Move The Air Around You…

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Just as a writer, struggling inside his or her own head, battles the blank page, we are all faced with moments of indecision, suffocating and paralyzing inaction. How to move forward? How to shake the fear of being wrong if we do? What to do when the anxiety of what MAY happen overwhelms us?

MOVE!

Write your name on the page, draw a stick figure storyline of your frustration, go for a walk, engage your body in any kind of momentum that will take the focus away from the chaos inside your head. Too often we look to see the end result in its complete form before we’ve even started. Allow the process to happen organically, but always look to be the impetus that starts the butterfly effect, rather than a casual observer or passive bystander.

What you will discover may not necessarily be the final product, but at least you now have momentum…your feet (or your brain) are no longer stuck in the creative quagmire and you have created the stepping stones to follow towards something fruitful or at least more workable than the intimidating void.

Whether as an director coaching an actor through a complex monologue, or a teacher helping a student develop a thesis, or an improv professional convincing a workshop attendee that they have to trust their own resources (knowledge, insight, expertise) and KNOW they are at least credible, I have helped too many talented individuals overcome the debilitating paralysis that comes from not trusting your instincts to not grasp that years of evolution have paid off, in that our bodies are a conduit through which our brains have learned to survive.

When we try to isolate the genesis of an idea to a space between our ears, we often turn that space into a padded cell, complete with creative straightjacket. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed the thought this way,

“Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Breathe, trust, move, create.

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Proximity, Proximity, Proximity

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As a coach/director for a number of successful speakers/actors/presenters, I have always railed against the almost innate tendency to view one particular element of a speech as the savior, the touchstone, the “woobie” that serves to calm fears and act as armor to the anxious performer. I’m talking about…

THE PODIUM.

In almost Titanic­-like tenacity, speakers cling to this piece of wood, as if it is the life raft that will float them to a safe and moisture­-free conclusion. Actors do the same thing, gravitating towards furniture like some smaller space debris near Jupiter, unable to resist the magnetic pull, comforted by a momentary lean or re­stabilizing touch.

Get out from behind the podium, put yourself in the middle of the space…closer to your audience, if possible…so that you can truly connect. I’ve worked with a number of truly gifted presenters and one of the first things they do, and that I have them do, is move away from the podium. Get out from behind that barrier separating you from your audience. Eliminate that aura of being aloof or afraid or preachy. What we as audience members want is a conversation, communicating whatever is vital, but a conversation…we don’t want to be talked AT, we want to converse. Or to feel that the speaker is accessible, on our level, not disconnected.

Now, I’m not only talking about the physical barrier, as that is often-times a necessity; holding your notes, a bottle of water, the mic. But I’m also talking about your emotional proximity to your audience, the way that you connect with them. Zig Ziglar was amazing at making a stadium full of people believe he was talking just to them. Sometimes he did this by physically kneeling at the front of the stage in an auditorium and singling out one individual to speak to. But how else can we accomplish that closeness, that proximity that allows us to communicate our message more effectively?

Make it personal. Don’t speak solely in abstractions. Communicate a part of yourself, through an anecdote, a personal experience, a success, a failure, that allows your audience to view you not as a talking head, an armor-­clad voice from on high. Show them the human behind the curtain and let them feel close to you, either physically or through what you share. Make eye contact with individuals as you speak (more on that in a later post). Why? Because we are more inclined to follow/believe/support those with whom we feel a connection.

So let go of the life raft, reach across the real estate separating you from your audience and connect. They want you to succeed and will be there with their appreciation to nudge you back to dry land, but you have to let them experience that proximity.

Wear That Hat!

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Differentiate yourself…

During a recent trip to Chicago, I found myself approached by an austere, elderly security guard. By his positioning and his posture, it was evident that I was the focus of  something serious. Without addressing me directly, he leaned toward me and said, “You know you’re wearing that hat.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement. I was confused for a moment, until he added, “And you got it on just right.” I thanked him and moved off to ponder the import of the moment.

Wearing my newly-purchased, Donegal-made cap is an homage to my ancestry (as evidenced in the picture above). I take pride in perpetuating the spirit of adventure that led my great grandfather to leave Ireland and move his family to Canada, then to America.

But I also recognize that, when done artfully and intentionally, without looking for attention just for attention’s sake, such differentiation can help set you apart. All of this to say, find what makes you unique. It could start with your style, but dig deeper and nurture those facets of you that demand attention from the world because they are worthy and valuable, not only to you but to those whose lives you touch.

We sit up and take note of the innovative, the fresh, the clever, the adventurous. If your version of “The Hat” is an idea or a novel approach to a problem, don’t sit back and wait for someone else to have the courage to voice it, stealing your thunder. Be confident in what’s within you and how you express it.

Am I the same guy without the hat? Of course–but I have grown attached to the idea that I am “tipping my hat” to generations of adventurous souls who grabbed a suitcase, hopped a boat or a train, and struck out to face a world with their greatest assets…themselves.

Wear That Hat!

The Tuxedo Effect

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You’ve walked into a room, knowing that heads are turning to look at you. You’re exuding this charisma-­drenched air of confidence, controlled power, and poise. You have all of the magnetism of Bond (the original…Connery’s Bond).

And you wear the tuxedo with a panache, an élan, a savoir faire…and a lot of other fancy talk for style. Your physical presence is matched by your vocal command, which, like the Pied Piper, lures those around you to focus solely on you and the air of authority you impart with every syllable.

You spin a web of believability, possibility, and expectation for a world made better by the message you are delivering, ­­without a hitch in the delivery or a single bead of sweat at your temple. You’ve made every single man and woman feel moved to act; special because your message seems designed for him or her alone.

You smile a knowing, but charming smile and with a deft, Astaire-­esque smoothness, you turn to leave, your audience fixated on your every move.

As you reach the door, your energy buoying you like a jet stream, you know they’re all following you with their eyes, willing you to stay just a little longer to enthrall them with your magic…

Then you hear the chuckling…the giggling and guffawing. The derisive, dismissive snickering reaches you at the same time as the breeze. The breeze being the cooler air tickling the fabric in the seat of that well­-fashioned tuxedo.

The tuxedo with the rip in the backside!

This is your fate when you don’t know how to close your presentation.

People hang on your every word, not just because of the tux, but also because you speak with authority and self-­assurance. You have them in the palm of your hand; they’ll follow you anywhere you wish to lead them.

Your degree of credibility is off the charts! Your data is current and compelling. Your anecdotal evidence is rich with relevance and connects you across the Aristotelian spectrum to your rapt audience.

You have done all that you can to capture their attention, you’ve won their loyalty with your precision and insight, and then you undermine all of that “magic” because you haven’t given your conclusion as much thought or choreography as the rest of the presentation.

Know not only when to stop talking, but also the precise words you’ll use to finish. Don’t straggle to the end with an offer to answer any questions, which puts all of the control in your audience’s hands. Restate your communicative purpose, ask for action, thank them for their valuable time and attention…then stop (leave dropping the mic or doing that “Blam!” gesture for your weekend karaoke gig).

Clean, crisp…Connery.

Ne Regrette Rien!

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It was my final competitive race. I had foregone the dream of being the youngest decathlete to win a gold medal. Now I simply wanted to wrap up the season and focus on soccer.

It was the high school district meet, my junior year and I was racing in an 800 meter heat. I remember it so distinctly, I can almost feel my calves tense, even today.

I felt unusually calm as the race started and as we came down the stretch of the first lap, ready to execute whatever game plan we each had for the final lap, the bell signaling the chaos to come, something bizarre happened.

Now, I should emphasize that what I am about to describe was not a common occurrence in my athletic exploits. I lettered in seven different sports, playing everything from volleyball to cricket to rugby to badminton, and nothing like this had happened before or since.

As we took the bell lap and gathered ourselves to drive, limp, stagger, cruise, fight to the finish, I became acutely aware of all of the other runners around me. I mean, I could hear their breathing, but not only hear it; I could sense each and every one’s level of fatigue. It was like a slow-motion moment in “Chariots of Fire”! The hair blowing, the muscles quivering in exertion, the calculated glances out of the corner of the eyes…

I knew, in that moment, that I had won the race. I could sense that I had one gear more than anyone else. I felt amazing! I was near the front of the lead pack, not pressing too much at all yet (and we were going at an impressive pace), and I hadn’t even gotten up onto my toes yet in preparation to engage my maximum speed. A smile crept over my face as I realized that, at least for this moment, I would step out from my older brother’s impressive track shadow (he was challenging for the state title in the two-mile that year) and re-establish myself as the dominant athlete in the family. I had this!

Then I felt the track rise up to meet me, as I found my momentum shift from horizontal to vertical, as I sprawled and slid through an outer lane.

I had been tripped.

Was it celestial retribution for my private arrogance? Did one of the other runners sense my dominance and decide they had no other choice? Or was I simply the victim of an unfortunate collision of tangled feet in a cramped and explosive space?

None of these resolved itself as I sat there staring at the newly torn hole in the toe of my red suede Adidas spikes and the trickle of blood running from my grazed knee. I vividly remember the scene, as if observed from outside myself, as my coach crouched next to me, devoid of things to say either from sympathy or disappointment. He helped me up and walked me off the track for the last time.

I used Edith Piaf’s lyric to highlight what this moment has meant to me, even after all the years between then and now. All of the triumphs and accolades, the disappointments and near-misses, the poor choices and the good have helped to dilute the deflation, but somehow define what that race symbolizes to me.

I should have finished the race. Regardless of where I finished or whether I outshone my competitors (or my brother), I should have picked myself up, shrugged off the residue of self-pity and embarrassment and dragged my wounded pride, my sense of loss, and my torn shoes across the finish line.

Don’t EVER regret what you have done. You can’t unring the bell (you can try to make amends, repair relationships, educate yourself more thoroughly for next time), but don’t leave something un-done. I wish I had had the fortitude and the grit to dust myself off and tear after the back of the pack in that half-mile race. I wish I hadn’t felt so sorry for myself that I allowed that emotion to win out, rather than digging past that to tap into the work ethic and determination that I thankfully discovered later in life.

This is a cautionary tale about leaving an opportunity unexplored. I might have had enough left in the tank, combined with a primal sense of exacting revenge by tracking down the perpetrator and edging him at the finish, to serve up a moral victory. But because I allowed the daunting and depressing forces at work in that moment to dictate circumstances to me, I’ll alway look back and regret that I didn’t at least try.

Remember to move the air around you and that you are stronger than you think.

Preparation vs. Perspiration

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To quote Honest Abe,
“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.”

In a world that moves so much faster than it did 10, five, two years ago, we seldom put aside the time to get sufficiently organized before undertaking a project or a task. In the culinary world, this set­up routine is called “mise en place” or “put in place”. There are multitudes of people working primarily because they are adept in the arena of food “prep”.

Get the materials (or information) you need, put them in a manageable order, within reach, and like a high jumper visualizing the run­up to a leap, walk through the steps in your head…over and over and over again.

Yep, this takes time and patience and a tolerance for repetition, but the pay­off is of crucial importance. I relate this whole blog to the issue of presentations­­the dreaded monster, public speaking!

There are three targetable steps in giving an effective presentation.

1. Have a clearly defined purpose

What do you want your audience to do, think, feel, know once you are finished talking? Know the answer to that. If you’re telling a ghost story, you want your audience to display signs of fear (taking a deep breath, because they’ve been holding in the anxiety as you’ve woven that web of dread and terror). Or you want them to implement a more efficient marketing plan to target millennials.

2. Present a high degree of credibility

Know your stuff! Plain and simple. Do the requisite research, have data with impact and resonance, and sound confident in your delivery. This is where the prep comes in. If you don’t know the presentation inside and out, two things can be lost. First, your sense of self-­confidence; ­­this diminishes because you’re worried about leaving something out. Second, your ability to improvise­­…

­ little known fact…improvisors are some of the most rehearsed artists out there, because they have to anticipate ALL possibilities, not just what’s in the established script.

…if you’re not sufficiently prepared, if something does go awry, you’re more likely to be thrown by it, rather than being able to adjust and adapt.

There may be a concern that over­preparation may make something sound stilted and robotic. I believe the opposite is true…make it muscle memory and truly ingrain the necessary information–­­the key points will stick. If you misplace a modifier or stumble over a word or two, no big deal, because the essence is so embedded that you’ll have easy access to the objective of your presentation, rather than just the order of the words.

3. Know when to stop talking.

Mu and the Grandpa – A Lesson in Guanxi

Guanxi

guan·xi

/gwanˈCHē/

noun

1. (in China) the system of social networks and influential relationships that facilitate business and other dealings.

I was recently reminded of my connection with a timid Chinese former student–a memory that led to one of an earlier connection with the elderly Chinese grandfather that used to live next door. The impact of those two individuals and what they mean to my global perspective have prompted me to write this…

Mu Lin was a student studying in America through our school’s East -West pipeline, encouraging students in Asian countries to experience American culture and education before embarking on their college pursuits. She was shy and retiring and not huge on getting involved. With that in mind, you can imagine the degree of enthusiasm she expressed when she was told she had to take an acting class to fulfill her performing arts requirement…my acting class.

Around that same time, I was adapting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a vehicle for a predominantly female cast, setting it in a high school (think Mean Girls with fewer “likes” and “totallys”) As a way to keep Mu engaged and feeling included, I encouraged her to audition for the Caesar production. She could socialize a bit more and have a truly immersive experience. I nudged her enough that she showed up and tried out. I cast her as the Soothsayer, the fringe prognosticator who assails Caesar with warnings about the Ides of March. As a “carrot” to show my diplomacy and willingness to compromise, I allowed her to utter her opening lines, the ones which attract Caesar’s attention, in her native tongue. It added an edge and an increased air of mystery to her character.

Mu was terrific in her part, as small and brief as it was, and continued to show tremendous improvement in the acting class, graduating with a passing grade, another role in the next All-School production (having to do with a pair of ruby slippers and a witch) and the public performance of her acting class monologues under her belt. Mu graduated from her American high school in 2011, going on to attend Ohio State.

Within the last few months, I was visiting the school and was approached by the school’s receptionist, who informed me that Mu Lin had just recently visited the school herself. She had apparently been asking for me and passed along a message through the receptionist, that I was one of her favorite teachers and had been “magic” in helping her. Mu also communicated that because of my influence, she had decided to minor in theatre in college.

On a related tangent, addressing the second facet of my Chinese experience…I used to live next door to a Chinese family, the elderly grandfather of which would spend a lot of time in his backyard. One day I was weeding my back lawn, using my favorite gardening implement, a sort of weed harpoon, and I looked up to see the grandfather, who didn’t speak a word of English, approaching me. He stopped in front of me and gestured at the harpoon and then the ground. It didn’t take me too long to understand that he wanted me to demonstrate how it worked. I showed him and then showed him again, plucking another dandelion, roots and all, out of the grass. He was enthralled, smiling and shaking his head. Without us uttering a word to each other, he walked away, occasionally looking back to watch my progress.

This moment stuck with me until the weekend, when I found myself at the local hardware store. I remembered the grandfather’s fascination with the weed harpoon, so I decided to embark on my own Sunnylands Summit and I purchased one to give to my neighbor as an unsolicited gift. The subsequent experience is one I will never forget. That same day, the grandfather was in his backyard, doing some gardening. I approached him with the new “harpoon” and after repeated efforts to give him the tool, which I now understand is the cultural norm, he finally accepted it, with abundant bowing. I left feeling a sense of harmony and goodwill.

However, upon my return to my backyard, just a dozen or so minutes later, I was greeted by the grandfather’s son, wife, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. The son, who did speak English, was so gracious and thankful, as were all of the other members of the family, overwhelming me with thanks and more bowing. You’d think I’d given them a tractor or installed weed-free turf.

These two stories reflect two salient, transcendent moments in my life. Guanxi, the Chinese word for relationships, identifies the value of connecting with others, sometimes for mutual benefit such as you might expect in business, but these were different. The rewards I received, and I truly hope to avoid any gushy music or gauzy filter here, were in witnessing that regardless of background or culture or language, there is something meaningful and resonant in extending a hand or your time to someone else. I relate this in appreciation for all organizations who have an authentic service orientation and who see beyond reciprocity.