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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

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! 



Rethinking thinking

One of the high points of my recent trip to London was a compelling production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar at the new Bridge Theatre, directed by Bridge's founder, the brilliant Nicholas Hytner. This play is startlingly relevant at the moment. And Hytner has underscored that relevance, streamlining the text and giving it momentum that does not stop for a nanosecond. I have never experienced staging like this: I had tickets to stand on the floor, where I joined others to became part of the story, literally standing in for the Roman mob whose shifting political allegiance drives the play. We surrounded the actors, whose playing space was constantly changing: large portions of the floor lifted up for various scenes, so action moved quickly, As eyewitnesses to unfolding events, we moved around them. Tension mounted and the threat of violence ratcheted up in the second half of the play. I have never before experienced a play so viscerally. 

It wasn't just the proximity to the action that drew me in. It was the complete authenticity of the actors. Standing practically next to them, I felt their intimate connection to the story. One moment in particular stands out: early in the evening I was about three feet away from Brutus (a thoughtful, almost nerdy Ben Whishaw). He was sitting at his desk, arguing with himself whether or not to join the plot to kill Caesar. As he was thinking out loud I saw him: completely, wholly, believably Brutus. And I was struck by the depth of emotion and thought that radiated from his very being. But I didn't see a brilliant actor, because it was not at all about him. It was about active engagement in the thought process. It was--as all acting is--about action, about doing. Even when what we are doing is "just thinking." 

Engaging in powerful thought is action, as I tell my acting students and my speaking clients. You don't have to push or make things happen in order to be interesting. But if you are fully committed to your thoughts you will be completely in the moment. Because when you are actively thinking about what you are saying and why you are saying it, you physically and mentally connect with the images that led to the thought. And because of this connection, you are immersed, engaged, as you speak. Your audience will sense it, whether they are "groundlings" at a theatre, or your leadership team in the board room. That is how you become authentic and project authenticity. That is how you pull your listener into your story, so they believe it, too. Don't second-guess yourself. Commit to your message. Commit to the thoughts behind what you are saying. You'll nail your performance. And you might even be asked for an encore!



It's more than just the notes!

I was lucky enough to see the incomparable Orpheus Chamber Orchestra rehearse and perform at Carnegie Hall this past Saturday. I was expecting a great concert, but what I got was a masterclass in communication! Orpheus is a "conductorless" classical music ensemble. Each piece is led--but not dictated or driven--by a different member of the ensemble. As that member is also playing their part. They are all highly skilled professionals, of course, so you would expect them to know their music inside-out.

But they go further. Each and every one of the 27 members of Orpheus internalizes the music, and communicates it physically. And while not unusual for pop musicians, this degree of movement is not that common in the classical world. Musical instruments fuse psychically and artistically with musicians to interpret the composer's vision. The music emanates from each artist's entire being. You can see the rhythm conveyed through their bodies. Some are more physically expressive than others, but each seems to be inside the music, not so much playing it as living it. They feel each other's movement, even as they hear each other's harmonies and musical lines. Being so attuned on so many levels is the only way any ensemble could ever succeed without a conductor.

This concert tackled some pretty intricate compositions by Brahms, Mozart, Hayden, and it was a wonder to behold. To have such a high degree of trust, to be open enough to communicate that freely, was this music-lover's and communications expert's idea of s perfect evening. We should all be so connected when participating in our various "ensembles"!