Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday Presence

As a Performance Coach, I identify four elements that make us better speakers, performers, and communicators: comfort/ease, connection, presence, and technique. However, they overlap: increasing one affects the others.

Let’s talk about presence and connection. As you know, the holidays can be both a joyous and a difficult time. Spending time with family can alternate between being wonderful and a minefield. Or we may feel alone. it’s easy to get down and have old stuff come up.

In this holiday season, perhaps the best present you can give is your full presence. But it can be hard. When with someone we have a difficult time with – an in-law, a co-worker or, well, anyone else we find challenging – we often check out. Perhaps we wish they were different.

How would it be to fully embrace this singular, unique moment? Choosing to be present brings the possibility for something new to arise. Sure, it may be scary and not as safe, but sometimes that’s what is needed for true transformation to happen.

And the same goes for how you experience yourself. When we get depressed or fearful, in some sense we abandon ourselves. We don’t remember that we have abundant resources, and that new people and things may enter our lives at any moment. We forget about our true nature as incredible human beings.

Holiday Presence Exercise: When you find yourself in a moment of difficulty with someone, place your feet flat on the floor and straighten your spine. Keep looking them in the eye while taking long, deep breaths. picture your breathing coming in and out of your heart. As you breathe, imagine inhaling their energy, and exhaling your own. Accept what’s offered, and give back.

Allow yourself this holiday season to give and receive – from your whole self.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Authenticity... get real.

One question that often arises, for public speaking, performers, and when networking, is authenticity. Have you ever met someone at a networking event, or witnessed a speaker or performer, who just felt fake? Or... have you ever felt fake? Most of us have. Whether we try to or not, we usually seek to conform with perceived societal norms and expectations. These get in the way of being ourselves and expressing ourselves easily. Ironically, even if we try to rebel against them, we’re still “in relationship” with them, and thus can’t escape them. So, what to do?

Tip #1: Get present. A good first step is simply focusing on the breath. It’s the most fundamental means of finding yourself amidst everyone else. Instead of worrying about how you're being perceived, practice deep abdominal breathing, the most essential bodily activity. Then, stretch and loosen up to let go of unnecessary physical and mental tension.

Tip #2: Play. What we think of as “natural” or “ourselves” is really a series of habits. We can find a new range of expression by playing. Have fun! Alter your voice, your facial expressions, etc. This can break us out of our habitual expression and constriction, and help us take ourselves less seriously – a good step forward.

Tip #3: Don’t try to look good. The more you try to make a good impression, the worse you’ll actually do. Let go, relax and speak with much less effort. You’ll be surprised how much less stressful it feels, and how much better you’ll be received.

Tip #4: Rather than thinking about your own work, focus on who you’re communicating with. Regardless of whether it’s an audience or an individual, really listen. Even if they don’t express anything deep back, look for hints about how their work is either important to them or an important service in the world, and engage them about it.

Try any of these, and let me know the results. And if you'd like to learn how to do these really effectively, ask me about coaching, in-person or on Skype.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What to Do When You Screw Up

Okay, so the title isn't very poetic. But it's how it feels... and internally we may draw upon far more colorful terms. You know how it goes.

You’re in the middle of a speech… a performance… a job interview. And even though you’ve prepared extensively (or, at least, are ad-libbing really darn well), It Happens. You say the wrong thing. You realize you’re wearing different shoes on each foot. Your audience doesn’t react the way you want them to. You feel like shrinking into a tiny little ball and disappearing.

Yet you can’t. You’re there, and… they’re there. So what should you do?

When we stay preoccupied with a mistake, we shoot ourselves in the foot. Rather than continuing to connect* with the audience and stay present*, we keep thinking about how we messed up. It’s over. No one will like us, our loved ones will hate us, and we'll never get hired on this planet again.

But this self-flagellation doesn’t help us. (Plus, it's not true.) So what can we do instead? If we give ourselves permission to go outside our comfort zones, to try new things, and to not be perfect (gasp), our audience actually likes us more. I can’t tell you the number of times, when acting or speaking, that I’ve made ghastly mistakes... but it’s more than I’d like to admit. Or is it? Guess what. I make mistakes. Or, um, creative solutions. OK, they’re really screwups.

So, What’s best to do? A few possibilities:
A) Keep going, and act like it didn’t happen. For something minor, this is often just fine. They won’t know if you don’t tell them! So, don’t.
B) Stop, acknowledge it, back up, and offer the correct information. As awkward as this may feel, if it’s truly necessary to not sound completely wrong, then do it. But use humor if you can, and act like it’s really okay. Take yourself lightly, and they will too.
C) Offer a correction later. “Just to clarify, as I might have used an ambiguous wording earlier….” I don't recommend this often, as it can make an error stick in people's minds, but is occasionally appropriate.

No matter what, be okay with it. We’re all human, and most people appreciate being able to admit mistakes and offer corrections without it being a big deal (an interesting juxtaposition of humility and confidence). Most importantly, don’t get in your own way.

*The four key elements to successful performing – be it as a speaker, on stage, or in everyday life – are Presence, Technique, Comfort and Ease, and Connection. All four are easily learned. Inquire if you’d like to learn more.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Overcoming a Monotone Voice

Many presenters and performers struggle with having a monotone voice. We often think that we're far more colorful than we actually are. Darn! What to do about this?

Videotaping, as well as Toastmasters, aren't bad ideas. But it's also important to know specific techniques to create variation - which is the key to keeping an audience's attention, and to breaking out of monotone and other consistent habits. Doing so via emotional cues (speak lines in various tones - sad, happy, playfully, etc.) are a possibility; or, heighten various facial expressions, which then connects emotionally and changes the voice. Simply smiling should help change the tone as well; regardless of the seriousness of the topic, speaking with a smile makes it more approachable.

Another approach is to break down the vocal possibilities technically. The following are a few of the the elements that can be played with:
- volume (which sounds like it's an issue) - getting quieter is just as effective as getting louder
- pitch (higher or lower tones)
- enunciation (more enunciation highlights words)
- tempo (speaking slower or faster)

When coaching or in my advanced, workshops, I teach a vocal adaptation of Laban Movement Analysis, which gives clients many different speaking styles to work with - but this is harder to convey in a blog. Darn! But the above four are a good start.

Where to apply them? In a written speech, underline key words - be it a noun, adjective, or whatnot - and apply variation there. If you're speaking extemporaneously, it's helpful to practice with a nursery rhyme or something else you already know. By first practicing these skills with a set text, you'll then have an easier time applying it to a speech that's off the cuff.

If you give it a try, post your results and let us know how it went!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What's luck got to do with it?

Much of the time, when we have an important speaking engagement, interview or performance, we wish upon a lucky star for things to go well. Being St. Patrick's Day, let's take a look at this. Is this practical or helpful?

In my humble opinion (IMHO, as they say), it really isn't. Desiring luck is placing power outside of yourself, hoping that some unknown force in the universe will bestow upon you a positive outcome. Here are two more practical tools:

1) Utilize visualization. Really seeing, sensing and feeling yourself performing at your best. That is, fully immerse yourself sensorially in the peak experience. Feel the sensations physically in your body. See yourself calm yet energized, confident yet open. Imagine people really receiving you. See, trust and know that you're at your best, whenever you need it.

2) Warm up beforehand. Fully warm up beforehand - physically and vocally. Don't just think about what you're going to say. Performing (be it speaking, interviewing or acting) is a full contact sport. Okay, without much actual body contact, but you need to engage your entire being just as much! Engage your entire being. And if you don't know how to do this, work with an expert. It's worth it.

Leave luck to the 17th of March. Draw upon these two tips, and your pockets will surely stay green.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Significance of Breathing

I posted on this some time ago, but it's big enough a subject to warrant another entry. It's almost impossible to overemphasize the importance of breathing. Aside from the fact that, without it, you'll die.

But the opposite is also true: the more you breathe, the more life you can breathe into you. Most people don't take advantage of the full capacity of their lungs. Did you realize that they are actually bigger on your backside than on your front, and extend further down?

Learning to breathe properly is one of the key ways to develop presence, which is largely about being fully embodied, and present. Why do you think so many meditation techniques focus on the breath? Because they bring us into this moment. And when you're speaking, connecting or engaging with a person or group, Being present is what creates presence.

It's also about connection. When you breathe in, you're breathing in the air that others are breathing. (I know, it sounds gross, but it's a fact.)

Exercise: Visualize that when you breathe in, you are taking in the other person. When exhaling, you're giving back to them.

This simple exercise easily transforms interactions, and fosters open connection. Try it - and leave a comment below as to the results.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Restarting: How to Get Over a Mistake when Presenting

It's been some time since I've blogged, so it's time to get this show back on the road. Hello again.

So let's talk about restarting. What happens when you're in the middle of a presentation - or even in the middle of a conversation, or an interview - and something goes wrong? What do you do?

Unfortunately, the standard response we have most of the time is to shoot ourselves in the foot. How do we do this? By 1) Stumbling over our mistake, and feeling stupid, thus losing confidence for the rest of our spiel, or 2) Refusing to acknowledge that we made a mistake when it's glaringly obvious, pretending we're impervious to error.

So what's the proper thing to do? Let's work backward.

Depending upon the context, and of the nature of what we said, it might actually be fine to do the latter - if no one knew, and if it really was minor. However, if you said something analogous to former candidates for office, and referred to Africa as a country, this simply won't work. Also, #1, feeling stupid and showing it, will get you every time.

The best thing to do: be okay with having made a mistake. Everyone makes them. If it's really minor, stop worrying about it! and just keep going. But if it's noticeable - or if a later point (or the next sentence) is contingent upon having said it correctly, simply stop and correct yourself. Even use humor. I'll occasionally find myself saying something rather wrong (yes, it happens to everyone, even a 20+ year public speaker and performer), and will just stop myself, and acknowledge it, being totally fine with the fact. What happens? People like to see that you can be human, self-deprecating, and simultaneously self-assured enough to admit the fact.

But, at the very least, even if you don't acknowledge the mistake out loud, be okay with it yourself. Then you won't make the mistake obvious and ruin your own experience of what else you have to say.

Oh, and as for myself - why was I gone so long from this blog? I've been busy coaching public speakers and starting a theater company. But I've certainly missed you. It's nice to be back, and I plan to be around a lot more.