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Outside the Speaker's Bubble

a newsletter about speakers and speaking

The Speaker's Bubble is that wrinkle in the time/space continuum you experience whenever you speak, and experience even the slightest bit of pressure to perform. It's that place where your heart rate speeds up, just a little. Where you hear your blood pounding ever-so-slightly in your ears. Where you turn various shades of crimson, or feel short of breath. All these are purely normal physiological responses to the stress of "the-one-versus-the-many." There are ways to control this stress; excellent speakers know this. So do experienced leaders. My Communications Conditioning practice teaches speakers of all skill levels how to deal with stress and present like pros! I can give a practical road map of strategies to make anyone a better communicator for life.

Click here for a schedule of my upcoming workshops.


July/August 2012

I hope you have been having a productive summer, and have managed to keep cool! I have been busy teaching at American University and meeting with private clients. And much of my time this past month has been taken up with details related to producing my play, Becoming Calvin.

So, even though there is no real news here, I invite you to visit my blog, Talk the Talk. There you can read posts about speaking, leadership, and communications issues.

If you will be in the D.C. area mid-September, I hope you will consider coming to Becoming Calvin. Our PayPal box office will be open soon, so bookmark the links below and come back to reserve your seat!

See you at the theatre!

Tips you can use!

Is everything a question?
"Upspeak" - that annoying habit of ending sentences with an upward inflection - is no longer an affliction limited to Valley Girls or teens. It kills your credibility. Don't do it!

Siddown, you're rockin' the boat!
When you get up to speak, stand firmly on both feet, planted hips' width apart. Stand tall and don't sway or rock. Such movement, at best, distracts from your message. At worst, it can make your audience seasick!

Read your speech - aloud
It seems so simple, yet how often do you do it? And once generally isn't enough. For those who do a lot of speaking (and are good at it) seven is the magic number.



June 2012

Back to basics!

I am a firm believer in the importance of going back to the beginning every once in a while. When you have reached a certain level of mastery, it is often useful to go back to an earlier exercise and apply your improved technique to its execution. Many disciplines realize this is important, and include such drills as part of their preparation. Singers begin every lesson or rehearsal with vocal exercises. Instrumentalists always play their scales -- at least "run through them quickly" -- at the beginning of a practice session. And of course athletes warm up before any game or competition.

But getting back to basics involves more than rote repetition of a set of exercises, useful as that may be for limbering up the fingers or calf muscles. It requires a more mindful way of doing something that has become foundational to your practice. A way to see what you have learned, and what you need to revisit in order to understand how you do what you do and why.

Oh, now I get it!

A couple of my adult acting students, upon finishing their intermediate level class this spring, said they were thinking about enrolling in the beginning class again. They said they would now be able to really understand the value of those first lessons.

That is the dilemma for those of us who teach or coach adults. Our students and clients come to us with lots of life experience and a certain knowledge base. But they also have a reluctance to move outside well-established comfort zones -- even if they have enrolled in a class or called a consultant to help them do just that! And so they often tune out the initial training for a discipline or practice. Later on they realize the need for that beginning instruction. Some of them double-back and pick it up then. Progress is usually much faster after that.

Riding the learning curve

At various times of our lives we are so open to new things that new ways of seeing and being in the world take root almost instantly. When we are that receptive we learn faster. Other times. . . not so much. We are defensive, or we think we know it all already: Hey, if kids are such good actors, how hard can it be?

We can rediscover our creative receptivity by returning to a more elementary form of what we are currently doing. Playing a song from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Taking a batting clinic to analyze the swing. Singing that uncomplicated tune that sounds so pure and simple -- and is so hard to do without relying on tricks or "style."

It sometimes takes courage to get back to basics, embrace the fundamentals, and find out what is really foundational to your current practice or level of skill. But it is well worth it.

Tips you can use!

It's OK to say "I don't know"
In the information age you can't be expected to know everything at any given second. If you make something up, chances are someone else in the room will have Googled the real answer by the time you've finished.

Don't stick your neck out
Tip your chin down to avoid showing off that unsightly expanse of flesh when you video chat. You may decide you don't need that chin implant after all. And your voice will sound less strained.  

Wear sunblock
Always, but especially in the summer. Just running around between appointments exposes your skin to lots of harmful rays. To keep those pesky wrinkles at bay, at least use a good facial moisturizer with SPF 30. And reapply!


May 2012

Talk to the hand . .

A question my clients frequently ask when we have our initial session is: What should I do with my hands?  This is a universal worry -- my acting students have it, as have generations of novice actors before them. In a famous scene from Act IV of Anton Chekov's The Seagull, Nina describes her failed attempts on the professional stage "... really, my acting was so amateurish... I didn't know what to do with my hands, I didn't know how to stand on the stage, I wasn't in control of my voice. You have no idea how awful it is when you know you're acting badly." Yes, Nina, people who speak publicly often do have an idea.

Whether onstage, behind the podium, or around the conference table, we all suffer from self-consciousness if we are not physically grounded. A funny, yet instructive, example of this lack of groundedness can be found in an episode of Up All Night. Chris (played by the brilliantly comic Will Arnett) guests as a law expert on Ava's TV show. His first appearance does not go well. His "untethered" arms flail all over the place, ending with floppy hands. Ava declares him a "disaster" and his on-camera career seems doomed. He is oblivious. We laugh because we recognize not only the underlying anxiety that causes his behavior, but also because we know we would never be that clueless!

Harness the power of gesture

It's not just your hands; your whole body needs to be engaged in your message. Before you speak, get your instrument ready to communicate by doing physical and vocal warm-ups. Then breathe. If you are relaxed and physically expressive your entire body supports your content. Remember, you are not just a talking head. If you were, what should I do with my hands? would be a non-issue.

Politicians in particular show us how gesture can enhance or detract from a message. Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard a good example of a political leader whose physical engagement reinforces her verbal message. In this clip of her visit to our local high school with President Obama, we see two leaders who are physically at ease in front of a dozen international cameras and high school students. A combination that would strike fear in the hearts of many!

But be sure you're saying something

Avoid the "Clinton thumb" It is a purely political construct, a gesture no one uses outside the political arena. Real people just do not do it. It is a gesture devised to simulate sincerity without going out on a limb and really committing, a marker of feigned authenticity. People have told me that Clinton adapted the gesture from his hero JFK. But I ask: "Just because JFK did it, and Bill Clinton did it, does that mean you have to do it, too?"

Tips you can use!

Use both your lips
Aside from making it difficult to understand what you are saying,"keeping a stiff upper lip" sends a message that you are withholding something, and are not altogether trustworthy.

If you don't know, ask questions
When preparing for a speaking engagement, make sure you know who you are speaking to, what the occasion is,and why you've been asked to speak. If you don't know, ask. Because if you assume, you know what that makes you.

"Step into those leadership shoes"
I often give use this as an image for physicalizing your leadership persona. When you actually put those shoes on, though, you need to practice walking in them before you "go public." You can't be perceived as a leader if you're off balance or clomping around like a horse.


April 2012

Friends when we need them

I was astonished the other day when the Washington Post ran an article decrying Bruce Springsteen's use of a teleprompter onstage during his current tour. Apparently this isn't exactly news, as The Boss has been using said device for the past couple of tours, at least. Thankfully, Nils Lofgren came to Springsteen's defense on the WaPo blog on April 3rd. As Lofgren says, the prompter enables his bandmate Springsteen to be more spontaneous, to give a better show because he is not rummaging around in his brain for half-forgotten lyrics. He can read from the prompter and thus direct his energy to creating his music and connecting with the audience.

There seems to be a huge misconception that if you need help remembering your words while speaking or performing, you're just not doing your job. See Rick Santorum's thoughts on this from the campaign trail. Whether they call it "speaking from the heart" or "off the cuff," impromptu speaking is highly prized by people who seem to think preparation is for sissies!


Think about it. Do you really want to sit through speeches that are just "popping into" the heads of speakers as they are looking at you? Waiting for something to "come to them" that seems coherent and relevant? Have you ever been that unprepared speaker, hoping that inspiration will strike when you need it most? What were you thinking then? Probably something along the lines of, "darn it, I really should have prepared!"

I counsel my clients not to fall into this trap. Because it is a trap. It is simply not true that preparation equals lack of authenticity. On the contrary, preparation shows you care about your audience. You respect it enough to take time to organize your thoughts, then to make sure they are put together in a way that makes these thoughts comprehensible to listeners. Short sentences. Active verbs.

The fact of the matter is that many folks who claim to be speaking extempore are really super-prepared. They just like to create an aura of mystery and make you think they can be brilliant at the drop of a hat! Of course they will never tell you their secret.

An aide, not a crutch

But you already know this. When you think about it, you know that to effectively deliver your message you need to prepare. You need to make sure you are saying what you want to say how you want to say it, in a way you can repeat if necessary. Memorizing such a speech might be desirable, but that takes time. Lots of time. And no one has enough of that, certainly not people in leadership positions.

Good--even great--speakers use notes. It's a fact. You don't notice because their delivery is so confident. Often they have planted their notes on the podium so you don't see them. But they are there. I know. So be like the pros. Prepare and practice. Memorize your opening two lines and your final line. And take your notes. Only professional actors are expected to perform without them. After they have rehearsed.

Tips you can use!

Don't lock your knees
If you stand with locked knees, you throw off your natural alignment, making breathing less efficient. Every member of a chorus knows standing with locked knees can lead to fainting!

Say "thee" before a vowel
When you have "the" before a word beginning in a vowel or a silent consonant ("h" as in "honor"), pronounce it with a long "e" sound. It flows better and eliminates an unattractive glottal stop.

Avoid vocal fry
Some may find it sexy but when you use this "creaky voice" it's hard to understand. If you growl your words you might be doing lasting harm to your voice, too.


March 2012

Happy Women's History Month!

In 1987, Congress declared March Women's History Month. This expanded Women's History Week, which had been celebrated since the '70's. Women's History Week originally included International Women's Day, which itself has been celebrated -- internationally -- since 1909. My history with WHM does not go back that far: it dates to 1993 when I started criss-crossing the country, performing my solo historical drama, Off the Wall: The Life and Works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I had a great time over the years traveling to 180 campuses, museums, libraries, and federal offices, meeting feminists, historians, students and theatre-goers in 26 states - and the District of Columbia!

Lessons from "the road"

It was during this time of wheels-down, mad-dash-to-venue, set-up-show, scramble-into-costume & hit-the-stage that I developed much of the technique I share with my clients today. I had been studying the art and craft of acting for years, but the nuts and bolts of being my own stage manager AND "star of the show" compelled me find a warm-up that worked. Every time. So I devised a quick vocal/physical warm-up that I could do in my private dressing room (rarely) or the closest women's restroom (more often than not). As Desirée Armfeldt sings in Stephen Sondheim's brilliant musical, A Little Night Music: "Hi ho the glamorous life. . . !"

Nothing makes you invent your own best 15-minute pre-performance routine like the prospect of carrying an hour-long solo show. . . and keeping enough vocal and physical energy (not to mention presence of mind) to do a 15 to 20 minute Q & A after!

Warm-ups pay off!

I understand that my clients might worry about losing focus during their presentations, "hitting the wall" before the speech is over, or feeling too tired and a little bit cranky right before they have to do their thing. But IF they perform a physical and vocal warm-up, they can get themselves to the right mental place. And these concerns vanish. It is as simple, and as complex as that.

Like any good performance, a good speech -- whether onstage, at a podium, or around a conference table -- depends on you being fully there. And the best way to get there and stay there is to make sure you are relaxed, grounded and ready to go. Warm-ups are key. If you don't have one, try combination of yoga or dance stretches, singing exercises, and tongue twisters, and see what works. Or call me.

Tips you can use!

Banish the fidgets!
Nervous behaviors such as random hand gestures, rocking, and vocal tics can be controlled if you employ a deep breathing method that allows you to focus and stay in the moment. Fidgeting comes from nerves; if you can quell the nerves you can get rid of the fidgets.

Change up your tempo
If you are speaking for more than two minutes, make sure you build some variable pacing into your presentation. Even if your content is fascinating, a steady rhythmic pacing can put people to sleep. Especially important for lunchtime speakers to know!

Keep your knees "soft"
Locked knees can lead to fainting. Make sure you always keep your knees unlocked when standing.