Thursday, September 25, 2014

Check out the actors' playbook

The NYC cast of Becoming Calvin--September 21, 2014
This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing my play Becoming Calvin performed in a staged reading by some very talented actors in New York. We were not quite on Broadway, but almost, in a lovely church space just off of Times Square. Some of the actors have been with this play from its very first readings, and performed in its 2012 run in Washington, D.C.  But others, mostly NYC-based actors, heard the script aloud for the first time on Friday night. I reprised my 2012 role as director, and worked through each scene briefly. By Sunday afternoon the cast was ready to present it. They were already starting to inhabit their characters, and the play came alive. As a playwright, it was quite a gift to see and hear the script work while being read by new voices!

When I wasn't in rehearsal (which was most of the weekend) I had chance to catch up with friends who have interesting jobs in New York working with some Very Important People. One of my them was telling me about a boss who had a reputation for being a poor public speaker. This boss speaks a lot, in very high profile situations. "What makes her so appalling?" I asked. It seems she reads what has been prepared (in her case, by a speechwriter), then, feeling her point has not been made sufficiently, goes on to extemporaneously restate everything she has said in the speech. So of course her speeches usually run twice as long as they should. And her audience is always either bored or confused! Certainly not the desired outcome.

In my speaker-training business, I hear variations on this complaint all the time. Often I am brought in to address this issue, to help clients climb out of this trap. I advise them to follow my actors' example and trust the text. Actors learn very early on that their job is to interpret the work of the writer, to clarify it, share the underlying meaning with the audience. They never, for example, would stop a scene to explain to the audience what just happened. Their job is to embody the playwright's vision so clearly that the audience experiences it, too. The only way they can do this is to start with the assumption that the text is their primary tool. 

Speakers need to take a page from my actors' playbook and trust the text. Even if a speaker prefers to be less scripted, looser, more like a stand-up comedian, preparation is key (see my post Giving Thanks for Sarah Silverman). Comedians have a rhythm to their sets, have rehearsed, have chosen what to do when. They gifted ones make it seem "spontaneous"--just liked gifted actors--but very little has been left to chance.

If you are going to be speaking, the time to revise a text or script (to simplify it, or put it in your own words) is not at the moment of performance or presentation. That is work done well before you share your message with the audience. You need to make sure your text says what you want it to, yes, but before you step up to deliver it. Then, trust your text, let its message filter though you, and let the audience be a part of that experience. Otherwise, why are you there? You'd be better off just passing out a copy of your speech and freeing your captives.

Monday, September 8, 2014

One step and before you know it...

Students on the march; Union College Class of 2018!
I have just come back from my final first-year college-drop-off and I am experiencing mixed emotions. There is a feeling of accomplishment (not to mention relief!) at seeing your child set off on the road to independence, and yet. . . . As the Dean of Students said to the Class of 2018 when he welcomed them (just before we were instructed to say final good byes), "you might see your parents shedding a few tears, but it's not for you; it's because they are wondering where the time went!"

Fortunately, I can dive into work this week. I am lucky to have work that I love: coaching my clients gives me the opportunity to be always learning, thinking about something I have never thought about before, or looking at the world from an entirely new perspective. My clients are smart people; they talk about complicated, interesting things.

My job is to help them talk about these complex things in a way that helps others understand. Helps their listeners not just kinda sorta "get it,'' but understand it so well that true communication can happen, decisions can be made, problems can be solved, action can be taken.

As I reflect on the process I use to guide them, it strikes me as similar to helping my son learn how to walk. His first tentative step led to a surer one; it soon became a run. After that it seemed no time at all till he had become a sure-footed midfielder, then a fast base-runner. Yesterday he marched off to college. Everything started with that first, wobbly step.

My clients have mastered the steps necessary to rise to where they are. But they are all self-aware people who want to improve their communications, work for clarity, find that perfect metaphor or example to drive their meaning home. And they know, no matter how expert they are--or maybe in fact because they are so expert--they sometimes have to go back to basics to get started on the right foot.

We work on breaking down elaborate, possibly perplexing, explanations, uncluttering overly detailed power points. Saying more with far fewer words (and conveniently allowing more time for Q & A!). It is wonderful to hear about their successful outcomes. But I know beforehand they will succeed, because I can see how committed they are to the process of developing their content and delivery. They really dig in and explore as we search for creative, original (less pro forma, less expected) ways to make their messages soar. The "fixes" might seem minor to others, but for the author-presenters, even subtle perspective shifts and small tweaks can add up to a big improvement. 

And when the times comes to deliver, they're off and running--enjoying the experience as much as a child running on a beach on a warm summer day. Or a college student marching toward his future!