anxiety/draw attention/make others angry by needlessly displeasing them.

In his story, Vendatum highlights the nature of his request: "And what the unusual request gets you to do is it gets you to stop and think. And when you get to stop and think, you become much more likely then to comply with the real request." People don't want to displease him, so they do the little thing he asks. Why? He gets their attention by showing his vulnerability. He starts to break down the walls that separate him from his subject. He clearly establishes a relationships.

The lesson for us? When we jolt our conversation partners out of "auto pilot mode" and invite them to be not only in the moment, but in the moment with us, we have taken the first step toward true communication.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Separated by a common language

Just back from a trip to Toronto!

Had a great time visiting the Bata Shoe Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, dining with friends, catching what breezes we could on rooftop bars (in the middle of a heat wave), and walking, walking, walking!

Being in English-speaking Canada as an American really makes you realize how very important it is to communicate clearly! Yes, we speak the same language, with more or less the same accent (I grew up on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, after all). But I found I needed to listen closely to actually hear what is being said. Spoken Canadian, after all, can be different from spoken Mid-Atlantic or Midwestern American English.

That's one of the wonderful things about travel: you see with new eyes and hear with new ears! When we don't do this, and kinda-sorta listen, putting our ears on auto-pilot, we miss out on the nuance that can reveal so much. If we can listen attentively, taking in and responding to different cadences, accents, and vocabularies, we will no longer be separated by a common language (with apologies to GBS). And nothing will be lost in translation.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

News flash: men and women more alike than different

Well, like I always say: someone should do a study!

And they did. This week I heard a story on NPR about a recent study concerning communications differences between men and women. And how it adversely affects women in the workplace, specifically those pursuing science and math careers. 

The story, ably reported by NPR Science Correspondent Shankur Vedantum, reveals some truths about how we communicate. These discoveries, refreshingly, fly in the face of what I ironically refer to as conventional wisdom: "The sampling technique has revealed flaws in common stereotypes. Take the one about how women like to talk much more than men. When Mehl actually measured how many words men and women speak each day, he found there was practically no difference — both men and women speak around 17,000 words a day, give or take a few hundred."

That sound you heard around 5: 45 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday? That was me, cheering in Arlington, Virginia. The "stereotype threat" referred to in the story has long been one of the banes of my professional and personal existence. Yes, stereotypes often have a basis somewhere 'way back, but that does not mean they hold for every new encounter. And yet our brains like to organize and categorize, so stereotypes creep in insidiously, and before we know it, we are operating under false assumptions. And so are the people we are trying to work with and live with. Even when we know we do not fit the stereotype, the fact that we are aware of it affects our performance.

One of my biggest communications mantras is "banish the inner critic" whenever you speak/interact in the public sphere. Trust your preparation, silence that negative voice. It is hard, but neccesary if you want to succeed. You can't allow someone else's prejudices to trip you up!

Yes, this is extremely challenging when the stereotype is so pervasive and yet unrecognized. Harness your inner warrior and fight it! Because in your more circumspect moments, you know that ugly stereotype -- the one less mindful folk insist applies to you -- is setting a trap.

And now we have the science to prove it.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Lincoln: leadership and vampires

Hoping to beat the heat that blankets much of the mid-Atlantic region this week, I took advantage of our "indoor season" here in Virginia and finished reading Ronald C. White Jr.'s excellent A. Lincoln. It is a compelling biography of one of our nation's true heroes. Today as we experience governmental gridlock, we could use a leader like Lincoln, whose wisdom and determination led him to do the right thing, in spite of public opinion, often against the advice of his "team of rivals"(as Doris Kearns Goodwin so famously dubbed his Cabinet).

I am not quite sure about the new movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I have not seen it, but I wonder if its timing was planned to tap into a national zeitgeist. Aside from being in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War , this election year make us think about leadership. Many feel we could use a leader like Lincoln, who was brave enough to stand up to his enemies and fight to the finish (see White's book for a description of Lincoln's ongoing frustration with his generals, "Unconditional Surrender" Grant excepted).

White's biography provides a great case study in leadership. I urge anyone anywhere who wants to be a real leader to read it. I particularly appreciate the pages White devotes to analysis of Lincoln's important speeches and addresses. And the detail he gives on Lincoln's thorough preparation! The master speaker worked tirelessly in relentless pursuit of the right phrase, the correct tone, and imagery. He also kept reams of private "notes to self" in desk drawers wherever he was (law office in Springfield, Presidential Office in the White House) that provided the foundation for many speeches - even years later.

So the myth that he scribbled the Gettysburg address of the back of an envelope is just that  --- a myth. But like the story about Lincoln being a vampire slayer, maybe it appeals to us because we need to believe that someone who is such a monumental figure had superhuman qualities. No mere mortal like us could accomplish so much. . .  Or could she?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

When lightning strikes!

On Friday I finished two weeks teaching back-to-back classes at American University's intense Discover the World of Communications program for high school students. I spent three hours every morning with incredible youth leaders and leaders-in-training, sharing my approach to public speaking in a course called "Speaking for Impact." The afternoon I was with young filmmakers who wanted to explore being in front of and behind the camera in "Acting & Directing for Camera." It was a whirlwind!

I kept thinking I need to blog about the experience, but kept putting it off because a) I was pretty brain-fried when I came home after teaching (and commuting into DC during rush hour -- which I am not used to -- and which doesn't seem to be any better in the summer), and b) I could not think of one overarching theme to distill into a blog post.

And then, Friday night we got hit with an incredible storm in Northern Virginia.  So the power was out for 30 hours and I couldn't blog if I wanted to.

I got to thinking, though, about different types of power, and realized that I had been dealing with variations on the theme of power for the past two weeks (an insight I may share with the new batch of "Speaking for Impact"-ers tomorrow).

Communication is a tool. Used the right way, it can yield enormous power. We often forget that. It only takes a second to make a lasting impression. Sometimes, we connect with people instantly. Crackle! You feel the electricity, like a lightning strike. Other times we have the luxury of establishing a relationship that unfolds, over time, like a lazy summer shower that gives us gifts of rainbows. But always, when we successfully communicate, we connect: there is a transference of energy from one person to another. And back again.

A successful communicator disturbs the atmosphere: We feel enveloped by her or his presence, energy and message. Much like a good lightning storm, a good speaker (and filmmaker, for that matter) generates electricity.
Feel the power!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My morning with Hillary and Madeleine

Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright kicked off the inaugural Women in Public Service Project Summer Institute  last week at our alma mater, Wellesley College, and I was there!

The theme of Day One was "The Importance of Storytelling." I was one of many speakers and trainers invited to join the WPSP for its two-week Institute. Its mission: to build a generation of empowered women leaders. When I was asked to come and help these emerging global leaders share their stories, I jumped at the chance! Even as cultural differences loom large, the truth is that every civilization around the globe, since time immemorial, has depended on its storytellers. Sometimes they are truth-tellers and witness-bearers (and there are quite a few of those at the Summer Institute). Sometimes they are the dreamers and visionaries.

But we all have stories that need to be told, truths or dreams that can only be shared through narrative structure that relies on a beginning, a middle, and an end. And we learn anything more easily when it is framed as a story, because our brains naturally accept such a structure. We stay "on track" with any speaker who can guide us down that path.

On Monday afternoon (after the festivities of the morning - see above) I was fortunate to be preceded by the incomparable Judge Nancy Gertner. She recounted a number of professional situations in her career as both attorney and judge when stories supported and proved her point.

I began my tutelage as the delegates engaged in role-playing, working in committees and giving formal policy presentations. My job was somewhat complicated by the fact that many of the global delegates were speaking in English, their second or third language. And some, knowing the importance of their subject matter, were reluctant to use stories to illustrate their points. They were not eager to add the  "distractions" of such narratives to their efficient, ordered analyses. I think they harbored a not-uncommon view that stories trivialize a presentation, undermining the speaker's authority.

But there were others who used stories extremely well. And they showed their sister delegates how to incorporate them to make a point: their eyes lit up, their bodies became energized when entering the "story" portion of the presentation. Such engagement showed clearly that this strategy makes presentations come alive. And makes the listeners care. And listeners act upon what they care about.

Story is a powerful tool!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

No time to blog

I took part in the Opening Day festivities of the Women in Public Service Project Summer Institite earlier this week, which I will blog more about later.

And I am busy assembling the cast and creative team for my play, Becoming Calvin.

So I really did not have time to blog this week! But I did get out the June edition of my newsletter, Notes from the Speaker's Bubble. The lead article is about the value of going back to the beginning once you have mastered a discipline or practice. Very helpful when you're stuck creatively or otherwise in a rut. If you like would like to subscribe to my monthly newsletter, sign up here.

Will get back to blogging more soon, I hope!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What we can learn from "Acting!"

Actors love to act! But of course, the best don't let you catch them in the act of acting. Baaaad acting, the kind we associate with Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian, loves to call attention to itself. Good acting, well... that is somewhat indistinguishable from "being" -- on a very focussed level.

I have been auditioning actors for my upcoming production of the play I wrote three years ago. It has been a long journey to get to this point, and now the fun is starting! I love meeting actors, and there are many talented ones in the DC area. I have been amazed and gratified by the number of gifted men and women willing to be a part of our adventure.

And what an adventure it is! I am playing a lot of roles myself: wearing both playwright and director hats, at the moment (also doing the day-to-day producing work, but that's another story. . .) That may be why I am most attracted to actors who let the story be the star, not themselves. They do not spend time being clever and thinking up "bits" to enliven the scene; they work to bring the scene -- as written -- to life! The fact that they trust the text speaks volumes, I think, about they way they work as artists.

I tell my Adult Ed acting students, as well as my public speaking clients they, too, need to trust the text. Sometimes this is more difficult, especially if they haven't fully prepared. But here's the professional advice I give them: You Need To Prepare. I know they already know this, but sometimes you just have to hear something from an "expert" to believe your gut instinct. And to act upon it.

Make the time, do the preparation. Then you can relax and just be. Be the conduit for the message. Let it pass through you freely. You will communicate more clearly if you can just let it flow, and not clutter  it up with cleverness that comes from forgetting that it's not about you. It's always, always -- in theatre, in a speech, in a conference call -- about the message!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Don't forget to breathe

"Take a deep breath."

I give this advice all the time.  In my work as a speaker trainer/communications consultant, my clients come to me to learn how to improve their speaking abilities. If I had a magic wand to wave over them, transforming them on the spot into genius orators, I would pull it out! But I don't, so I start with the magic I know: I start with the breath. Breath is the engine for all speech: you simply cannot produce vocal sound without it.

And breath is, of course, a necessity to – life itself! If we don’t breathe we die. But we forget. When we are stressed, we make matters worse by “holding our breath" – or we take quick, shallow panic breaths when we should do exactly the opposite.  The professional term for this is “getting in our own way.”  And it takes some people months, even years of practice to stop “trying” so hard to “do or “make” and just “be.” Be in the moment. Be aware. Be the breath.

Even Google recognizes that breathing is important! They have a Zen master at the Googleplex who teaches engineers how to breathe and practice mindfulness. Two Sundays ago on her radio show Interfaith Voices, Maureen Fiedler interviewed Chade-Meng Tan. He is a member of  Google’s Talent Team, and author of  Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace). Tan’s course on mindfulness is one of the most popular classes Google offers its employees. His practices derive from Buddhism, but he has found that "The practice of calming the mind by focusing on breath is universal." He defines mindfulness as ''Just being present – without judgment."

Maureen Fieldler asked if this was hard for such high-achievers. Tan replied  "mindfulness is simple, but not easy . . . Googlers are already good at concentration & motivation . . . but they are very much in their heads and need to bring attention to the body. Sometimes their achievement drive interferes with the meditative mind." 

It is hard for any of us high achievers to let go, and stop trying so hard to control things. But as wise men and women throughout the ages tell us again and again, and as even Google knows, we have to stop doing and just be. Breathe. And let life unfold before you. It just may surprise you!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lessons from Chuck Brown

This past week we have lost several gifted vocal musicians, ranging from the Prince of Lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau , the Queen of Disco, Donna Summers, and the God-father of Go- Go, Chuck Brown. To spoil it for the superstitious who believe in the Rule Of Threes, let me also point out that Robin Gibb lost his battle with cancer this week.

Vocalists are special musicians: the are their own instruments. The upside is you don't have to pay for extra space in the baggage compartment when you travel, but the down-side is that you can't ever put it down. And that means you have to be aware of everything you are doing, because it all affects your voice. When I first heard a radio clip of Chuck Brown's biggest hit "Bustin' Loose"  I thought "what is he doing with his voice? He won't have it much longer if he keeps making that sound!" When I heard him live this past September he still sounded great - at age 74!

Singers know that everything shows up in the voice: their general health, physical and mental; their focus; how deeply they deep connect with the lyrics; and their need to share that connection with the audience. But the rest of us get lazy; we use our glorious instruments as quotidian tools. When we speak, there is no need to work as meticulously as singers do to produce a good sound. The technical demands are not as precise. You can be feeling "a little low" and still breathe deeply and be relaxed and focused and achieve a ''good enough" spoken vocal tone. We simply are not required to sing our "ah" in the center of the A. It could be a G flat and no one would really notice. 

And we are lucky that way, we speakers. But I think we should take a page from the singer's notebook. We should remember to work on our phrasing, our coloration, our line. We need to make sure we convey our message with all the nuance we can, given the relative limitation of the instrument used in spoken mode. And it is possible; listen to Jim Dale (who so fabulously narrates the "Harry Potter''  books) discuss the artistry of book narration in a 2005 NPR interview. 

I know, there is only one Jim Dale, but his work, and that of many other audiobook narrators (Stockard Channing as Ramona, anyone?) remind that even as speakers, we can play our instruments to astonishing effect! 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Still walking the walk

Since my blog post last week about walking in high heels was such a hit I thought I would continue in the vein. More insight on how to walk the walk. . .

Some women seem to instinctively know how to make walking in heels work. Sofia Vergara's character Gloria proudly totters on her heels during a family outing to Disneyland on last week's Modern Family . Fianlly, she, too, succumbs and hilarity ensues! Of course, that is comedy, not real life. 

Back in my childhood, girls were encouraged by their mothers, as well as their Girl Scout leaders (via whatever merit badge we got from doing so) to take the Wendy Ward Charm School course at the local Montgomery Ward Department store. Years ago, long before it went bankrupt and was sold to an online retailer, Ward's offered a multi-week course that prepared us to be "young ladies".  In the basement of a store in a strip mall.

But, location notwithstanding, we were transformed. We learned to walk -- rather, glide -- across the floor. In imitation of the Hayley Mills movie heroines so popular at the time, we put our heels down 6 inches in front of our toes and walked a straight line, while balancing single slim books on our heads. Certainly something you had to practice. Later in life,  I needed to "walk like a man" when playing Rosalind with my all-female Shakespeare troupe in college. I practiced walking with a wider stance, legs moving from the hip, avoiding the swiveling that set feet in a line in front of each other. A more liberating, balanced way to walk, for sure. But a gait that called out for sensible shoes, not "date night shoes."

At Wendy Ward we also learned very useful advice about how to sit. When seated, we were told, the only acceptable place to cross your legs is at the ankles, never the knees. Moreover, "our knees should be best friends" i.e., we must keep them together when seated. This is still great advice for whenever you're not wearing trousers. Particularly if you're on a panel and seated at a table without a table skirt, or up on a dias or stage sitting in a place of honor. Nothing kills credibility like showing too much thigh, or worse, offering the audience a glimpse up your skirt.

I see many online advice blogs that offer help to girls today. From what I see out there,  I can only surmise their readership is low. And I wonder if any virtual expert or e-communal experience can ever be half as effective as those after-school sessions where we learned to walk like we owned the world in the basement of Montgomery Ward.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Walking the walk

As I was surfing FB I saw that a friend posted she had recently made a resolution to wear high heels more often. I thought I knew why. There are many things a good pair of heels can do. They make you feel taller and hence, more powerful. They slim your overall look by visually lengthening your legs. They create a "wiggle in your walk," that many find attractive. For me, stepping into my heels often signals an imminent special occasion--probably because they remind me of my girlhood "party shoes" that were too impractical to wear everyday.

I know, too, that there are many reasons to hate high heels. The three main arguments against then:
1) Physiological/medical: Are you an orthopedist? If not, heels are no good for your health and well-being.
2) Feminist: What does it say that men find women more attractive when they are wearing footwear that renders them virtually helpless, or at least keeps them off balance?
3) Practical: There are so many things essential to everyday life you absolutely cannot do in heels, why would you want to wear them ? (Of course the women who take part in Amsterdam's Stiletto Run may disagree: after looking at them race in heels I would say they have special skills.)

I have been watching women teetering on sky-high heels for a long time. But I reserve judgement: I am sure they have their reasons. However, all too often whatever image/illusion these women create by wearing heels is shattered when they begin to move. Sometimes I worry they will fall and twist their ankles. Often I witness women who have no idea how to walk in heels clomp about like so many horses. I single out women; any self-respecting cross dresser or drag queen knows that walking in high heels is something that takes a lot of practice.

So - practice. Wear your heel inside to break them in. Slow down. Put one foot in front of the other. As young girls in the 60's we were taught to do this (I believe it was a prerequisite for getting our first pair of heels). Most importantly, extend your legs from your hip sockets, not just your knees. Not only does this put slightly less stress on your knees, it helps you maintain a graceful gait. Walking by kicking your your legs out from your knees results in that unattractive horsey-walk.

You have your reasons for wearing heels, none of which involves a comparison to Mr. Ed!  If you put in a little practice, you will glide like a runway model -- and not the ones who fall off their shoes.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Going to the candidates' debate. . .

If you're not already a fan of Amy Poehler's genius creation, Parks and Rec, you should be! This season we follow our heroine, that earnest cheerleader for local government, Leslie Knope, as she runs for City Council against the doltish heir to the largest employer in Pawnee, Indiana (Paul Rudd). 

Last week's episode featured the candidates' debate.  I recommend it to anyone who is contemplating a run for office or working on a campaign. Leslie was more than holding her own until she was blindsided by a "bomb" lobbed by her opponent right before the closing statements. She talked her campaign manager into letting her go off script so she could speak to the issue that threatened to derail her candidacy. What I especially liked about this interaction is that Leslie, who had vowed never again to disregard the advice of Ben, her manager (and boyfriend), made a conscious choice to do just that. She threw away the playbook and went out on a limb --- but it was very clear that she was not extemporizing, not just speaking "in the heat of the moment." As she has said from the beginning, "I have been preparing for this campaign my whole life."

Now, I know this is TV, and the whole thing was scripted, but I found it instructive. "Speaking from the heart" can be a powerful strategy -- only IF you have been thoroughly prepared and are absolutely sure of what you stand for. That's a big IF! Too often I have heard, "well, I will just wing it" or, "I don't want to be over-prepared, then I will be inauthentic." And the images we see of candidate debates on TV and in movies only perpetuate the myth that it is possible, when you're in a corner, to come out swinging and knock your opponent down with your brilliance. But that doesn't happen. The character of Leslie that Poehler created has never not been prepared. That is why Ben reluctantly gave her permission to deviate from their plan in this episode. And though she is fictional, we can all benefit from Leslie's example. The deeper your preparation, the greater your latitude to "change it up." The pros know that. But they never let you see it!

The other totally goofy plot line in last week's episode provides a brilliant example of the lost art of storytelling. I won't say more, except that Andy's recreations of movies made me reflect on the wildly improbable success of Charles Ross' One Man Star Wars Trilogy. We all relish a good story, well told.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Art as (p)art of your life!

We are all arts consumers.

Whether we realize it or not, our lives are enriched by art every day. And most of us rely on art to keep us going through the tough times. That beautiful song that provides inspiration? The book you turn to when feeling blue? The classic movie that always lifts your spirits, or, conversely, gives you an excuse to cry your eyes out? Yes, many of these experiences come to you via the vast American Entertainment Complex, but don't be fooled. They could not have been packaged and marketed to you unless someone in the beginning had an original vision. And the training to nurture that vision into something tangible.  Sometimes, when the final product reaches us, it has watered down so much of the original creative spark that we have to look hard to find it. But other times, even in a wildly popular sit-coms like Modern Family, my favorite TV drama The Good Wife, or the music of Adele, the unmistakable whiff of art lingers.

But the pipeline that brings us popular works of art isn't an option for the vast majority of artists. How long can we keep growing artists in a country that persistently under-funds them?  According to a 2010 study from the National Assembly of State Arts agencies: "Legislative appropriations to all state arts agencies currently total $297 million, or $0.96 per capita. This represents only 0.042%—less than one tenth of one percent—of state general fund expenditures. Yet the return on this investment is tremendous. State arts agencies support about 18,000 organizations, schools and artists, making the economic, educational, civic and cultural benefits of the arts available to 5,100 communities across the United States." Think what we could do if we spent $1 per person on arts in this country!

But there is an upside: if the government and politicians are not generous to the arts, individual patrons are! Because the U.S. has always had a tradition of philanthropy (we can thank Andrew Carnegie for our unsurpassed public library system), we have a culture of arts support from private citizens. That support was stretched to the limit by the recent recession, but there are signs it is recovering.

In my own case, I have been the happy beneficiary of individual largesse. After a little over 2 years of fundraising and grant-writing (during a terrible economy), my play Becoming Calvin has gained enough financial support to have its premiere in September 2012! I am busily jumping through hoops as I fill out contracts for the actors and performance space and try to find more members to join my creative team. Lots to do but very exciting! And done mostly through individual contributions: 78% of the money I have raised so far has come from many people writing small checks. I cannot imagine a greater testimony to the generosity of individuals and their recognition of the crucial role art plays in their lives!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Alec, Maureen and arts . . . oh my!

Lots of news happening this week! So in case you missed it, Arts Advocacy Day was this past Tuesday. Artists, arts administrators, and arts supporters gathered in Washington and stormed Capitol Hill to advocate for more money for the arts. One of the highlights of this advocacy push is always the Nancy Hanks Lecture. This year it was delivered by Alec Baldwin, who has been a tremendous supporter of arts over the years. He was introduced by the incomparable Maureen Dowd, who writes speeches that are every bit as clever as her columns for the New York Times, but are improved by her spectacular comic timing. She delivers a funny line with the kind of ease that leads lesser talents to think they can do it too. The kind that I am certain took lots of practice!

Actor and advocate Hill Harper (who has his own foundation to empower underserved youth) spoke earlier in the evening. I wish I could find a copy of his short but perfect advocacy speech to share with clients and students. He followed the Marshall Ganz formula of "Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now" to a T. A clear demonstration of why that model is the best for such speeches!

As I listened to the lecture in a full house at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, I felt tremendously empowered surrounded by people for whom art is not a "frill" but a way of life. I don't get to experience that very often. President Kennedy looked forward "to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft." But we're not there yet! I get so tired of being told the arts do not deserve "a handout" or "if they can't pay for themselves they have no place in our society," or -- my favorite -- "I believe in arts education for kids. But by high school they need to stop playing around and grow up." If I had a dollar for every time I heard such a comment, I could self-fund the upcoming production of my play Becoming Calvin.

The arts business is good for business, which Mayor Bloomberg is sure to tell anyone who will listen. But it's not just New York that profits from a booming arts economy. All communities benefit, in tangible ways. You probably know that art is good, and may already be a supporter. But if you want to counter the ignorance of nay-sayers like the ones I quoted above, you can arm yourself with facts from Americans for the Arts: 10 Reasons to Support the Arts.

Art: good. . . and good for you!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lost in a good book

Here's a question: how do you become a better communicator, learn to pick up on non-verbal cues more effectively and take a low-cost vacation? Pick up a work of fiction!

Earlier this year I indulged in a flurry of novel reading activity. I found myself zipping through imaginative worlds that closely mirror my own reality. Chad Harbachs The Art of Fielding, and Helen Schulmans's This Beautiful Life described lives lived in places and situations that were not too much of a stretch for me. Conquistodora by Esmerelda Santiago and Suzanne Collin's ubiquitous The Hunger Games set me down in places I can only imagine and led me on adventures I will certainly never have. But as I mentally traveled back in time to 19th century Puerto Rico and forward to the dystopic Panem, I experienced foreign worlds conjured by authors who literally took me with them.

You may call it escapism, but it's more than that. Science now tells us that when we spend hours in a world far, far away, we are actually doing something very valuable; sharpening our empathy skills. In "Your Brain on Fiction" in the New York Times last month, Anna Murphy Paul describes research suggesting novel readers benefit from this activity more than we know. Findings by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, point to "substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others."

So I ache for Henry Skrimshander as he loses his gift for fielding and turns his back on baseball, his one true love. I get frustrated with Liz Bergamot and want to scream at her to stop being such a passive bystander in her own life. It is almost as if I were experiencing their pain myself, rather than observing it. And it is this experience, vicarious though it may be, that makes me a better communications coach, teacher, artist, wife and mother. I live in a very self-contained corner of the world, but by walking in a fictional character's shoes, I can go anywhere, be anyone. Which helps me develop greater empathy.

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto summed it up: “Fiction is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. . . . novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

So next time you want to unplug, close the door and indulge in a good novel - go ahead: you'll be a better person for it!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

United we stand

Yesterday was historic for me and 130,999 other actors in the US who work in film and/or TV: our two unions merged into one. Yesterday at 1:35 PT Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists became SAG-AFTRA. After 80 years of sometimes feverish, sometimes tepid talks of merger, the membership of both unions voted to unite. In spite of opposition led by some pretty big names, including former SAG President Ed Asner (who says this plan will hurts the SAG pension and health benefits) most rank-and-file actors I know have been longing for a merged union for years.

We are proud to be union members! And now our One Union will be stronger to fight for our wages and working conditions.

You probably don't think about it, but it's not easy being a film or TV actor -- unless you are a star who can negotiate a separate contract. The rest of us are grateful for the protection of the union. When I work a shoot with non-union actors they begin the day thrilled just to be near the set. They can't imagine why we need to be paid for this, for goodness sake! By lunchtime they are dragging because our day has been "hurry-up-and-wait". Then, all at once, we are called to set and have to be brilliant on command. Again and again. Take after take. Fortunately we get overtime after eight hours (well, nine, but lunch doesn't count), but can't leave early to pick up our kids at daycare! It takes discipline and dedication. Often those non-union people don't show up the next day. They worked for their lunch and the excitement of it all. They never counted on the patience they would need to get through hours of waiting for lights to be focused, sound to be connected, camera angles to be set.

Movies and TV shows provide viewers worldwide with escape, relaxation, entertainment and enlightenment. But they are much harder and more complicated to create than you will ever know. The weavers of dreams are professionals who hide the machinery and the sweat of their hard work. I am proud to be among them. And now, with a stronger union, we can take on the producers who want to film offshore or in dangerous conditions, or claim that the rules don't apply to talent employed in "new media." And maybe the rest of the country will realize that - hey- if my favorite TV star or film actor not only belongs to a union, but voted to make the union stronger, maybe unions aren't such awful, subversive things after all!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Aaah-choo! Speaking while pol-undated

March came in like a lamb here in Northern Virginia, and the month quickly progressed to something resembling the dog days of summer. Consequently, here in the land of flowering cherry trees, all the tree flower pollens and those of other flowering plants have been released much earlier than expected. And my peonies are a month ahead of schedule! In my house, this early onset allergy season caught at least one of us by surprise. We are "pol-undated", inundated by pollen.

I have had a few clients who are encountering their very own SSDs --- seasonal speaking disorders. That is when your sinuses are congested and blocked, and your throat gets scratchy. There is so much pollen floating through the air it turns your blue car green. Think how hard your nasal cilia have to work to filter the air that goes through your nasal passages, your throat, and finally reaches your lungs. They try their darndest, but just can't keep up. Of course some pollen and other irritants get through!

It gets rather hard to speak through all the "crud" that collects in your throat and chest. But of course you can't block out all of allergy season on your calendar and say you won't/can't do a speech or presentation for three months. So what do you do?

You need to do your regular 7-10 minute vocal warm-up (you do have one of those, right?), starting off with breathing exercises to center you, articulation to make sure your consonants are crisp, and resonance awareness. Be sure to spend extra time on the resonance exercises, and do them a tad more slowly and gradually. In case you need a refresher on these: massage your face and gently hum up and down your vocal range to get vibrations going in your sinuses. Hot liquids and steam help move some of the mucus out of there. So warming up in the shower is a good thing, as is drinking hot tea (which for some reason is better than coffee). Avoid the impulse to just plow through. To force the sound out. That would only make things worse. Don't do it! You can stress your vocal folds that way, which can lead to all sorts of trouble down the road.

Take care of yourself. Keep hydrating so you can more readily flush the offending stuff out (the cilia, after all, do sweep it into the digestive system so it can be eliminated). And support your voice. You may not be as tiptop as you would like to be, but don't use that as an excuse to collapse into bad posture and shallow breathing. Let your voice vibrate through clogged sinuses as much as it can, but don't force it.

You'll thank me later.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

When artistic license expires

Playwrights don't often make news, and when one does, the rest of us hope it is something worth celebrating. This week, I, for one, was angered by the cowardice of a fellow practitioner who made us all look like liars and cheats.

This American Life, a weekly public radio show that I love, devoted a whole episode this week to exposing and explaining the errors in its previously most-downloaded show. That show aired in January of this year. It was an interview host Ira Glass had with writer and monologuist Mike Daisey about his extremely successful one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.  Coincidentally, Mr. Daisey's monologue closed today at the Public Theatre in New York, where it had been running since October 17th.

The show, as I understand it (I have not seen it) deals with the tension between Americans' growing dependence on everything Apple, and the harmful, abusive working conditions at Apple factories in China. Mr. Daisey, whom The New York Times called “one of the finest solo performers of his generation” is not a journalist. However, he presents his onstage story as something that really happened, and much of the power his story holds for audience members is because they believe he is revealing Truth (see opening night NYTimes review). But his script does not square with the facts.

This week, in his extraordinary interview,  Ira Glass takes Mr. Daisey to task for passing his show, this piece of imagination, off as true. Mr. Glass rightfully feels duped, since he and his This American Life staff went out on a limb and vouched for it as such. Mr. Daisey's defense (this is really what makes me mad): ''Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means."

Puh-leaze!!! Even in the "context of theatre'' this guy is lying!

I write plays. I write plays based on fact, on history. And yes, sometimes you have to conflate a small detail or two, or make up a character to serve your needs.  I can see the temptation, after all... you can't footnote a play, so how scrupulous do you really need to be with your facts?

You need to be very scrupulous. You need to have integrity. Honesty. Artists aren't liars; they interpret the truth. They shape it and create a new way of looking at it. So people will really see it, and come to an understanding of themselves, of each other. If they need to create a world out of whole cloth to do so, there is no shame in that. Sometimes it is even easier to set a play in a fictional world than the real one. But you can't have it both ways and still be an artist with integrity. You can't play fast-and-loose with facts and then cry "artistic license" when you are called on bogus fabrications. Even if -- no, especially if -- you are successful, you have an obligation to readers, viewers and other audiences to either tell the truth or signal that not everything in the story is exactly as it seems. Other playwrights do it all the time; it is not hard.

Mike Daisey took a good long drive down the road to success. But he didn't play by the rules, and his artistic license has expired.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sticks and stones. . .

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." I grew up with that saying, but it never really made any sense to me. Of course words can hurt! But if you complained about it, back in the day, you were called yet another name, or told to "grow up." Or, if you were a boy, insulted by being called "a girl" (which is another topic for discussion. . . ).

Last Wednesday Lady Gaga launched her new  Born This Way Foundation. She hopes to offer a strong antidote to a society that celebrates those who conform to some limiting norm, and denigrates those who either dare to be different, or were just born that way. We should all be grateful to Lady Gaga for putting her considerable influence and resources to work solving this very real problem -- one that, according to Nick Kristof's Thursday column in the New York Times, she personally experienced.

And just as this wonderful foundation was being unveiled, we had a fine example of bullying from one of the masters of the craft, Rush Limbaugh. His words have already come back to haunt him as sponsors decided they could no longer support such behavior. Yes, Rush did eventually apologize for his "word choice." But I, for one, do not expect him to change any time soon. Bullies keep bullying until they actually understand what damage they are doing, which often means they never stop.

Today many of us recognize bullying language for what it is, a way to destabilize and disempower the target or victim. Words have power. They always have. Dramatists have known this for centuries, so have poets. Novelists do as well, and screenwriters, and ad execs. Parents and children know it. Everyone knows it, yet how many of us forget . . . until we have said something we cannot take back? We communicate through words, through the shadings of meaning we convey when we make certain word choices. When we speak, we set in motion a chain of events. So we must stand behind our words, and not use them carelessly. This is not just advice for public speaking; many a private relationship has sunk quicker than the Titanic because of thoughtless speech.

Commit to your words. As I tell my acting students, behind the words there is always intention. If you have no intention, then don't say anything. Because after all, there really is no such thing as "just talking."