Monday, December 23, 2013

Magical memory

photo by Lee Jordan
I read a wonderful piece in yesterday's New York Times that explains how "magical thinking" and belief in such fictitious characters as Santa Claus is part of normal brain development. When we are very young we start out with billions of brain cells whose connections are "relatively sparse," according to the author, neuroscientist Kelly Lambert. So our childish grasp of what is real and what is not develops over time. Dr. Lambert begins her opinion piece by recounting a time when she had to undo the damage of some early Christmas snooping. Her daughters, who still believed in the magic of Santa, wanted to know why presents from him were in their attic well before Christmas Eve. Dr. Lambert asserts that she acted instinctively, as a mother. Yet, as a scientist, she was relieved to realize later that protecting these beliefs was really OK. Because the richer and deeper our memories are, the more likely we will be able to conjure them up as visceral experiences later in life. We will be more likely to relive positive past memories if they are multilayered.  Lambert says this is because they are a special type of memory, what Washington University Professor Pascal Boyer calls mental time travel memories, or M.T.T.  "Professor Boyer describes how neuroimaging evidence indicates that, when certain events are recalled--presumably after being triggered by familiar sights or sounds--emotional brain areas are activated as well as visceral responses. You relive the feelings you experienced in the past. These recollections can be thought of as full body and brain memories."

Actors know the importance of using sense memory to trigger emotional memory, though they have probably never heard of M.T.T.  We have been utilizing this type of memory in our profession since the cusp of the 20th century. It is the only way to create an honest emotional life for a character who is not us. We do not know exactly how this character would react to the given circumstances of the world of the play. Since we only have what the playwright gives us, the big-picture outline, we have to fill in the blanks and populate every second we are onstage with a living, breathing reality grounded in past experiences. BUT we cannot substitute our own past. I have seen my acting students get really tripped up; they say, "Well, I wouldn't have acted this way" when examining a character's divergent reality. But you can't get inside the character if you are judging. So I tell them they must use their imaginations, put themselves in the character's shoes. And use their own sense memories and emotional memories to build a new reality. When my beginning acting students ask how this is done, I sometimes answer, "all theatre is magic." Now maybe I should give the scientific explanation. As Prof. Boyer would say, we use our brains' M.T.T. capacity to catapult ourselves, however briefly, into a completely different world. 

Dr. Lambert concludes her article by observing that even when they become adults, "the sight of Santa will allow my daughters, once again, to see the world as a child would, if only for a few fleeting moments." Actors get to use their storehouse of memories from childhood to the recent past over and over and over. Is it any wonder we take joy in our work? 

Friday, December 6, 2013

When he spoke the world listened

Nelson Mandela. We all mourn his passing. He was a great man, and, like President Obama, I "pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived, a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice."

What has struck me about the broadcast coverage of his life and legacy is how many audio clips I am hearing of the man himself speaking. There is a very good reason for this: he spoke about his vision more eloquently and dynamically than anyone else could. Most of the news stories I have heard or seen in the past day have included tape of him speaking, because the power he communicated is easier to experience than describe. NPR put together an amazing special: Nelson Mandela: an Audio History, which excerpts many recordings of Mandela. It is amazing to listen to. The print media has also devoted many column inches to the fact that Mandela's considerable speaking skill was often his strongest weapon.

All leaders strive to express their vision with such authentic voices. Most of them fail. To be a leader requires a bold vision, and an ability to be clear-eyed about how you embody that vision and how you will implement it. And a strategy for communicating that vision to your followers. It all takes time--and a lot of thoughtful effort. Sometimes people on the "leadership track" are looking for quick results. So they like shortcuts, like modelling themselves on leaders they admire. I can foresee that soon I will have new clients asking me to teach them to "speak like Mandela." Yes, that really happens... Ask any speaking coach, we have all had that experience. The desire to "sound like Obama" has waned a bit, but we still get it. I am sure--now that she has finally developed her own reliably powerful voice--I will soon hear "I want to speak like Hillary."

But to be an authentic leader you need to find your own voice. Then you should ask a professional to help you refine it. And you need to really do your preparation. There is no shortcut for that. Even leaders with speechwriters collaborate on the writing process and then practice the heck out of the text to internalize it. Again, Mandela offers an instructive example: his four-hour speech at the 1964 Rivonia Trial set him on the world stage. He spent a great deal of time crafting that speech, then asked for expert help. As the Washington Post reports: "For weeks he worked on his public statement, which was polished and edited by novelist Nadine Gordimer and British journalist Anthony Sampson at Mandela’s direction." That article also asserts that "He read from a script, slowly and deliberately in a flat voice — the drama was all in the content and the circumstances."  I have heard recorded excerpts, and I would not say his voice was flat at all. He words were a stinging indictment of the government, but his delivery was simplicity at its best. He trusted that his dramatic text would be best served by such openness and honesty. 

We should be thankful that this most authentic leadership voice, though silenced, lives on in recordings for all to hear and cherish.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Don't let your brilliance bore them

 The Thinker felled by the Igs
One of my post-Thanksgiving traditions involves listening to the annual broadcast of the Ig Nobel Prize Awards on NPR's Science Friday. These awards are given every year by the Annals of Improbable Research, a magazine whose stated goal is to publish "research that makes people LAUGH then THINK." I enjoy laughter-provoking thought, so I always tune in.

The Magazine: Annals of Improbable Research

DOWNLOAD this issue as an e-book

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Annals of Improbable Research (also known as AIR) is the magazine about research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.
- See more at:

The Magazine: Annals of Improbable Research

DOWNLOAD this issue as an e-book

To read e-books on your computer, mobile phone, iPad, or other device, you'll need an e-book reader app. There are many — all similar, but each with its own gleefully maddening quirks.
Here are some FREE apps: Calibre, Kobo, Adobe Digital Editions, Kindle App.
[To read e-books on your Kindle device, or Kobo e-reader, or Nook, or other dedicated e-book-reading device— of course, just use that device!]
Annals of Improbable Research (also known as AIR) is the magazine about research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.
- See more at:

The Friday broadcast is a compilation of highlights from the actual Awards ceremony that takes place each September at Harvard. Scientists come from all over the world to accept their prizes in categories as diverse as Safety Engineering, Medicine, and Probability. They are tasked with describing their research in creative and succinct speeches. And, judging from the number who accepted their speeches in song or verse this year, or in costume, there is an expectation they will entertain and enlighten. The room is full of scientists, but they may not all speak exactly the same language. So jargon is discouraged, as are complicated explanations.

Yet even with this model of humor and brevity, the Ig Nobel Awards organizers have felt the need to include a "referee" who is known as Miss Sweetie Poo. She is a wonderful addition to this awards ceremony, where erudite experts expound upon their research. A sweet-looking, party-dressed eight-year-old, Miss SP walks right up to speakers who have exceeded their time (or her attention) limits and cuts them off by intoning "Please stop. I'm bored" over and over again--until they stop. It is a maddeningly effective tactic. Here is very funny collection of video clips with various Miss Sweetie Poos silencing distinguished scientists mid-explanation.

I have been to several events that would have greatly benefitted from Miss Sweetie Poo's guidance.  Longtime readers of this blog will know I rarely make absolute pronouncements, but here is one: Every speaker, in every situation, needs to remember that audiences have finite attention spans. They may also have limited capacity for understanding the details and minutia of specialized hypotheses, research, or conclusions. So, do what an acquaintance of mine does; he is an expert in a somewhat arcane field, but also a consistently terrific speaker. When he is speaking to any but a group of his closest peers, he looks over his speech and asks himself if a smart fifth grader would understand. If not, he simplifies and shortens. He is always thinking of a possible Miss Sweetie Poo in his audience. We should all be so smart!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Giving thanks for Sarah Silverman

Like many of you, I am busy this week with all sorts of preparations on the domestic front for the great Thanksgiving feast. And I am trying to tie up some lose ends in my office before the long weekend of food, friends and family. As my readers outside the U.S. may know, there is a particularly American story attached to our celebration on the fourth Thursday in November. In practice, however, Thanksgiving has much in common with other cultures' harvest festivals of thanks.

So I'm not going to unpack my latest sure-fire speaking techniques or reveal any *new* tips-you-can-use this week. I just want to recommend that you take a minute while you are peeling the potatoes or ironing the tablecloth to check out Sarah Silverman's interview with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition this past Saturday. One, becasue she is funny, with an engaging interview style that will at least bring a smile to your face. But also because she addresses two issues I spend a lot of time discusing with my clients. And, though we have never discussed this, she feels the same way about them I do. She talks specifically about the difficulty of actually getting a joke to work (it takes a lot of tweaking, even for a professional. And still sometime the joke falls flat), and the utter impossibility of "reading" the audience ("Everyone can be laughing and if there's one person with their arms folded, it tends to be the person comics focus on....And it has nothing to do with you, it could have everything to do with their day, or how they're hearing your comedy, you know, in the context of their lives. You know? And you can't control it, but it can really get inside a comedian's head, like an illness.") Good stand-up comedians are the experts; they are extremely skilled at people-watching and listening. And even one as great as Silverman knows there is danger in amateur public joke-telling, as well as assuming you know what a listener is thinking. Imagine the trouble these fixations could cause a speaker who is is not a professional entertainer!

Listen and learn from this funny lady. 
And enjoy your holiday! 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

It's about time

My last blog post concluded with the statement that the two things you need to be a great speaker are trust and preparation. And preparation takes two forms: delivery prep, which I teach my clients and students; and content prep, which many of these same people tell me they have under control. But do they?

Not really. Most don't allow enough time to fully prepare a speech, let alone talking points for a panel discussion or office meeting. It's not that they don't want to, or don't know that they need to. It's just that, well, time slips away. . .Time is one of our most valuable resources. And yet, it is the most elusive.

Two very interesting articles about time came to my attention this week. Drake Baers' blog in Fast Company focuses on traps we fall into at the workplace due to poor time usage. But what really jumped out at me was the reference to research by neuroscientists that asserts: ". . .there are no sensory receptors specifically dedicated for perceiving time. It is an almost uniquely intangible sensation: we cannot see time in the way that we see color, shape, or even location." We are time blind.

When I read this I thought, of course! I can see (and possibly hear) the clock, but my internal sense of time is not consistent (hence the need to watch the clock). In situations where I am actively leading others (rehearsals, trainings, workshops) I have a good grasp of time. And when I am being purely creative, deeply engaged in writing a scene for a play, for example, I experience time stretching, compressing and bending. But when I have a linear task to complete, like answering e-mail, writing a proposal, or putting together a presentation, I lose track of time.

Sunday's New York Times contained another article, not about the subject of time per se, but with some fascinating implications about our use and misuse of time. "You're So Self-Controlling" by Marina Konnikova examines why we fail at self-control. According to studies done by University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire, it's not because we lack willpower or moral fiber, but because we are uncertain. We often don't know how long it will take to reach our goal. Kable and McGuire's studies reference examples of delayed gratification when getting edible treats, playing games for money, even waiting for a subway. “The basic idea,” McGuire said, “is that while a decision maker is waiting, he is constantly re-evaluating the thing he’s waiting for. You’re waiting for the same reward, but your assessment of it changes as a function of the passage of time.”

Uncertainly about when a reward will come, or even if it will come, can make us give up before we achieve what we set out to do. The studies cited don't deal with workplace tasks, but I have seen the same thing happen to clients."I started to prepare that speech but ran out of time; this will be good enough." Or "I meant to jot down some ideas before that meeting. . . but I'm sure it will be alright." The clock is ticking and the writing isn't getting any better, or those 17 main points just cannot be condensed into the requisite three. And so we run out of time to do our tasks as well as we wish we could. Time just slithers away. We may quit just before we strike rhetorical gold. It could be a matter of seconds before inspiration hits and clarity is achieved. But we never find out.

As Ms. Konnikova summed up her article, "Investing upfront in realistic time frames — and learning to adjust those time frames as new information becomes available — may help us resist the pull of rewards that come too soon. Controlling our sense of the future, in other words, may help us control our behavior in the present."

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Judge not

One of the hardest things for us to do is to trust ourselves. In many situations, social as well as professional, we second-guess our every utterance and stifle our instincts. Why? We know there are people out there who will judge us, and too many mistakes will land us in the loser column. I could probably dig up several studies that say such a fear of judgment is deeply rooted in our brains as a self-protection mechanism. And I can think of situations where it is useful not to dive headlong into action but take time to pause and reflect. But reflection is not the same as the "instant editing" process jump-started by fear's best friend, your inner critic. That lack of trust in your words and actions is extremely detrimental to effective interpersonal communication.

I work with acting students and speaking clients. Both come to me for very different reasons. But they get into trouble the same way when they do not trust themselves. I can see the brain freeze, the dazed, I-wish-I-were-anywhere-else look that comes over them. They stand outside of the interaction, watching, judging. Asking themselves how they could improve their performance, say it better. And in the meantime, they disengage from the activity at hand: communicating.

Every communication is a conversation. Even a speech. Just because the audience does not speak while you are at the podium, don't assume they are not mentally having a dialogue with you. Indeed, you should hope that they are! But all too often that level of engagement never happens because the speaker stays "in his head," or she is preoccupied with how she looks, how she sounds, and is not "in the moment." You can't stand by and observe, criticize, or score the level of your speaking while simultaneously being engaged with the audience. You need to be there, telling them the story, living it with them.

When we see an actor who is so self-conscious he or she is not fully inhabiting the character we write her/him off as having no talent. But that is not always the case. I have been teaching acting to adults for a while now. And I have found that my students who take a leap of faith and bravely step outside of their comfort zones learn to become good actors. If they trust themselves enough to stop judging, they can transcend their own reality and actually live in the moment--as the character. They thoroughly prepare, of course, so they know where the scene will lead, and so they can fully immerse themselves in the journey.

When speakers prepare as thoroughly, they, too, can experience their speech. They can enjoy it as they are sharing it with their audience, their conversation partners. They will be freed from the need to judge themselves, as well as the fear that they will be judged. It's simple. Just trust and prepare.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Step away from the screen and nobody gets hurt!

I have been eagerly following NPR's fascinating series of stories on how the technology that permeates our lives effects individuals' intellectual and social development. The story of young men at a rehab center outside Seattle trying to kick their internet addictions was particularly chilling. This week's story referenced recent American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations of limiting passive screen time for infants and children under two.

When I heard this I wondered if I wasn't experiencing déja vu. My kids were little decades ago, and I recall hearing similar warnings then. We didn't have tablets or iPhones, and YouTube's founders were still in high school. So it was mostly TV we were being warned against. And we listened. My husband and I were counter-cultural in our decision to strictly limit TV viewing (and of course there were exceptions to our rules-- the World Series and the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, to name two) but we stuck with it.

On Fridays and Saturdays we watched old movies from the library. "The African Queen," "The Thin Man" series, and Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals were favorites. These movies were fun, and presented a historical reference point to my 21st-century children. They saw how a 1940's wall phone worked ("Operator! Operator! Get me the police!"), and how people dressed in a less casual world (hat and gloves, anyone?). But also they had to listen closely to that snappy dialogue and wait for the action to unfold. Movies were much more aural back then, far less visual. My kids are both verbally expressive. Is there a link? Maybe. We did have fun, and I got to share with them my love of classic movies.

Today, screens are everywhere. At all times. They have become the great pacifiers for kids of all ages. Pediatricians worry that too much passive screen time will inhibit language development, thus impairing social interaction. In the NPR story, Dr. Ari Brown, lead author on the AAP policy statement, said "The concern for risk is that some kids who watch a lot of media actually have poor language skills, so there's a deficit in their language development. We also have concerns about other developmental issues because they're basically missing out on other developmentally appropriate activities."

I worry about that, too. As a communications coach who deals with leadership training, I know that the ability to communicate effectively is key to professional and personal success. Not just saying what you think and what you want to happen, but listening to others, empathizing, being able to make that imaginative leap to understand what someone else might be thinking. All these things may be effected by too much spoon-fed screen action at a young age. We don't know yet, but isn't it better to err on the side of caution? What happens in early brain development is so very important, why take that chance?

I am not a scientist, nor a health professional (though I have played one on TV!) but my experience in the communications field tells me these docs are right. For our kids' sake--and maybe for our own future brain health-- we must all be cut down on our passive screen consumption. So next time you feel like "vegging" home alone in front of the screen, get out of that chair and go take a walk. Or just DO something!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Leadership language

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
The New York Times has a very interesting feature in the Friday and Sunday Business sections called Corner Office. For this past Sunday's installment Corner Office's guiding light Adam Bryant followed up with some of the leaders he had previously interviewed--leaders who happen to be women. For round two, he decided to ask each women new questions regarding how perceptions of gender had affected her ascent to leadership. The result is a fascinating read, largely because Bryant stays away from discussion of work/life balance, feeling those issues had been "fully voiced" (see Sandberg and Slaughter, among others). But, he wondered, what additional specific advice/insight could these women give that addresses the way women lead in business? And what could they share with other women who are navigating their way up the corporate leadership path?

These leaders all have terriffic insights, and I urge you to read the article for yourselves. What jumped out at me was the prevalence of discussion about communication, and in particular, the repetition of the word "voice." These leaders reinforce the message that in order to succeed, a woman needs to find her own voice and make herself heard. Easier said than done, though, in a male-dominated workplace. Many women over-compensate, trying to be aggressive in ways that may not be natural. Or as Amy Schulman, General Counsel of Pfizer, puts it, "in an effort to do precisely as they've been told they sometimes will over-occupy the space." One of these woman found claiming her rightful place hard--at first. Lisa Price, Founder and President of Carol's Daughter, originally did not sit at the head of the table because she felt she did not have all the answers.  But eventually she did, realizing that is what her company--and her people--needed. She says she still does not know everything, but " I do know this brand better than anybody else. And that's the authority that I have, that's the voice that I have to be, and that's who they need me to be."

Women face internal and external conflicts about communicating their leadership. How do we fix that? I think Schulman puts it quite well: "What we have to do is teach strategies, because here's the thing about unwritten languages, whoever owns the language wins the conversation. We need to teach women the difference between a native tongue and a language." I love this: it is the perfect way to put it. For women as well as for men, by the way. But men may not have such a difficult time embodying "authentic" and "leader" at the same time as women do. (And that is a discussion for another time...)

All you emergent, aspiring, or even acting leaders should be aware of this. Your leadership language may be quite another language entirely from the one that comes naturally. Nonetheless, you need to learn to speak it fluently if you are going to successfully communicate with those you want to lead. It is not their native language either. But it is the one they are expecting you to use. Think of it as workplace lingua franca. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Fiction is good for you

In the spring of 2012 a study by two Canadian psychologists demonstrated how reading fiction can help sharpen interpersonal skills. I blogged about this study that April--it seemed like the perfect justification for getting lost in a good book! So when I heard about another study released last week that also covered the existence of the fiction/empathy connection, I shrugged it off as "Old News."

When I did look into it I found, via Scientific American, that this latest research defines the relative benefits of reading different kinds of fiction. The study, published online by Science on October 3rd, is the work of two social psychologists, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from The New School in New York City. They were interested in discovering the mechanisms that foster development of empathy. "Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults." To address this research gap Kidd and Castano ran several studies. Their results show "that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art." (Italics mine).

Value of the "beach read"?
While reading the latest Danielle Steele or Tom Clancy may help you navigate the social complexities of life slightly more than reading non-fiction (or not reading at all), those benefits are small compared to ones gained by reading truly literary work. Why might that be? Since I prefer literary fiction to scientific papers, I have not read the entire study myself. But Scientific American reporter did read it, and says the study offers this explanation: Popular fiction is more formulaic, more plot-focused than character-focused, and "the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader's expectations of others. . . . Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. . . the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes."

Using this insight
As an actor, I know that it is the unexpected things characters do that are key to what is really going on in their inner lives. As an acting teacher, I have to remind my students to be on the lookout for these hidden hints, to see them as clues to telling personality traits, and not be in such a hurry to put every character in a neat little box.

And as a communications consultant who works with clients on issues of leadership, I know the value of empathy. Of thinking beyond yourself. Of not limiting options by your own failure of imagination. Getting outside of yourself and taking a mental vacation by reading a book has intrinsic value. But when it can teach you to accept the flaws of others and to navigate the tensions inherent in everyday living, you have tools that enable you to connect more fully. Some of my clients can do that more easily than others. I wonder what's on their shelves?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Be still

Still waters at QianHai, Beijing
Have you ever wondered how some people can command the room when they speak, whether they are behind the podium, at an interview desk, or just standing in front of a room full of people balancing wine glasses and cocktail plates? They look confident. They have presence. There is a perception that such ability to "own the room" comes with the territory once you are in a position of power. And yet, there are many who should (by that definition) have it but don't.  This quality -- this presence -- comes from being physically at ease, centered, still. No fidgets, no wiggles, no shifting. No pushing the message at people, but rather, drawing them in. These leaders are not still as in "stiff"; they are still as in "grounded." It's a simple concept, but a hard one to master.

I was teaching a course, Political Skills Building, for American University's Department of Government this past weekend and we looked at clips of leaders in various speech situations. We also put our students on tape for their short leadership speeches. They found it was challenging to stand still, not wiggle or shuffle or fidget, but just stand in front of the camera and the people and be -- be in the moment, be confident in your message. And they're right; it is.

I shared with them some acting exercises for breathing and posture, very similar to ones yoga practitioners do to attain "centeredness." (In fact, if you Google "power of stillness" you can find all sorts of meditation references and resources.) My students were quick learners, and soon they were on their way to finding and keeping their own stillness. But it takes some time to undo years of self-consciousness and noisy inner-criticism. It takes months of practice. And it takes trust that when you are put to the test (the next time you have to stand up and speak) your body will remember how to keep the wiggles out and the stillness in. 

Sometime clients tell me, "Well, I don't want to be stiff and look unnatural." And I reiterate that we are not aiming for statue-like immobility. We are seeking a calm that is not passive, but actively rooted in maintaining physical control in the face of a scary situation. By claiming leadership you have singled yourself out from the crowd, yet you cannot give in to fear. Your body needs to have practiced this inner calm enough to be able to say "no" very quickly to your natural fight or flight instinct.

The hardest part may come as you try to maintain that presence when you begin to speak. That is because speaking is, after all, a physical activity. But the activity of speaking has to do with breathing and vocal production, not shuffling feet, wiggling shoulders, shifting weight from one hip to the other or aimlessly gesticulating. These all signal the opposite of what you might think ("I am moving around to look casual so they think I am comfortable"). They signal that you want to run, or hide, and are not at ease enough to stand still, to be open and vulnerable.

Master the leader's stance. Be still in a room full of noise and movement and you will command attention, even before you say a word.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

In the presence of greatness

Margaret Atwood photo by Scott Hill
Last Friday evening I was fortunate enough to attend a pre-National Book Festival "event," billed as an intimate talk and book signing, with Margaret Atwood. I was quite looking forward to hearing what she had to say, and to receiving an autographed copy of her latest book, MaddAddam.

You have likely heard of Atwood--after all, she is an incredibly prolific author who has won just about every major award. If you read The Handmaid's Tale when you were an emerging gown-up, especially an emerging female grown-up, then she became one of your personal icons, the literary equivalent of a Rock Star.

You may also know that Atwood has made her reputation with biting satire, stinging observations, writing about humankind's inability to be kind to fellow humans, and about life in chillingly possible dystopias. Her voice is the opposite of warm. You will never find a soft landing anywhere in her world. (I say that with a caveat: I have never read any of her children's books; they may be very different).

So I expected someone who was a remote tower of intellect, distant, perhaps more than slightly disdainful of her "fans." Possibly judging us all behind that sly smile. Someone who would pontificate from behind the barrier of the podium, setting herself apart, aloof from the audience. Someone who felt no need to connect.

Imagine my surprise when she stepped up to the podium looking like a cross between your adored great-aunt and your favorite professor. She was gracious--and, yes, warm! Atwood is Canadian, a nationality perhaps best known for its general niceness. But she was not just generally nice. She was connected and in the moment--open to our questions and comments. When she made passing mention of her high-tech invention and commitment to environmental sustainability, it was not to brag (humble-, or otherwise), but to establish credibility. She really does know how objects and systems could work in the fictional worlds she creates. She has seen the future--and, through many of her novels, she has taken us there. She has one of those minds that you can almost hear working. The evening was fascinating!

I was enthralled. But what really struck me was how she, a famously brilliant woman with a decades-long career, leaned over the podium and listened to questions. She did not rush to answer, rolling off a litany of talking points, but took her time framing responses. And, she actually answered the questions asked. It was a very refreshing evening here in Washington, D.C., where often speakers are too insecure, or are too busy pushing their own agendas, to let the audience share their spotlight. It's been a long time since I have seen an Honored Guest bridge the divide and actually invite the audience to join her charmed circle.

Maybe it is only the truly Great Ones who have the confidence and maturity to stop posing and just BE. But it is something I urge all my clients, students, colleagues and friends to strive for. Talk about presence!

Friday, September 13, 2013

After the curtain comes down

A year ago tonight my play Becoming Calvin opened in Washington, D.C.  It was a thrilling evening! And I had worked so hard to make it all happen. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I fund-raised, directed, and produced this play as a labor of love.

The play had been commissioned in 2008 for a series of readings in 2009 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Those readings went so well that I dared to dream of a production. There is an active professional theatre scene in Washington, but I was not already affiliated with a theatre group, did not have an agent, and thought I might as well just go ahead and do it myself. You know, find a barn and put on a show. Isn't that what show-biz (not to mention start-up) spirit is all about? Anyway, fundraising was grueling but not impossible, thanks to the 501(c)3 of the commissioning organization. I applied for a dozen grants and got a small one. I had some incredibly generous benefactors. And I was blessed with performers willing to work for the lowest scale the union allows. And a brilliant set designer who created magic out of a hat on a shoestring budget. And one friend who designed the music as a favor, another who ran the box office so she could be part of the magic of theatre. And a husband who did double-duty as House Manager, Company Treasurer (and my greatest cheerleader).

The production went off without a hitch. Indeed, audiences were surprised, some astounded. We played to overflowing houses two nights. Attendance at the other seven performances was respectable. I made a small profit, after all was said and done, which I paid myself for the hundreds of hours I had put into the project as producer/director. My plan was to take a breather, let the dust settle, put my communications consulting business back on the front burner, and a)market Becoming Calvin, and b)start the next play in my planned trilogy about John Calvin and his legacy.

One year later I have ditched the idea of historical play #2, and decided that contemporary play #3 will have a largely female cast, a unit set, and a running time under two hours. I have been doing market research, you see, as I have been shopping my script around.

It is good I have had some kind of positive outcome from this exercise! Though I do remain hopeful, I have found that the mere fact that you have written a good, solid play that takes an "original, refreshing" look at one of history's most important figures is not enough. As is often the case, the art I created will die in obscurity without the right combination of connections, luck, drive, unlimited time and energy to pushpushpush for its survival. Theatres that claim to be committed to bringing new works to audiences, it turn out, want new works by established playwrights. Universities have their every-other-year "new works" slots filled for the next five years, even if they were interested in a costume drama ("no thanks, but good luck!"). And on and on.... 

I am not alone in this. Many playwrights I know are singing the same song. I am determined to find a way to get this play in front of an audience again. And I will. But it takes time, and I am swimming in uncharted waters.

As a country we do not support individual artists, and many worthy arts organizations go under for lack of funding. The prevailing feeling is that the arts must support themselves. But while I am supporting my artistic self by spending time on my business, the art gets short shrift. Any efforts I make to market my play must by definition be part time and slapdash. The world of a working artist, believe me, is not like what you see in TV and the movies. We don't just wait tables/bartend till The Big Star discovers us noodling around on the bar's piano (see Smash, season 2). No one I know has had a moment of discovery by someone who can "put your name in lights." It is a hard slog. 

So next time any artist buddies of yours complain, be supportive. Do not make them feel they aren't doing enough to get their art published/exhibited/performed. And for goodness sake do not suggest that the quality of the art is to blame. Those of us who struggle for a foothold know all too well that a lot of lesser-quality work manages to find its way to the marketplace, so obviously that's not it. Art World is a place where being excellent is sometimes not even a qualification. You have to be at the right place, at the right time when someone who has money and/or connections decides to lend you a hand. It is the way our country has prioritized pretty much everything: those at the top are staying at the top, and it is getting harder and harder to join them.

BUT -- someone will find a way to out of this conundrum. Eventually, we creative types can pretty much figure anything out!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Let's hear it for Labor!

Labor Day is here again, and for many of us that marks the end of summer, though here in Virginia we expect the weather to be hazy, hot, and humid for a while longer. But this day is about more than the end of "official" summer (a.k.a. fun relaxing time) and the return to our regularly scheduled programming. Labor Day is the day set aside to officially celebrate the working men and women who made our country what it is. Today, as you dive into the pool, or serve up burgers from the grill, take a minute to celebrate Labor on our 119th Labor Day!

I am an entrepreneur with my own business, as well as a card-carrying union member: Actors' Equity Association  (100 years strong)  SAG-AFTRA (born from a merger 17 months ago), and SEIU. So I have a unique perspective on worker's rights. I know some unions have been riddled with graft and corruption in the past, but so has just about every other entity in modern times: business, government, religion... I won't supply links here because I would be doing internet searches all day. I am sure you can think of your own favorite institutional scandals. The fact of the matter is unions protect workers. Few can argue with that--though I keep crossing paths with people who try. But once you throw in a few facts and personal stories, those argument wither.

A year ago I was "management" as a producer of my play, Becoming Calvin, here in D.C. Many people told me what I already knew: I could cut my budget significantly if I hired non-union actors. But the play was my baby, so I wanted to make sure she was cared for by the best. I spent a disproportionately large part of my budget hiring the right people, and I was glad I did! Sure, non-union talent might have been available for longer rehearsal hours, but the professionals I hired showed up on time and always completely prepared to work. There may be a surfeit of talented actors and stage managers out there, but the ones who have worked hard enough to obtain their union cards really are worth it. Every penny you pay them, every dollar you put into the union pension fund, every form you have to fill out. Professionals. You get what you pay for!

And I wold be remiss on this Labor Day if I did not tip my hat to SEIU, which now covers my employment as Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University. Thanks to the recently ratified collective bargaining agreement with AU, I will now be paid a higher "terminal degree" rate that recognizes my academic rank as a Master of Fine Arts. The non-arts department I am teaching for had a hard time figuring it out, ("How can you be terminal? You're not a Ph.D!") but the SEIU agreement was pretty clear. I am sure without that backup I would be teaching for whatever rate the department deemed sufficient.

Go Labor!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Music to the eyes . . .?

Chia-Jung Tsay at the piano
"Social judgments are made on the basis of both visual and auditory information, with consequential implications for our decisions." Thus begins the abstract for "Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance" by Chia-Jung Tsay, published last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States Of America. Maybe you heard Shankar Vedantam's NPR story about Tsay's findings on Morning Edition this week. 

I am fascinated by this research, because Tsay came to it in a very personal way. A child piano prodigy, she spent years on the piano competition circuit. She is a graduate of The Julliard School and Peabody Conservatory, and holds not one but two Harvard Ph.D.s--in Organizational Behavior and Psychology and in Music. Somewhere along the way she noticed that her competition scores were better when the judges saw her play, rather than when they just heard her. Something about the experience of watching her was influencing their judgement. 

I am sure the musician was delighted with those good scores, but the psychologist in her thought this was something worth looking into. So she designed a study in which volunteer judges, amateur and professional musicians, compared competition performances in a  variety of formats: silent videos, videos with sound, and audio-only recordings.  

"What was surprising was that even though most people will say sound matters the most, it turned out that it was only in the silent videos, the videos without any sound, that participants were able to identify the actual winners," Tsay says. Which raises an interesting question: if this visual component matters this much in musical competition--where the overwhelming focus is on sound--how much more does it matter in other situations?

For those who might say that this is just an example of the "attractiveness bias," Tsay looked at the data to make sure these judgements weren't just about good looks. She says, "I wouldn't necessarily say that this is indicative of superficial judgment... There is something about visual information that is better able to convey cues such as passion or involvement or creativity. These elements are very much a part of high-quality performance."  

Passion or involvement or creativity. Also a huge part of presence. I spend a lot of time working with clients on defining and projecting their presence. Many bandy that word about, but don't really know what it means. Confidence, yes, but also active engagement with your audience, as well as your content--whether it is a Beethoven sonata, a stump speech or talking points for the staff meeting. You need to be energized by what you do, even as you are doing it, and connect to it deeply. Tsay's study shows that the winners are those who clearly communicate that energy and connection. 

And even though we do not yet competitively score keynote speeches or networking events, remember Tsay's conclusion next time you want to turn in your best performance.