Thursday, January 26, 2012

It's awards season!

I've been watching a lot of movies lately. As a member of Screen Actors Guild I will cast my ballot for the SAG Awards tomorrow by noon Pacific Time. This year there are some terrific performances, particularly in the female actor categories. It will be tough choice, but for both the female actor in a leading role and female actor in a supporting role, I think I will vote for the women of Albert Nobbs. Glenn Close and Janet McTeer portray two very different variations on the woman-masquerading-as-man theme in this period drama set in late-19th century Dublin. The performances are meticulous, and spell-binding. If you want to see not-good-but-great acting, check out this small-studio release.

My acting students were asking me the other day who I considered to be an excellent actor. I told them (before I saw the incomparable Ms. Close and Ms. McTeer) to study both Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn and Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. Each has a tough job: not to recreate, but to embody a real woman who was herself playing a role for the public. Add to that the difficulty that each of these famous women still looms large in our collective memory, and you can see why such roles could prove catastrophic for lesser talents. Both of these performances are spectacular!

I like these films very much for other reasons, as well. My Week With Marilyn contains some very interesting (and heated) discussions of the clashing acting techniques employed by Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe as they try to work together in The Prince and the Showgirl. If you're curious about the difference between acting techniques used in 1957 by the best American film star and the best British stage star, this movie gives you a very good idea.

The Iron Lady provides a glimpse of what I do when I work with clients as a Communications Artist.  In the film Margaret Thatcher, the only woman sitting in the House of Commons, is advised that before she runs for party leadership she'll have to do something about her shrill voice. So off she goes to a drama school voice teacher and learns how to speak from her center, lower her voice, and project authority. As I tell my clients, if you can use your voice as your secret weapon, the rest will follow. In Margaret Thatcher's case, the rest, as they say, is history. . . !

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The value of solitude

On Sunday, January 13th the New York Times ran a very interesting article about the value of working alone. In The Rise of the New Groupthink author Susan Cain discusses the need for solitude when tackling creative problems: Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. "Without great solitude, no serious work is possible," Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time "in solitary confinement" wrestling plot and character to serve the themes of the plays I write, or planning the classes and workshops I teach, I agree that the best creative work often happens alone. I think that is one of the reasons many people have great creative insights and solve thorny problems in the shower: they are alone with their thoughts. No need to make an uncrystallized idea comprehensible to your shampoo bottle or loofah!

In today's world, where we we are hyper-connected, it seems almost heretical to demand the solitude, time, and space needed to create. And though Virginia Woolf was addressing a different set of circumstances when she said a woman needs "a room of one's own" to write, it is still true. Cain's article explains much better than I can the whys and hows of the importance of solitude to creativity and problem-solving.

Even when I am engaged in work that is highly collaborative, like performing in a play, I need to take time to do my homework in order to fully create my character. What I discover while working alone is an essential part of the process of creating the larger work. I need to have something to share with the other actors, to bring to the table. And I can't get everything I need while exploring the script with them in the rehearsal room. Working alone, sitting with my thoughts, uninterrupted, not needing to come to a hasty conclusion because of someone else's timetable is the best way for me to get the nuts 'n bolts work done.
So next time you feel the urge to unplug, disconnect, put the "outside world" on hold while you accomplish a goal, take a deep breath, and just do it!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

You can do anything! Really?

I enjoyed a very funny sketch on Saturday Night Live this past week, You Can Do Anything! It reminded me of a recent article in the Washington Post citing research that high self esteem in school does not necessarily translate to high achievement.

As a parent, teacher, and speaking/presentation skills coach, I have long believed that empty or undeserved praise benefits no one. I was one of those moms who felt my kids didn't need to get soccer trophies just because they completed the season. When I taught an after-school drama class to 4th & 5th graders it never occurred to me to lavish praise on my students just for showing up. And I exchanged less than cordial words with an adult acting student who once told me I was being too hard on my class because I expected folks to come prepared to work. So I am the kind of person who believes that everyone needs to put in some effort to acquire a new skill and even more effort to improve. It always amazes me when this is seen to be a counter-cultural stance!

As a speaking/presentation skills coach I run up against this bias all the time. "Of course I am a good speaker; I have been doing it for years!" But just because you have been doing something for a long time doesn't mean you are doing it well now. If you have never taken the time to examine your performance, you may well be as boring or pedantic or unfocussed as you were in your 20's.

So here are some questions to ask yourself: Do you feel connected to your audience? Does your message reach them? Do you have a chance to ever get honest feedback on your content and delivery? And when you do, if someone points out possible deficiencies (and we all have areas that need strengthening), do you seek help addressing these? Or do you rationalize them away?

We all have days when we are less "on" than others. But we should strive to be constantly improving, upping our game. "Phoning it in" is always disrespectful to your listeners, and never acceptable. Just as the wise teacher knows the student learns more when the bar is set a bit higher, we need to expect more of ourselves. Or we could just sit back and be content with our current levels of expertise and move to  Lake Wobegon.

And don't get me started on the amount of craft and technique needed to become a good actor! The very best make it look so effortless. But if you ask my students, they'll tell you: it's a challenge!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A cool head and a hot heart

I teach classes and workshops on authentic leadership presence, and have been focusing a lot lately on what women's leadership looks and sounds like. So I was excited yesterday to attend a panel discussion hosted by the Council of Women World Leaders at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

I was not disappointed! It was a lively discussion, featuring Tarja Halonen, President of Finland; Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, currently head of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice; and Margot Wallstrom, UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. These were just a few members of this extraordinary group. The Council of Women World Leaders was the brainchild 15 year ago of Laura Liswood, who decided that there should be place where the Prime Ministers and Presidents of the world who happen to be women can gather. The 45 members of this group continue to support each other in myriad ways.

Yesterday's discussion gave some very specific instances of that support on a global scale. It also dealt with some common threads running through issues of leadership particular to women in top positions. I was struck by the even-handed tone of the morning: men (in general) are not all enemies. In fact, women must work with progressive men to further an agenda that supports women and families. President Halonen said "You cannot choose your gender, but you can choose to be a feminist." A good line; I will use it in the future!

I will also share the many creative definitions of leadership that were offered up. Today's blog title, for example, is Vivaldi's short list of attributes necessary for a great composer. Laura Liswood pointed out that these same attributes must be present in a great leader. Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast offered this advice to leaders who need to find personal courage to get through tough times: "You have to develop energy from assaults and turn them into positive momentum." And my favorite, attributed by Ms. Liswood to Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former President of Iceland (in 1980, the first woman in the world to be elected President in a national election): "We women are like snowflakes. One may melt, but together we can stop traffic."

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Say it out loud!

Working with a client on a speech yesterday I found myself repeating a mantra I have used so often I must be close to wearing it out: Read it out loud!

I know this sounds intuitive when you're talking about speech-writing. But many folks seem to think they are the exceptions to this rule. They feel the need to embellish or expand their writing, as if saying a thing simply is not good enough. The truth is: short, declarative sentences are much easier to understand; active verbs are good. And, as we all know, it is far harder to write simply and explain a thing clearly than it is to express your thoughts in a roundabout albeit creatively arresting way in which you intend to convey the essence of your unique insights and contemplations. (was that easy to get through? Or did you have to go back and sort it out?). As Blaise Pascal famously remarked: "I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short" (Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte).

And yet. . . .
How many times do you actually read what you have written out loud?  I urge clients to practice each speech seven times. The first three of these times they are usually getting used to the rhythm, and doing rewrites to tighten up the message. That is essential work and a step that should never be skipped. But, alas! too often it is. The result is a speech with meandering sentences that don't go anywhere, "padding" that does nothing to further the argument, and conclusions that are inconclusive. Writing for the ear is vastly different than writing for the eye. When people are listening to you, they need to comprehend what you are saying while you are saying it. There is no going back to reread the previous paragraph.

This does not mean you have to be boring, however.  Much eloquence is found in simplicity. But, like anything precious, you cannot find it without seeking it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A resolution you can keep

Here's something that is easy to do and will vastly improve your performance this year:
Learn from your stumbles . .  .
I mean that, literally!

As you prepare for your first speech events of 2012 (which includes conference room meetings and client pitches, as well as those large-audience keynotes), and you practice your speeches or talking points (you do practice them, right?), make a note of any word pairs or phrases that you stumble over. If you can reword them so they are less awkward in your mouth, try that. But sometimes you can't rephrase your stumbling-block, because it is, say, a government project title, or the name of an important client. Then you need to say the words slowly and pick the phrase apart. Zero in on the particular combination of sounds that "bump up against" each other in a way that is awkward for your tongue or lips. Since these are muscles that can learn new tricks, all you need to do is practice the difficult phrase slowly, then speed it up till it rolls off your tongue. When you can say it five times fast, it can become one of your tongue-twisters for warm-ups.

If you don't already have a repertoire of simple word pairs to include in your daily warm-up, try these old standards. They are deceptively simple, but hard to do quickly and clearly, five times in a row:
toy boat
unique New York  

You can find your own challenging phrases in real-life conversation. Here are a couple of my favorites:
tragedy strategy
shoulder surgery

Keep adding to your own collection, and practice your phrases at red lights. You can also practice while crossing the street, if you have your earbuds in or headphones on. No one will know.

Let clear articulation become a hallmark of your speaking in 2012. Aside from making you a stronger communicator, think of how much time you will save if you never have to repeat yourself!