Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Talk less, smile more

If you, like me, have been captivated by the music of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway hit that is breaking all kinds of records, I am sure you have been struck by the genius of Miranda's lyrics--the wit and social commentary he injects into the historic story. When I first heard self-described "trust-fund baby" Aaron Burr tell the scrappy immigrant Hamilton to "talk less, smile more," I had to laugh. Probably any woman hearing this lyric did as well. We have all heard it so many times, usually directed toward us, as it was to Hamilton, by a member of a privileged class who is objectifying us while trying to silence us. Burr claims he is giving this advice as a friendly warning to Hamilton; in Revolutionary America, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time could get you killed. But I am guessing Miranda uses this phrase at the beginning of their relationship to set up the somewhat ambivalent, ultimately fatal nature (spoiler alert!) of their long association.

Burr later uses this same phrase to describe his political strategy for wining people over without offering them much in the way of substance (and he succeeds: voters sing that he is the guy they would rather "have a beer with"). But when Hamilton's surrogate father George Washington tells him to "talk less," it is sound advice. The impetuous Hamilton has gotten himself into trouble by refusing to slow down and listen to others. Washington sees the need for Hamilton to master another skill: listening.

As a leader, Washington knew the truth about communication. It's always (at least) a two-way street. No matter how brilliant your ideas are, you cannot get your message across if you aren't willing to reach out and entertain a different viewpoint. You can't connect with people if they feel you are "talking at" them, rather than "speaking to" them.

I am not entirely sure that Alexander Hamilton learned this lesson. But as a communications coach, I believe there are many situations where talking less truly helps us make essential connections of community and communication. So, to honor our forefathers and the great American tradition of musical theatre, try it for your next big holiday gathering. You might learn more, enjoy more, connect more. And that will make you smile.

Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Venturing into the unknown

Recently I have been prepping clients for town hall-style meetings and live Q & A sessions--the type of event listed as "A conversation with the expert. . ." or "Talking to . . ." in conference programs. One of my clients said, "I want to control the conversation, even if I am being asked the questions." But he didn't want to pull that old politicians' trick of dodging the question and answering a different one instead. Right. That is never a good idea. It may seem, at the time, like an effective way to get your talking points out, but if someone is recording the exchange you will look like an idiot repeatedly, maybe even virally, ever after.

So how do you venture out into this uncharted territory? How can you ensure successful communication of your message when you are not in charge of the agenda, but responding to questions asked? It is preferable to discuss possible lines of inquiry with your moderator or interlocutor beforehand, but it's not always possible. Is there any way, short of practicing a Vulcan mind meld, to make sure your time in the spotlight offers you an opportunity to say what you need to say?

Yes. If you have done your preparation. Many people (thankfully not my clients) seem to think this is an unnecessary step. After all, you've been asked because you are the expert, so what's to prepare? You know your stuff, so you can just wing it, right? Wrong. Respect your audience. They want a little piece of your expertise, so put yourself in their shoes. Plan ahead. Plan to tell them what you find most exciting about your subject. Or discuss its timelier elements. If you can connect your subject to recent news events, so much the better. And be sure to have your best stories and examples polished and ready to be inserted into an answer early in the hour. It's not good to walk offstage and think "I really wanted to tell them about X--but it never came up." If you need to convey a particular point think of at least three ways you can weave it into answers for other likely questions.

And don't make the mistake of assuming every event of this nature will be your own personal love-fest. The moderator may think you are the best, but you could get push back from the audience. Be sure not to over-react. It is possible that the question you hear as a clear challenge to your authority may not have been meant that way at all. Since you are sitting in the speaker's "hot seat" your defensive ears could detect a menacing tone that simply isn't there. So prepare for the skeptics and always have an answer handy for the question you dread most. A real one, not a snarky aside.

Speakers often anticipate these sorts of town halls with apprehension, fearing an hour-long voyage into terra incognita. But if you take time beforehand, you can make sure you answer their questions while introducing some of your favorite talking points. And a good time will be had by all!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

It's like talking to a mirror!

Last month I blogged about the importance of finding and using your own professional tone of voice. With everyone. All the time. I heard from several friends and colleagues that this is challenging, particularly at rigidly hierarchical workplaces. It seems they work with some people who self-identify as being "on top" who exhibit the boorish behavior of "talking down" to those below them in the org chart. And I reiterate: don't do it.

One of my friends who read that blog brought up a related topic.  She said my discussion of professional tone reminded her of an old habit: emulating the tone of whoever she was talking to. I have noticed many people do this, and it is often a hard habit to break! Because it is something that we often all slip into, unconsciously, as a way of reaching out and connecting with others. This phenomenon has been studied quiet a bit: researchers call it communications accommodation theory. I looked up some academic papers to see if I could find a succinct definition, but the best one I found was in Wikipedia (and it seems pretty accurate): Communication accommodation theory (CAT) was  developed by Howard Giles. It posits that "when people interact they adjust their speech, their vocal patterns and their gestures, to accommodate to others". There is more to unpack here, but the gist of it is that we do this (intentionally or not) to fit in. A couple of studies that came out in psychological journals in 2010, "Alignment to Visual Speech Information" (Miller et al.), and "Imitation Improves Language Comprehension" (Adank et al.) note that this tendency often gets carried even further. They say their studies have demonstrated it is easier to understand a foreign accent if we mimic it ourselves. Of course there are disclaimers accompanying discussions of these studies: "don't try this at home!"further elaborate on this.

Research has shown we naturally gravitate to emulation or imitation of tone, even accent. But we are advised against giving into this impulse wholeheartedly. The reasoning seems to be that it could be taken as mockery of the speaker, and therefore offensive. While this may be true, it focuses too much on others' perception of you. I prefer to look at this as something you need to control because it will directly benefit you. Because when you are imitating someone else, even with noblest of intentions or instincts, you are not speaking in your own voice. You become a reflection of the person you are speaking to. For a few professionals this is desirable, and they engage in this practice intentionally. But for the rest of us? You can see that this could become one big loop of imitation, like speaking in a room full of mirrors. Which raises the question: how does a new voice get heard? How are new thoughts expressed?

Before you know it, your very honest, well-intentioned imitation has created, literally, an echo chamber of communications. This could lead to some pretty bad outcomes--much more serious than just offending someone with a bad accent. So find your voice. And use it.

Trees that Bring Wealth and Prosperity: Beauty 
Utagawa Hiroshige Utagawa Hiroshige
courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Playwrights' wisdom

I have been doing a lot of writing this summer, mostly of  the creative variety. And I am excited to tell you that my latest play, Bigger Than All of Us, will have its premier reading at The Kennedy Center on Labor Day, September 7. I have been up to my eyeballs in rewrites and revisions most of the summer, and am thankful for the feedback from my very able playwriting colleagues, who have supported me every step of this process. At our last meeting we were debating whether a line conveyed the "tone" I wanted, and one of my friends said, "At some point you have to trust that your words will be able to stand alone." She meant that I won't always be in the rehearsal room to make sure the director and cast know exactly what I want to convey, and how I want to convey it.  I must make my precise intention crystal clear through the lines and the action of the script. My friend is right, of course. Though sometime we playwrights do "nudge" the interpretation a bit by including stage directions in our scripts to show how we hear a certain line in our heads ("sarcastically," "with suppressed glee," etc.). But we can't use that crutch too often, unless we want to identify ourselves as novices who have not learned to write very well.

As I have been refining my script, I have also been developing a business writing workshop. My client and I are discussing this same issue: how do you convey the proper "tone?" Of course the first rule for business writing is the same first rule for all writing (whether it is a play or a speech): know your audience. Once you have the specifics of your audience in mind, you take some of the guesswork out of finding the right tone. But then you need to do what we do as playwrights, get outside your own head and listen to your message with different ears. And make no mistake: this is important for all types of writing, not just speech writing. You need to hear how your message sounds. Because when people read what you have written, they hear it in their heads. And if there is any possibility at all that your message can be misinterpreted, you need to rewrite it. Usually this means simplifying the sentence structure, and revising your word choice to use concrete language and active verbs. Sometimes it means tweaking your organization, so you clearly lead with topic sentences and choose your supporting points more judiciously.  But you always need to "consider the audience" and how they will receive your message. If you write in a way they find oblique, opaque, or disrespectful for any reason, whether or not that was your intention, you will lose them.

So take a page from the playwright's script, and make sure your words clearly speak for themselves. Because you don't have the luxury of including stage directions!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Back into the frying-pan

This time last week I was very successfully not thinking about clients,  business, or my new play as I spent time with my family relaxing in the relatively cool Maine weather. When we were not at the beach, eating lobster, or visiting historical sites and lighthouses, I immersed myself reading the much-ballyhooed Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. I found it fascinating! As a playwright who spends a fair amount of time constructing back stories and unfolding the histories of my characters, I could not wait to see what Ms. Lee's original concept of "Scout" Finch and her father Atticus were. And when I compared them to the characters they became, later-yet-earlier, in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, I truly felt that I learned a lot about the process of a literary genius!

Snapping out of my creative reverie on the ride home last Sunday, I tried to catch up on the news. As we drove south and the temperature soared, I was delighted to read an important article in The Guardian by feminist author Naomi Wolfe urging young women to stop engaging in the distracting and destructive practice of vocal fry. I cheered and mentally tipped my hat to Ms. Wolfe. In her article she reinforced what I have been telling clients for years. A sample: "Voice remains political at work as well. A Catalyst study found that self-advocacy skills correlate to workplace status and pay more directly than merit. In other words, speaking well is better for your career than working hard."

But in the days that followed, a backlash to her sound reasoning gathered steam. It has perplexed and dismayed me. Some read Wolfe's practical advice (to strengthen your voice and so reclaim it) as silencing those voices. Well, if Wolfe is a stifler of voice, then so am I. I  advise all my clients and students--men and women--to kick to vocal fry habit. This gravelly sound may sound sexy or grown-up to your inner ear, but to those listening it sounds as if you a) just don't care or b) might be ill. Telling young people on their way up the career ladder to eliminate a bad habit (experts say vocal fry is usage problem, not a physiological one) seems like a smart plan to me.

I know that voice is intensely personal. It is one of the tools we use to signify to the world who we are. I work with my clients to help them polish up their existing vocal tool kit, so they can maximize their vocal potential. I would never attempt to throw out anyone's personal toolbox and replace it with something that is inauthentic. But remember: you need to use the right tool for the job.

I don't care how much you creak or fry or wallow in the gravel when you speak privately or socially. But if you are a client of mine, young or old, male or female, I will certainly help you eliminate that sound from your professional and public speaking. Because I know I am not alone in experiencing a fingernails-on-the blackboard visceral response when I hear it. Consequently, I don't/can't listen to people who do it.  Which is a sure-fire way, regardless of age or gender, to silence your own voice.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What was that you said?

I saw a link to a funny story that I missed on NPR today about "eggcorns."  An "eggcorn", according to Merriam-Webster, is "a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase." The print version of the story lists some very funny "eggcorns." Look it over if you want a chuckle. If you live in North America I can guarantee you have heard many of these. My favorite was missing, though: window seal for window sill. I heard a friend say that a few years ago but I thought it just a regional vowel substitution. Then I saw it written in lesson plans when I was substitute teaching later that spring. One of the assignments could be found, the teacher wrote, in a book on the window seal. Since this was a 6th grade English classroom with a few stuffed animals as well as books on the window sill, I hunted for a stuffed seal, hoping to find the book in question there! No seal, but I found the book--on the sill.

It's problematic when a middle school teacher makes these mistakes, but other people who should know better make them, too. And though it may be fun to laugh at friends who use language so idiosyncratically, you should probably let them know it also reveals a lot to other listeners. Those of us who are in the business of communications know that such verbal mis-steps are markers that identify the speaker as someone who is either not well-read, has not ventured too far outside a closed community, or is over-confident or stubborn. There may be good reasons for misunderstanding a word or phrase, but someone who wants to use it correctly and is unsure how to say it or spell it will look it up. When I gently point out "eggcorns" to students (and the occasional client) I find their willingness to self-correct correlates directly to each person's ability to master the art of dynamic communication.

But hey! If you want to keep misusing words, be my guest. There are plenty of people who will gladly rush in to fill the vacuum created by your lost credibility. After all, as Gloria Pritchett will tell you, it's a doggy-dog world out there!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Batter up!

Practice makes perfect. Theoretically, yes. But I'd like to offer this caveat: you need to practice the right thing, not just repeat mistakes. Consider this: if practice was all it took, by September, every MLB batter would be batting 1.000! 

This is also true when it comes to speaking. Taking advantage of many opportunities to speak (whether in a formally organized group like Toastmasters International, or in an informal workplace-based group) does indeed offer the opportunity to hone, to refine, to perfect. But you need to know what it is you are aiming for, what habits of yours need correcting, what new skills you need to acquire. The problem with peer-to-peer groups is that they may help you become more aware of what needs fixing, but they don't always offer an effective way to fix it. Often, someone will energetically advise you to "try this; it worked for me." But using tactics that worked for them may not help you at all. And the anxiety produced by this sense of failure can tie you up in even more knots.

As a speaker trainer/presentation skills consultant I spend a lot of time undoing those knots. I work with people who have been beating themselves up for years because they need to use notes, or have to let speeches "marinate" before they are fully formed. All because some "expert" (who is good at doing this himself but has no idea how to teach) proclaimed "only losers need notes" or "what's the big deal? You know your stuff,  just get up there and talk about it." You can guess what I say to that! I have blogged about these issues, here and here  and probably several other places as well.

If glossophobia.com is to be believed, as much as 75% of the population suffers from a fear of public speaking. So whoever is offering you advice likely had his own issues to deal with. And whatever they were, they were overcome. So hurray for him! But here's the thing--your issues are not the same. Following the same methods for fixing them is like taking someone else's pills. They might work--or they might disastrously backfire. You need your own prescription.

In speaking, as in baseball, you need to train with a coach, not just other players on the team. Sure, you need to show up on the field and practice pitching, batting, and catching, but your technique won't improve with practice alone. You need to work on the skills with someone who can recognize what you are doing wrong and offer you exercises, techniques and strategies for improvement. Then you can go out and practice. And practice, practice, practice. Ask your coach for continued help as you progress. She'll make adjustments and you'll keep working.

Stay strong! Your peers, most of whom mean well, will weigh in. Take their feedback as just that, not instruction or advice. They aren't up at bat with you, they're just watching from the bench. So smile and thank them. And then go do what you were trained to do!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Rules? What rules?

Every so often I hear about my clients' previous public speaking training--usually an onsite workshop or a long-ago college course. And far too many of them were told that there are Absolute Rules They Must Always Follow. 

I sigh, and say it's time for them to forget those rules! Sometimes I encounter resistance to that statement, but generally I see relief in their eyes.

Since we are all individuals with different strengths, talents, and--most importantly--learning styles, we need to find out what works best for each of us. The Rules can serve as a starting point before we have developed skills in this area. But as soon as we can devise our own strategies we should loosen their grip on our speaking technique.

Once you become an energized, dynamic speaker no one ever really challenges you on your use of notes or hand gestures. But I have had many mid-career professionals and even senior executives tell me they dare not break The Rules. They hold themselves back on many levels. For example, their bodies are stiff and inexpressive because they were told long ago to stick to formulaic hand gestures. I recently blogged about the silliness of this sort of advice on what to do with your hands. 

And as to the notes/no-notes issue, I have written about this as well. This is a choice that depends very much on the situation. You often do need your notes because it's a colossal time drain to commit a speech to memory, and it is better to use that time on preparing content and delivery. But the Rule makers say "Don't read, but don't memorize it, either. You should be able to speak off the cuff." I have long considered "off the cuff" to be over-rated; think of all the boring, meandering wedding toasts, team briefings, or panel presentations you have endured. You have seen firsthand how "off the cuff" can alienate and bore an audience. 

Furthermore, making people present without the notes they need is just cruel. And counter-productive. I know of few surer ways to undermine a colleague's confidence than to imply she does not "know her stuff" if she needs more than a few bullet points. We each build our speeches in different ways. Some of us rely on specific word choices more than others. So if you are a bullet-point person, do not assume that your way is the only way. Most formal, high visibility speeches are delivered as written because every word counts. Many speakers feel that way about even casual public speaking occasions. Reading a speech without making eye contact, of course, should never be encouraged. But I, for one, would rather hear a well-thought-out speech read than watch someone hunt for phrases and fill the air with jargon and non sequiturs. 

Start out with The Rules if you must. But give yourself permission to discover your own technique, perfect it, and use it proudly. If anyone objects, send 'em my way!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why TSA can't "read"

I did a little dance of joy when I heard this news on NPR today: The ACLU is suing the Transportation Security Administration over its one billion dollar "Behavior Detection" program, SPOT. You know this one--it's the program that trains TSA officers to recognize potential terrorists by assessing their behavior. Yes, trying to pick out "threats" from the masses of people going through an arduous screening process at a crowded airport, usually while they are either pressed for time or in desperate need of a bathroom (or is that just me?). The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request last October, and, according to USA Today, filed the lawsuit on March 19th, after that request received no response.

Why does this make me happy, aside from the hope that someday my airport wait will be shorter and less fraught? As a communications coach, I have been counseling my clients for years not to waste their time trying to "read" their audiences (see blog post from last March). The junk science such a belief is based on is just that - junk! And our tax dollars have been thrown away on variations of this behavioral detection since 2003. Wasteful, not to mention needlessly disruptive for countless travelers. As Behavioral Science Professor Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago says in the NPR story, "The data that comes from experiments that test whether people can detect these subtle kinds of cues suggests that it can't be detected very well. . . a lot of those kinds of claims come without data to back them up."

But TSA isn't the only government agency who does this: an acting student of mine years ago argued with me that she had learned this "skill" working for one of our more . . . secretive agencies. And you know that businesses have jumped on this bandwagon and are paying big bucks for it.

The truth is you cannot know what someone is thinking by looking at facial expressions, behavior, or body language out of context any more than you can read someone's mind! But Hollywood loves this plot line (the example that springs to mind is Fox's 2009-2011 series  Lie to Me), and people love to think they can become "expert" at something that could be so useful in their personal and professional lives. Just think what an advantage you will have every day when you, too, can "read" your new boyfriend, your workplace nemesis, your industrial competitor!

But here's why this does not work: even if you succeed in correctly identifying fear or anger on someone's face, you can never be sure what has caused that emotion to flutter or flare. If you assume it is necessarily due to something you said or did. . . well . . .  you know what happens when you assume

As an acting teacher I know that even amateurs can convincingly channel emotions they do not really feel. And at airports, in workplaces, and on first dates we often choose which role we will "play." And when we do not do this consciously, it may be because we are preoccupied with different concerns that have nothing to do with our present situation.

Hoipefully SPOT will go by the wayside, my tax dollars will be better spent, and my clients will stop thinking they need to learn the trick of "reading" their audience. So a tip of the hat and a "thank you" to you,  ACLU!

*** "Demonstration of a proposal for automated detection of suspicious persons"
 training photo from Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Monday, February 23, 2015

When the clock is ticking

"Time Totem" by Peter Pierobon

I am reading a wonderful book for my book club, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. You may recall the story from the movie Philomena starring Judi Dench that was up for four Oscars just last year. Thought it does not have Dame Judi's stellar performance to keep you glued to its pages, the book is every bit as interesting as the movie. Maybe even more so, since it gives us more detail about the life of Philomena's lost child Anthony, rechristened Mike Hess by his American parents. Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who uncovered this gripping story and retells it like a good detective novel, drops in a few moments of comic relief when he can. I laughed out loud the other day when I read this sentence, describing the 1979 American Bar Association Christmas party in Washington, D.C. : "At around ten o'clock the MC tapped a glass and called for silence. The speeches were the usual mix of pomposity and bad jokes and Mike noticed a few people looking at their watches long before. . . the closing remarks." Chuckle, chuckle, cringe. I have been to events like that. And I am sure you have, too.

But it doesn't have to be that way! Just because this has become "the usual," as Sixsmith says, doesn't mean it is the only way to handle special occasion speeches. Celebrations, holiday parties, awards ceremonies, business social events of all types call for a "few words" given by senior staff and honorees. But so many times those people kill their own credibility, or reduce their own stature by trying to be something they are not - entertainers! When you get a platform, as on a festive occasion, the rule of thumb is short, sweet, and to the point. You can use the opportunity to make a point, of course (because every speech needs to be about something) but plan ahead and say it in a few well-chosen words for maximum impact. Don't hold your audience hostage just because you are having a "starring" moment.

People who actually are stars know the importance of preparation--partly because they know their speeches will be filmed, replayed and scrutinized, and partly because they know they will be "played offstage" if they drone on too long.  Last night's Oscars ceremony gave us a surprising number of speeches that made an impact and stayed within the allotted time limit! My favorite performer this year, Patricia Arquette, rallied the troops with her cry for women's equality, and Graham Moore encouraged those who feel like outsiders by pointing out that difference can lead to great achievement.  John Legend used his acceptance speech to powerfully call out pervasive racism that lingers decades after Selma. In fact, most of Hollywood's finest seemed to have gotten the message last night and actually prepared their remarks beforehand. That is something I always urge clients to do, so I was quite pleased.

I rarely hold up Hollywood as an example of How To Do It Right in Real Life, but Oscar 2015 gave us many strong examples of classy people delivering powerful messages. And it's always fun to see The Beautiful People being . .  . well, beautiful!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Trans-parent language

Lately I have been watching and enjoying the Amazon television series Transparent. I was thrilled when it won the Golden Globes for Best TV series as Best Actor in a comedy. And now everyone will have have a chance to watch it when Amazon streams the entire season for free on January 24th.

 Much has been written about this ground-breaking series since it debuted in the fall. I really do love Jeffrey Tambor's lovingly humorous portrayal of Maura, the transgender parent of the title. He is an actor that I have become familiar with over the years. He has triumphed in countless roles before; he outdoes himself here. And series creator Jill Soloway is acting as a positive disruptive force in the world of formulaic, often sexist Hollywood sitcoms.

So watch it if you like comedy, if you like good acting with smart dialogue, and if you like gorgeous California real estate. If you are squeamish about sex scenes or gender-questioning, this isn't the series for you. But you probably already guessed that!

I also really appreciate how the series, and the growing visibility of the transgender community that it reflects, demands that we examine the powerful role language plays. Maura's family has many questions, but they are summed up by his daughter Ali, who simply asks, "What do we call him now?" The name she settles on, "Moppa," is a lovely compromise, one that Soloway used with her own trans-parent. But personal pronouns remain problematic, and cause some confusion, notably in Episode 5.

I welcome this examination of the power of these words. For too long, many of us protested the offensiveness of using "men" or "mankind" for "people" and "humankind." And were told "oh, you know what I mean." Unfortunately, we did. But refusing to acknowledge the power imbalance implicit in this terminology seems laughable to most of us today. Pick up an old textbook or newspaper, though, and that language propels you right back to the days of the unapologetic patriarchy. So I understand the importance of getting this right. Identity is tied up in how we label ourselves, and how the world labels us. If transgender people, or those who identify as genderqueer want to be referred to as ze, why should we fight it? Nouns and pronouns influence how we see ourselves in relation to society.  I grudgingly admit that the growing use of "they" might just solve this problem, though it is extremely hard for my grammar-loving heart to embrace this term. But logic (and the very clever columnist Steven Petrow) convinces me I may have to.

Who knows? If we keep going down this path, someday I may realize one of my wildest dreams, when once and for all we bury the boorish  "you guys" in favor of the simple, elegant "you."

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Year's Day with NPH

Neil Patrick Harris
Happy New Year!
If you want to read yet another blog about New Year's resolutions or predictions for what 2015 has in store for us, I apologize. This is not that blog. You are welcome to look at what I have written about resolutions in the past. I also have an astrologer friend who makes some interesting predictions based on what the sky tells us is happening now and in the coming months.

No, this first column of the New Year will highlight a wonderful episode of NPR's Fresh Air I heard on New Year's Day. The incomparable Terry Gross rebroadcast an interview with actor/singer/author Neil Patrick Harris from October 13,  2014. Somehow I missed its original air date but am glad I caught it this time around!

Harris is an incredibly wise and grounded (not to mention talented) performer, and he gave a warm and funny interview: I recommend it to you. In conversation with him, Gross covered many intriguing topics. NPH (as he is known to his fans) has had an interesting career as an actor, recently playing a trans-gendered German rock singer in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. It was a challenging role, to say the least, and he won a Tony Award for it in 2014. Gross asked him about his approach, specifically about how he transformed physically and vocally into the female rock-singing persona. I was fascinated by what he said about his vocal routine, and his work with veteran New York voice coach Liz Caplan. She engaged him in detailed work on breathing and posture habits affecting his vocal production, just as I do with my clients. And, like most of the people I work with, NPH had a few things to learn: "As it turns out, the way I carry my personal body is a little neck strained... meaning that I don't stand perfectly tall, I jut my neck forward a little bit. And instead of using my diaphragm and my full breath, I tend to sort of clench my breath right around my throat and allow the sounds to come through... that compression is not so good on your cords because  ... [it] causes some kind of vocal problems later, like nodes or losing your voice". Caplan also gave him exercises for tongue tension, which can add to that vocal stress. Gross, apparently as fascinated by his technique as I was, asked NPH to demonstrate several exercises. They weren't exactly the ones I use, but I would guess any clients of mine who happened to catch the show recognized the similarities.

It was a rewarding episode for me to hear. To know that I teach a technique that works (even for such pros as NPH!), that I continue to share with others who can really be helped by it: what a wonderful way to start the New Year!