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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

The power of stillness 

I recently had a couple of clients tell me they want to walk around the room "Oprah-style" while delivering speeches and presentations. I understand their temptation to move. Conventional wisdom on public speaking says walking and talking is preferable to standing frozen in one spot. As if there are only those two options! In fact, standing still—with presence—is a highly effective way to convey authority and leadership. This question of movement vs. stillness comes up often with clients. I blogged about it last in October, 2013. But since we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish, here is the updated and condensed version:

Have you ever wondered how some people can command the room when they speak, whether they are behind the podium, at an interview desk, or in front of a casual gathering? They have presence. They "own the room." There is a perception that such ability automatically descends upon those who attain positions of power. Au contraire;there are many who should have presence but don't (this is my current favorite example, so wonderfully awful I hope you will overlook the fact that it's not from a live event). 

The fact is that presence comes from being physically at ease, centered, still. No fidgets, no wiggles, no shifting. No pushing the message at people, but rather, drawing them in. Those who possess presence are not still as in "stiff;" they are still as in "grounded." It's a simple concept, but a hard one to master. 

As an actor, I rely on breathing and posture exercises—similar to yoga—to attain "centeredness." It takes some time to undo years of self-consciousness and self-criticism. And it takes trust that when you are put to the test, your body will remember how to keep the wiggles out and the stillness in. You are not aiming for statue-like immobility. Far from it! You are seeking to actively manage a potentially terrifying situation. Your body needs to have practiced this inner calm so it can kick in and mitigate your natural fight or flight instinct. 

The hardest part comes at the beginning of your speech. This is normal because speaking is, after all, a physical activity. But the activity of speaking has to do with breathing and vocal production, not shuffling feet, wiggling shoulders, shifting weight from one hip to the other or aimlessly gesticulating. These all signal the opposite of what you might think ("Look at how comfortable I am!"). They signal that you want to run, or hide, and are not at ease enough to stand still, to be open and vulnerable.

Master the presence of the leader's stance. Be still in a room full of noise and movement and you will command attention, even before you say a word.

photo: still waters at QianHai, Beijing


Respect the ice

How many times have you been in a group of people you kinda sorta know and you hear "ice-breaker!"? I am sure many of you, like me, feel a sinking feeling when you hear this phrase. "Great! Ten minutes wasted on glorified chit-chat. Why don't we all just take a break and gather 'round the coffee urn? It would be as productive." 

The fact is, ice-breakers can help people in a room coalesce into a team. That is, if the ice-breaker is well-thought out and properly designed. But too many meeting leaders just use it as a way to "creativity" start an otherwise boring, by-the-books meeting.

A good ice-breaker is aimed at a specific group, which is meeting for a specific purpose, with a specific goal in mind. Once the ice is broken, the meeting that follows purposefully leverages whatever connections have been made. But all too often the ice-breaker is a "check the box" exercise. And just as often, it fails.

Reccently I have experienced examples of ice-breakers that had the potential to horribly backfire. In the first instance the assumptions built into the ice-breaking questions came from a place of privilege. If you can be sure everyone in the room has an answer to the question "where will you summer this year?" it might be OK to ask. (BTW, this is only slightly more over-the-top than what I heard recently.) But an ice-breaker is used when you do not know people that well. And if even one person in the group doesn't understand, or does not have an answer, you are defeating the purpose: to foster connectivity, communication, and find things you have in common. Instead, you have made someone feel "other," quite possibly inferior, and definitely separate.

Gender, cultural and geographical differences can also play into the destructive potential of ice-breakers. Chatting with co-workers in the break room about sports can lead to informal bonding, but asking the assembled group to start by naming their favorite sports team can be disastrous--for any number of reasons: not all women (or men for that matter) follow sports; American sports are vastly different from sports worldwide; NFL fans will assert the superiority of their league; and God help you if you have Yankees fans and fans of any other team! You see how easily an ice-breaker can lead to a conference-room brawl? 

Of course I exaggerate. Most people, in these situations, will exercise proper professional decorum. And while you may never know that your senior manager feels like a poor relation because she doesn't "summer on the Vineyard," or that your new hire just had his feelings of being an outsider reinforced, you have cast a chill on their participation just the same. Which is the opposite of your intention when you try to break the ice. 


When funny isn't


It's an old story: "comedian misses target, shoots self in foot." We expect that when amateur comedians, and even professionals, are trying out new material in a comedy club. But when they are acting as MC for an awards luncheon, the job is somewhat different; they need to walk a finer line. I am sure they know this, intellectually. But they cannot resist. So it shouldn't surprise me when something like this happens. Vanessa Bayer was tasked with providing an opening monologue, so I guess we could cut her some slack for thinking she was the entertainment. But her real job was to honor six women at Variety's Power of Women luncheon. So even if she was going to throw in a joke, she should have made darn sure it wasn't going to be one that would denigrate a woman, especially the mother of one of the honorees. But her friends who saw her rehearse her monologue probably told Vanessa it was "edgy" and "cool," and so she went with it. And bombed. 

I understand this is an occupational hazard for comedians. Sometimes the jokes just don't work. Even for the pros! So why do non-professionals insist on sticking random jokes in their speeches? Just last week I had to lay out my argument for excising a joke from a client's speech. As you can tell from the date of this blog post I have been singing this tune for years now. But the problem seems to be getting worse, not better. These days, with increasing pressure to include "tweetable moments" in every public appearance, speakers are trying to up their game and social media profiles by including a few "zingers" and "one-liners." My advice: don't!  You can make straightforward statements of belief, share compelling snapshots of your vision, and/or dazzle us with the facts in ways that resonate well enough to be tweetable. But leave the comedy to the professionals! If even SNL stars can't get it right all the time, realistically, what hope do you have?


It starts with structure

I finally got to see Hamilton on Broadway late last month and it was as amazing as everyone says! Since I am both a history buff and a theatre person, I was pretty sure I was going to love it. The music and story are familiar to me by now, but what really impressed me was the staging, choreography, and very specific use of space. The choices a director makes regarding the set, and how the actors move through the space defined by that set, reveal volumes about his plan to bring words and notes to life.

I also marveled at how the show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, shaped the script. I have read the Ron Chernow biography, and I have written a few plays myself based on history and biography. So I am always intrigued to see how other dramatists pick and choose which part of a true story to tell, how to minimize the need for "artistic license" while condensing a life or part of a life into two hours and change. I settled into my seat at the Richard Rogers Theatre that night with a few questions about the structure of Hamilton. But they were all answered when I saw the play. The choices Miranda made worked perfectly in the fully-realized production. Any holes I perceived were due to my partial experience of listening, not seeing.

I bring my playwrights' perspective of structure to my work with speaking clients. When crafting speeches we often run up against the same issues a playwright does: where to focus our story, which parts to tell, and how to structure the telling so the story is fully revealed. Often this means making decisions that are as painful for my clients as cutting a favorite character is for me. Or eliminating the third Cabinet Battle must have been for Lin-Manuel. But we have to be selective. We have to hold back some of the things we want to share, otherwise we confuse the audience. If we give them too much information or lead them down a mental side street we can lose them before we get to the main point. And then we have set ourselves up for failure, because audiences stop listening when their enthusiasm and interest evaporate.

Some of my clients realize this, but many don't think issues of structure and right-sizing pertain to their material or occasion. They think getting to the point is all that matters. So they do some sort of vague intro at the beginning, tick off their main points (often with far too great a level of detail) and conclude with "any questions?" And they wonder why their audiences are not engaged!  

Take a tip from those of us writing plays whose source material covers decades, miles, and casts of thousands: find the essential story you want to tell and make sure everything you utter is a part of that story. Cut anything that is not (speakers, unlike playwrights, can save those bits for the Q & A). Your audience will stick with you. Because everyone always wants to know how it ends!



Second bananas and comic relief

Last month I shared my current theatrical activities with you. This month I am up to my eyeballs editing the galley proof of Becoming Calvin--tedious, but necessary. On the opposite end of the creative spectrum, I was thrilled beyond words last Monday to share the magic as my incredibly gifted actors (pictured here) brought A Very Present Presence to life.

So I have been laser-focused on the details of language, immersed in what language reveals about character. The degree to which someone speaks in an organized fashion, for example, conveys much about their mental state. One way to show that a character is a bit addled, whether by habit or circumstance, is to depict him as engaging the mouth before engaging the brain. Or speaking in sentence fragments, or in a repetitive rhythm that alights again and again on certain words like a mantra or verbal talisman. As a writer, I use these characters sparingly, because they never actually say anything; they think the act of just making noise is enough. And so they don't further the plot, or generally underscore the theme. They provide comic relief, and are usually put onstage to interact with the protagonist, to reveal something about her character, something she, in turn, can act upon.

That is one reason I find listening to our current President so unsettling. I am not used to seeing the comic supporting characters take center stage! And there is good reason for that: they are not the ones who have anything of consequence to say or do. Putting these second bananas in the spotlight subverts the whole structure. Which can be the point, I suppose. If you are a brilliant playwright like Tom Stoppard, you can turn two minor characters into leads in Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and use that device as a springboard to meditate on truth, art, and reality.

Maybe that is what people love about Donald Trump. That subverting of existing structure. That vision of someone "just like me" up on a pedestal: "he's no leading man but he is our leader!" Regardless of how they feel about his policy, anyone who cares about professional standards agrees he does not sound like a leader. Even in last Tuesday's scripted speech, read off of a teleprompter, he could not let go of his need to extemporaneously improve the prepared text. As the odious reference to the length of the standing ovation for Carryn Owens proved, he cannot discipline his discourse.

I find fault with this, but wonder if that is part of his attraction--his lack of coherent communication. That much praised "telling it like it is" won over 28% of the nation's eligible voters in November. Even though he is now The Winner, he still speaks like someone put onstage for laughs. We doubt his intent, because his muddled communication style ensures we never really know what he is saying. Which suits him just fine! It also allows him considerable leeway. He can say, as he did while campaigning in Iowa, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," and most of the public thinks that is comic exaggeration. But is it? Many of his supporters say he doesn't really mean everything that comes out of his mouth ("you should take him seriously but not literally.") Others believe every word, and are now gleefully celebrating his actions by saying "he's doing just what he said he would!"

If you squint, you might be able to see this as a brilliant strategy. If a speaker does not look or sound like a leader, we will never expect thoughtful leadership from him. Playing the second banana gives him latitude to say and do whatever he wants. But unlike a play, where such a character's actions and words cannot do much to derail the plot, this is real life! So his mode of communication, far from being the useful smokescreen supporters want it to be, is actually extremely unethical. And highly dangerous. It also seems oddly familiar to me, like I have read this play before. Actually I think I have written this play a very early draft! When a supporting character takes a detour that threatens to lose the entire cast in the wilderness, you see the red flag. That means cut, edit, rewrite. Get that character offstage if you have to, and by all means never give him the lead in a scene.

What is the real-life equivalent, I wonder?