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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

Acting the part

Last week I was running a webinar for a leadership development program. The participants were senior level, super-smart scientists located around the county. Before I got to the meat of the session, I said (as I always do) that I might use some familiar words, but maybe not in the way they generally used them. I hate jargon, so I don't use "in group" vocabulary of communications professionals or theatre people unless I am speaking to those groups. Still, I try to be careful about defining my terms, but there is always something that slips through. In this case, the word was ...

"Actor." Well, not the word, exactly, but the concept.  

I talk a lot about authenticity, and the importance of finding your own authentic leadership voice, And the key to that is discovering your own presence, which I liken to an actor's stage presence. I then go on to explain to the participants how they can each go about finding their own presence, which in turn helps them embrace their authentic leadership style. When I opened up the discussion for questions,  I got one I hadn't expected. The concept of an actor being authentic seemed confusing. Actors do the opposite, don't they? They're not really themselves, because they become other people, right?

That stopped me for a second. 

Somehow I had forgotten about this common misconception. I guess I mistook the popular, pervasive obsession with actors for at least a limited understanding of what they do. But it seems many fans of movie, TV, even stage actors don't really know how their favorites create such compelling illusions. The fact is, actors need a high degree of self-knowledge, self-confidence, and grounded-ness to be able to do what they do. It takes training and discipline. Actors do not shed their own skin and put on someone else's, no matter how much their PR myth-making machines might insist that they do. To have the presence of mind and body to be able to fully be yourself--yet fully portray another person--is the craft an actor works on for years, if not a lifetime. No matter how much magic they create in the audience's eyes, actors are not sorcerers who can switch themselves off and step into another life. If they were, they'd have a hard time coming back to their own lives and picking up the kids or doing the grocery shopping. Which I know they do. At least in New York! 

I felt a twinge of regret bursting the questioner's bubble. Like a parent coming clean about the Tooth Fairy. But the good news for non-actors is this: it's not really all that magical. You, too, can learn how to get your own brand of presence. And maybe a little bit of stardust! 


Back in the Big Apple!

I have officially been here a month now, and, in spite of a couple dozen boxes that remain unpacked, I am settling in. These past weeks I have been exploring my new Brooklyn neighborhood, and reacquainting myself with neighborhoods I used to frequent.

My work slowed down a bit for this move, and this gift of time has given me a chance to engage in a lot of listening. I meet friends for lunch, go the the theatre, run errands, and dip in and out of several universes. Because New York, to borrow a phrase from Brooklyn's own 
Walt Whitman, "contains multitudes,” it offers me an incredible chance to listen to how people use words, tone, rhythm to convey meaning. When I am followed down the street by someone on the phone, I get a mental picture not only of the speaker, but of the person on the other end. Of course, for a playwright, this is an amazing resource to be able to tap into as soon as I walk out the door!

As a communications coach, it reminds me of the importance of connecting with listeners by speaking a language they understand. This does not mean you are a chameleon, exactly, and adjust grammar, structure, and vocabulary to match every person you communicate with. But there is a natural tendency to modify our own cadence and phrasing as we mirror that of out conversation partner. I hear that, too, when I am walking near people engaged in conversation. They speak a common language, creating a subconscious connection that can lead to real communication and exchange of ideas. But when one person steadfastly refuses to meet the other halfway--in style, vocabulary and/or tone--communication is blocked. With these people “winning" becomes the purpose of all verbal interaction.  It is an infuriating, highly inefficient way to try to get things done. These exchanges often result in a fight, or a stony silence ending the conversation. Sometimes the person being shot down/shut out storms off in anger or frustration. Not a happy thing to witness.

But hey! It's New York! There's drama (and lots of comedy) on every street!  Just listen.


Sage advice takes center stage

I love the Tony Awards! I fantasize about being there someday to celebrate my own work or the work of my friends. And though I rarely get to see all the nominated shows, I try to see a few. This year I was lucky enough to see The Band's Visit and Three Tall Women, both of which won multiple awards. The acting inThree Tall Women was the best I have ever seen (!), and Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalfe very much deserved the honors they won. Sadly, this masterpiece of theatre closes Sunday, June 24th.

But musicals can live forever, which may be why they have a special place in my heart: Broadway cast albums last far longer than the original run of the show. So you can revisit the magic again and again, as I did last week when I listened to The Band's Visit.  I won't elaborate here on why this score by the amazing composer/lyricist David Yazbek is so special. I just want to direct your attention to two songs in Act Two. The first one is the show's comic number. In it, Papi, a teen who can't seem catch a break, describes the paralyzing nervousness he experiences when he tries to go on a date:

And my tongue gets big
And I can't move my knees
And my eyeballs freeze
And all I see's a tunnel
And there's cotton in my head
My legs are full of lead

And my brain goes deader than the Dead Sea
Dead, dead
Dead in the mind and I find that I kind of
Go into an infantile trance
I'm peeing in my - not literally - peeing in my -
But, you know, I may as well be - peeing in my ---

This is followed by a tutorial from Haled, one of the visiting musicians of the title, and a self-defined master of romance. He tells poor Papi that it is all about getting the focus off of yourself and your own nervousness. His advice? 

You melt the ice
You melt yourself
And soon you're all one puddle
You talk, she talks
It's not about the conversation
The words are like your lips, are reaching out
To kiss the ear

Both these songs about date-induced anxiety contain wisdom that extends beyond the realm of romance, to anything that causes nervousness and panic. Public speaking and presenting, for instance! It’s always about making that connection, the real connection that can only happen when you are not all wrapped up in your own head, your own doubts and fears. Find the soundtrack and listen to it. I'm pretty sure you'll be enchanted by the story it tells. And you might take something away that serves you in real life!

***Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy
From left, Rachel Prather, Etai Benson and Ari'el Stachel in The Band's Visit


Use the right tools

Spring is here, and that means it's time to tackle those home repairs. Last week I had a nagging plumbing problem fixed, and it's such a relief! I'd been searching for months for someone to do a seemingly easy job: replacing the leaky pipe leading to my outdoor spigot. But finding the right plumber meant I needed one who had the appropriate tools. I thought "how hard can that be? Plumbers all have tools for this, right?" Apparently not. 

While the plumber was fixing my pipe, I made a connection between his work and my work with clients. Because I often find myself urging them to find the tools, processes, and systems that work best for them.  Preparation is the key to being an effective speaker, but if you lack instruments to help you prepare, and the right places to store that preparation,  you can still fall short of your speaking goals. 

Many of my clients do most of their business speaking over the phone: client pitch meetings, status updates, reports.  And many, who would of course do lots and lots of preparation for a keynote or panel presentation, go into their calls with a jumble of notes jotted on scraps of paper, or a few bullets in a document on their screens. Because if you're on speaker and not video, clients and team members can't see your lack of organized preparation...or so goes the conventional wisdom. But people do hear when you're scrambling to find a critical piece of info. Even if you have it here somewhere, they can tell that it's not where it should be: at your fingertips.

It's always refreshing to share a success story! A new client, who was already big on prep but knew she needed some help, followed my advice and looked for tools to make the most of her phone meetings. And she found a notebook with which to create an organizing system that works for every type of call she'll have. With a small investment of time upfront, she was able to convert a wide variety of notes into a handy folio of information that she will use time and again. She has told me that she is already more confident and present on her client calls. And others have noticed, too.

Take a minute and review your tools. You're smart. You know your stuff. But if pertinent info isn't right where you need it when you need it, you run the risk of being like the first six plumbers I contacted: unable to get the job done.  


Carving out meaning

It's My Party! cast and creative team
Recently I had the great privilege of seeing my words come to life onstage, at the premiere public reading of It's My Party! at MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia. My director and I had assembled a top-notch cast to portray the various historic luminaries (and some fictional foils) involved in the final push to pass the Suffrage Amendment. The play was extremely well-received, and we had a good discussion afterward. Some of the feedback puzzled me, though, because things people said were missing (details of plot, character, etc.) were actually there! I had to ask myself: is this a problem that could be fixed through the rehearsal process, i.e., an acting/directing problem, or is it a script problem, for me to fix? As a playwright, I wrestle with this. For example, I have to consider how much to emphasize a critical plot point, so that everyone "gets" it, while also trusting my audience to figure things out. It's a tricky balancing act, but I'm working on it as I revise It's My Party!, and write a new play for this summer's Capital Fringe. (more info here).

So it is with an odd sigh of relief that I turn from playwriting to working on client speeches. After all, in creating a play I have to generate personality, voice, information, relationships, etc., etc., for multiple characters. Writing a speech seems pretty straightforward in comparison. Speeches are directly addressed to an audience. The speaker portrays one character (Expert, Leader, Teacher), and delivers a clear message. And, in a good, easy-to-follow speech (the kind my clients deliver!), the speaker reiterates the main points of the message no less than three times. The audience cannot fail to "get" it. Of course, as with the theatre-going audience, you don't want to belabor the point or bore them silly. But the sweet spot between an opaque speech and an overly simplistic one is pretty wide—and easy to hit! 

And unlike a play, where everything is created out of thin air, a speech begins with a specific focus: a need to be addressed; information to deliver; followers to inspire. You've got a head start, because the overarching substance of the content is there already. The challenge is deciding how to impose structure, sharpen the language, and clarify the message with compelling examples. In my mind it is more a process of revealing. You're like a sculptor who begins with a large block of subject matter, and you go to work chipping away till it conveys exactly what you want it to. Then you can give the audience the absolute essence of your message. Many speakers fail to do this and you hear unfocussed/unfinished messages that somewhat resemble unrecognizable blobs of hacked-at marble. Take some time to refine. Works of art aren't created overnight, and neither are effective speeches!