In my talks on communication and public speaking, I commonly address the flight-or-fight response that difficult speaking situations trigger. While I do train people on how to physically manage their distress symptoms (such as shallow breathing, elevated blood pressure, and the like), the way you perceive the stress response matters hugely. As McGonigal points out, if you view your body’s stress response as one of positive, preparatory excitement instead of negative, performance-shattering fear, you can learn how to use stress to your advantage. You achieve this view through practice, observation, and mindfulness. So watch the video, learn, and apply!
The other day I was working with a client, and I gave him a section from a political commentary article to read aloud. He glanced over the article, which was about Justin Trudeau and the recent Liberal Party leadership race. We briefly chatted about Trudeau’s famous father and the current buzz around the newly elected Liberal Party leader. My client said that he wasn’t too sure about Justin Trudeau; I replied “I don’t think Trudeau is too sure about Trudeau.”
After we were done for the evening, I thought more about what I had said and why I said it. After all, I actually know very little about the man, not having following his political career with much interest. This man has many factors in his favour when it comes to establishing a high-office political career. He is well-practiced: the Liberal Party has been grooming him for this for some time and he is already familiar with the glare of the media lens. He is a young, fresh face for a new generation of voters. He is tall, handsome, well-educated, and well-spoken with honed presentation skills – these give him the sort of charisma politicians need to sway voters.
My opinion was formed based on an interview between Peter Mansbridge and Trudeau which I watched the night before. There was something odd about that interview, something that made me feel that Trudeau is as yet too green in his career to be able to make a reasonable stab at the position of Prime Minister. The feeling of unease came almost entirely from the way Trudeau spoke during the interview.
As I am a big fan of analysing performances to figure out why they have the effect they do, I will give you the analysis of the interview and how it affected my opinion of him.
In the interview in question (you can watch it here), I saw a young man – a young man who is being called out by his opponents as lacking in experience and judgement – take on an air of erudite casualness that seemed more appropriate for the owner of a social media start-up than for a potential Prime Minister. He sits far back in the club chair, which brings down the energy of the room and the viewers. His shirt sleeves are rolled up, reinforcing an image that is more “Google-employee” than “party leader”. I suspect the look was intended to radiate calm confidence, but for me the confidence came across as forced. Casualness is not the same as confidence, and it looked as though he was trying just a little too hard, which made me wonder just how confident he really is.
Next was the manner in which he spoke. He has a pleasant voice and uses gestures well. I thought he spoke particularly well during the pre-interview segment, in which Trudeau and Mansbridge conversed while walking down an Ottawa street. It could be that the physical activity of walking helped focus Trudeau’s energy. During the sit-down interview portion, however, there was a marked change in the speech style. His energy seemed to get the better of him and his rate of speech kept increasing as the interview went on. He clearly called on his stage training in terms of breathing, but eventually the pace caught up with him. By the end of the interview, I found his breathing distracting. Additionally, his tone began to lilt upwards more and more often as the interview progressed. The sincere passion that his voice had at the start was replaced with notes of dismissive incredulity. Combine these two changes with eyebrows that were usually knit upwards, and I was left with the impression of a breathy, wide-eyed man making his first foray into local politics. This does not exactly inspire confidence in this particular voter.
Initially, I was prepared to like what he had to say in the interview. Unfortunately, by the end of it, I felt as though Trudeau himself was uncertain of what his new position of Liberal Party Leader meant to him.
I’m not writing off Trudeau as a politician just yet. He is green, and it is possible he will grow to be a responsible official with sound judgement and leadership qualities. It is impossible to determine his strengths and weaknesses based off of one interview given early in his leadership career. That being said, however, it is worth noting how my reservations were developed. If we understand why other people leave the impressions they do, it better enables us to figure out how we can give the impression we actually want.
What is your opinion of the interview?
I took a couple of weeks away from blogging, speaking, computers, and just about everything else communication. This was a refreshing, if unplanned break. As my wee boy was in a major growth spurt, I needed time to make up for a lot of broken, unsettled sleep and dial down my daily activities a little.
Once he started giving me longer, more predictable stretches of sleep, I started taking up a few of my old activities. One such activity was returning to Toastmasters (baby in tow) and delivering an advanced manual speech. Outlines were outlined, drafts were drafted, and as the meeting approached my confidence in the quality of the speech and my ability to deliver it got shakier and shakier.
By the time I got to the meeting, I was completely convinced that I was going to bomb. In my haste to get my baby loaded up and into the car, I even managed to forget the sample of the product that I was to pitch in my speech. The speech was terrible, I told myself, the pitch unconvincing. The other Toastmasters, accustomed to my generally skilled and enthusiastic deliveries, would be dismayed at my lackluster, amateurish performance. I hadn’t given a speech for two months; heck, I hadn’t even done any business interactions during that period except for some blogging and a couple coaching sessions with one of my most motivated clients. Perhaps it was the baby-induced brain-fog that new parents everywhere experienced, but I actually worried that two months with no speeches was two months too long. By the time I stood up to deliver my speech, I was convinced that I had no business speaking, much less helping other people improve their own speaking abilities.
Despite knowing that I was giving a speech in a warm, welcoming, completely non-threatening environment, I was having a case of the jitters that would have made a frightened newbie proud. There really wasn’t any reason for it; I certainly could have crafted a better speech, had I more time, but what I had was certainly passable. I knew my topic and what I wanted to say, and taking two months to adjust to a new baby certainly isn’t unreasonable.
A few of the Toastmaster meeting attendees expressed surprise when I said how nervous I was. They knew that I speak often, in myriad settings, and enjoy it. Why would someone with skill and experience get nervous in front of a familiar audience? The only reason I can give is that the jitters never really go away. Delivering a speech always puts you in a vulnerable position; you cannot force an audience to accept what you have to say, and the risk of rejection is always there. Jitters are evidence that you perceive this risk and are responsive to it.
Jitters are a sign that you care.
This is a very good thing as audiences can tell when a presenter doesn’t care. There is nothing more uninteresting than a speaker who is uninterested in what they have to say or the audience they are saying it to. One of my favourite dancers said that the day you are no longer nervous when stepping on to the stage is the day you should stop dancing; if you aren’t nervous, then the dance no longer matters to you. This goes for speaking, presenting, or anything that puts you up in front of a group of people. Don’t fight the jitters. Don’t pretend they aren’t there or that you are unaffected by them. When you welcome them without letting them get the better of you, jitters can be your ally. They give you a rush of adreneline, they increase your sensitivity to your surroundings, and they remind you that what you are doing – getting and using people’s time and attention – is important and should be respected.
In the end, my speech-cum-product-pitch was received extremely well by my fellow Toastmasters, and all was right in the universe. I pulled out and used the control techniques I teach my clients – controlled breathing, open posture and expression, keeping to a mental outline, and so on. I was still anxious, even for several minutes after it was over, but it was an exciting sort of nervousness. It was the sort of nervousness that reminded me that I really, really like doing what I do. It was a case of the jitters that I needed – and wanted – to feel.
“Hey, we need you to fill a space in our program. This speaker just backed out, see, and it’s too late to find someone outside the organization to fill their space. The presentation needs to be related to Topic XYZ. Don’t worry, you’ll do fine – you’re so good at winging it.”
I shuddered every time I got a request like that – and those requests (or similar) happened more often than I would have liked. The core of the problem was the impression that one’s ability to “wing it” was tantamount to an almost mystical capacity for speaking at length about any topic at any moment with no notice. This is a false impression: “winging it” – aka improvisation – takes practice. It takes huge amounts of practice, as well as a deep knowledge of the topic about which you are improvising.
What improvisation is not is simply cobbling something together out of thin air at the last minute with no real effort.
During a middle eastern music and dance show last night, my dance mentor gave a wonderful summary of how a skilled improvisor works. Middle eastern solo dances are generally improvised. When the dancer is performing with a live musician, it is understood that a significant part of the music will be improvised as well. Dancer and musician play off one another, and the quality of their interaction is a considerable indicator of their level of skill. They are able to do this sort of improvised performance because of their level of understanding of the songs, musical structure, and physical technique they are working with. My mentor used the analogy of a Christmas tree to explain the art of improvisation:
Every year you put up a Christmas tree. The tree is set up in the same place in the house and many of the decorations will be old favourites that are pulled out every December. Instead of the tree looking the same year-to-year, however, it is always different. Ornaments are hung in new places, new decorations are added, and sometimes old ones are left in the box. But the fundamental structure of the tree stays the same. Improvisation is like this. The musician and the dancer can improvise because they understand the underlying musical structure, the beats and rhythms they are working with, and the overall skeleton of the song they are working with. The result is a performance with the technical precision of a choreography and the intensity and passion of spontaneity.
This analogy can also be applied to other forms of performance art. Jazz and blues musicians use their knowledge of songs and specific rhythms to enable jam sessions where different musicians will go on lengthy improvised solos while the others continue to provide the backup sounds. Despite the fact that the solos are not pre-planned, they work within a structure that allows the musician freedom to play while informing the other players when to swoop back in and bring the song back to a cohesive whole. This takes a great deal of knowledge and confidence.
Speakers who develop their improvisation skills follow a similar pattern. They have deep knowledge of the content about which they speak (their song), and they have excellent understanding of speech structure and composition (their rhythm). Because of this, they are able to seemingly pluck fully formed speeches, presentations, and arguments out of the air, much as the dancer and musician appear to perform a carefully choreographed performance piece on the fly.
Here’s the kicker: this takes practise and study – lots of it. Skilled improvised speech requires the speaker to be highly knowledgeable about their chosen topics. Information must be gathered and absorbed. Related subject matter must be absorbed. Opinions need to be formed, vetted, re-formed, and tested. Think back to your university days – that is the kind of study undertaken by many a storied speaker. Equal work must be then put in on speech crafting itself. Having imaginary debates, re-scripting past conversations, studying classical rhetoric, scripting speeches and presentations, studying the techniques of master public speakers, and joining groups like Toastmasters are all ways to practice speech crafting.
Next time you watch someone give a brilliant spontaneous speech or watch a presentation and are mesmerized by the speaker’s skill, don’t chalk up their performance to some innate ability to effortlessly “wing” speeches. Rest assured that they work hard at what they do. They work extremely hard. Successful improvisation isn’t a skill that you do or do not have; it’s built up with hard graft. It is, however, something totally accessible to you and to anyone else willing to put in the work. Once you know your song/topic and rhythm/structure like the back of your hand, you’ll be able to create brilliant improvised speeches as well.
I have and will always maintain that a weapon every speaker should carry around in their arsenal is the ability to fire up a genuine beaming smile on demand.
Actually, scratch that statement. Everyone, speaker or no, should learn how to smile on cue. And by smile, I mean the sort of eye-crinkling, cheek raising smile that people give when they are truly happy to be where they are and doing what they’re doing.
Why is being able to smile like this so important? Because genuine smiles show signal to your audience that you are interested in them. They engender trust and foster happiness in both the person smiling and being smiled at. They make you seem more approachable and open. They make you more likable and will trigger your audience to smile back at you.
Even better, a beaming smile can hide the fact that you are nervous, tired, panicky, irate, desperate, generally out-of-sorts, and otherwise freaking out!
“But Lauren,” some may protest, “I just couldn’t smile! Everything was going completely wrong with the presentation/speech/situation!” Ahh, my friends, that is when the ability to feign a genuine smile becomes absolutely necessary. Case in point: a photograph of me performing during a particularly disastrous show at a local Lebanese restaurant.
(Please excuse the odd blurriness of the photo – it is quite hard to get a good shot in those lighting conditions.)
Most people see a picture of a happy belly dancer demonstrating her art, inviting a customer up to dance. Here is an actual summary of the scene:
In the photo, I am imploring the woman – an acquaintance who came out to see my performance – to get up and dance with me. This would encourage other customers to get up and dance, which is quite desirable. That grin you see plastered on my face had been there for well over half an hour, and I was begging, begging, begging her with my eyes to get up and dance.
Believe me when I say that I did not feel like smiling at that moment in time. I was, to put it bluntly, freaking out. But at that time, my job was to be a glamorous belly dancer who entertained the customers while exuding joy, grace, class, musical knowledge, technical aptitude, and general bonhomie. That means smiling. If needs be, I would have smiled until my cheek bones shattered (which, by the end, was exactly what they felt like).
Despite the general wretchedness of my situation and my state of intense panic, the performance was apparently well received. The customers got up and danced, and in an uncharacteristic move, actually tipped me.** Later I found out from my dance instructor, who arranges these gigs, that the musician was heartily pleased with me and very glad that I was so willing and able to dance energetically for the full 45 minutes. This reception is quite contrary to the information my own brain retained, which is best summarized as a long, agonized wail.
I have never been so happy that I can smile so realistically and so relentlessly.
Practice your smile, folks. Figure out how to make it look real. Sometimes it is the thing that saves the situation from utter disaster!
*Due to a faulty set up on the mixing board, the sound on my pre-recorded set went haywire about five minutes into the performance. The in-house musician, who was in charge of the sound system, mixing board, and keyboard, frantically waved my husband over to help, and then tried to skip ahead to my next song. This was a bad move, as I create my sets by re-mixing multiple songs into one single track. I had borrowed this particular MP3 player from my mother-in-law. She happens to like really terrible country pop music. Many belly dancers say you can dance to any kind of music. I disagree. You cannot belly dance to really terrible country pop. It was the most
horrifying hilarious 5 seconds of dancing I have ever had to get through.
**Part of me wonders if they were tipping me out of pity (“oh, that poor white girl is really giving it all she’s got”). Perhaps the tipping was out of admiration for my endurance of the never-ending-set – we usually only dance for 20 minutes. While I can expect to receive generous tips from the Greek restaurants, the regular customers at this particular restaurant are not known to be avid tippers. Different restaurants can have different customs.
Acting is part of life. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we spent a significant portion of our day in one performance or another. Life demands all of us to be a bit of an actor, and most people are remarkably adept at this.
We perform in front of our spouses and friends. We act out specific roles and personas at work. We are definitely performers when giving speeches or presentations, regardless of their scale or importance. Sometimes the act is casual or subtle. Sometimes it is a full on display worthy of an Oscar award.
In my work, I’ll use the term “acting” a couple of ways. One of these is the way most people would define it: participating in a scripted or improvised play, film, or similar performance. Sometimes I’ll call people who do this kind of acting dramatists, just to avoid ambiguity (a rather old-fashioned term, I know. But it’s useful, and I am a Jane Austin fan).
The other way I define acting is: the conscious control of our externally projected emotions in order to convey a specific message for a specific purpose.*
This I’ll also call social acting. Sometimes we do this when we want to show an emotion externally that is different or conflicting with what we’re actually feeling. We might also do this to amplify our emotions for greater effect, or even if we’re trying to convince ourselves of something that we don’t yet quite believe. What we do on the outside, after all, has an effect on what’s going on inside our own heads.
When clients or workshop participants tell me that they’re “not an actor,” I usually dismiss the comment. It simply isn’t true. What the person actually means is that they’re not a dramatist. The majority of people are very adept social actors. We have to be – it’s part of getting along in human society. Social acting lets us communicate clearly, get along, keep the peace, motivate others, do what needs to be done in a different situations. People who truly, truly “can’t act” also usually can’t have normal relationships, whether social, romantic, or work-related.
So when are we social actors? Here are a few scenarios:
These performances aren’t necessairly done to be duplicitous. Social acting is as likely to be an honest act as a dishonest one. Sometimes we are social actors for the benefit of others, sometimes for our own benefit. Have you ever seen someone try to get over a phobia? When someone refrains from screaming or gagging while petting their friend’s boa constrictor because they want to get over their fear of snakes, they’re engaging in an honest bit of acting for their own benefit.
This week, try taking note of the instances where you think you are doing a bit of social acting. You might be surprised at how prolific and accomplished an actor you are!
*In case you were wondering, yes I really do get this nerdy when I’m babbling about work. This is what happens when I get excited!