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.