I "Coach" TED Talks #2 - Excellent Energy and Spooky Stillness

If you subscribe to updates on TED talks, then this talk on Quantum Biology, by physicist Jim Al-Khalili, recently appeared in your inbox. If you're curious about the ultimate nature of reality, but didn't get the hang of advanced mathematics, like yours truly, then it's good to listen to someone like Mr. Al-Khalili. And if you do understand advanced science, then Mr. Al-Khalili is a good example of how to talk to a general audience.  

From a coaching perspective, sometimes, it's good just to carefully observe a really enjoyable speaker. It gives you a picture of how you want to feel before an audience. But there's also something, well, spooky here....and it's not just in the quantum biology.

This talk is also a good lab for watching how speakers are impacted by the physical aspects of the room they're in and how people change their behavior for the camera.

The Room

At 25 sec - we see the challenges and the assets of the theatre in which Khalili is presenting.

In his favor, there are screens in front of him and to the side, mounted in aisles, so he doesn't have to break contact with the audience to know what the audience is seeing. [Personally, I don't think it's bad if a speaker turns to look at their slide, as long as the speaker remembers not to speak to the slide] .

The challenge - he is on a thrust stage, meaning the audience is on 3 sides - this promotes intimacy with the audience, but it also means that close to 1/2 the audience is off to either side. This means to make and maintain contact the speaker has to move. Whatever the configuration of a room, speakers need to make choices about proximity to the audience. Willingness to approach the audience signals confidence and a desire to connect. In this room, the speaker must be close to the audience, and must move in order to remain present with everyone. 

The Delivery

Around forty seconds we get a nice shot of how strong it is to stand still with the feet shoulder-width apart. It's a great posture to start with and to return to. He is, to borrow a phrase from one of my movement teachers, "free, forward, and up". Movement is possible from this posture because it is easy to feel one's weight on the floor - and it takes energy to move from this posture, so tiny nervous movements are felt as tiny and nervous; this posture promotes self-awareness. To take a step from here takes a deliberate move. 

As he gets into his talk, you can observe: the comfortable pace, released energy - a little bound in the arms, but they're not dead -  he's gesturing rather than erecting an inert barrier at right angles, which many nervous speakers do. Great pitch variation, which follows in the moment from gesturing, but is rooted in knowing where he's going, and composing the talk in an unornamented, oral style. Finally, he also uses stories. At 6:30 he talks about how Schrodinger 'begged to differ' from conventional wisdom in his field. He doesn't just inform us of Schrodinger's views, he speaks of Schrodinger as being in conversation with the ideas. An active style is clear and gives the voice something to do in accenting language. To top it off, the slides are few in number, simple and clean.  

Despite all of this excellent energy, something began to dawn on me about 5 minutes in. It's the Spooky Stillness of his feet. 

After about 5 minutes, I realized: he still hasn't taken a step. Did the organizers put magnets in his tap shoes? Who got to him? The videographer who begged him not to move to help the editing? His own nervous voice telling him to stay planted? Or maybe even-shudder- a voice coach? Or maybe it was a choice - maybe he gets scattered and frenetic if he moves too much.

On the one hand, It doesn't really matter, the presentation is excellent, but it's worth some reflection. I can't imagine the audience in the room didn't notice this and maybe find it odd. In fact, around 9:45 in the speech you can see him twisting to bring in the side audience. I would have said to him, "listen to your feet". Sometimes your body knows the right thing to do. Also, he's really responding to the configuration of the stage - which shows how present and connected to the audience he is. 

Finally, another grace note Al-Khalili hits earlier, around 9:05 is how he responds to the laughter -  he hears it and rolls with it. This doesn't take any great craft. It's just listening and breathing. Nervous speakers 'step on' the laughter - which is like telling the audience 'SHH' I have something important to say!", as they rush to the next idea, trying to exert control over an uncontrollable situation.


The spookiest part of presentations, or performance of any kind, is the audience.  After all of the hard work of drafting, re-drafting and rehearsing, it is the audience that decides what is important.

If you are fortunate enough to elicit laughter from an audience, it means they're listening; it means their breathing pattern is changing, which means ideas are reaching them. Most important, laughter means your audience is no longer just a group of individuals, it is becoming a chorus, inspired to some degree by your presence. That's can be lot of energy to take in and remain present with. 

I "Coach" TED Talks - #1

As a voice coach, I sometimes find it hard to explain what it is that I do without having an actual "case" before me. I can talk about posture, breath and text, but ultimately a voice coach has to talk about these things with a specific someone, a specific somebody. And that's where the real work is.

So how would I work with you ? Perhaps, you can get a sense by "listening" to me "coach" someone else.

I will begin here a series of "coaching sessions" with TED talks that I find interesting, but where the voice / breath /speech, or movement is impeded and diminishes the speaker's presence.

The first talk that I will coach is one that I came across while developing material to perform around the image of mirrors and the theme of ambivalence. As I searched those terms, the great seer, Google, offered up a TEDx talk which combines both. It's by a visual artist who has delved into the science of her painting down to the level of nanoparticles, Kate Nichols, and the talk is titled, "Light and Art Through the Lens of Ambivalence". If you have ten minutes, watch the whole thing, it's intriguing. However, the two issues I'd like to "coach" are evident in the first 2:35 of the clip. One is a general issue that I see with presenters and the second is specific to this speech. If you want to practice your own coaching skills, watch and listen a bit, see what you notice that might distract from Ms. Nichols's content and then consider why the distraction is occurring, before scrolling down.


Issue One

Look at the tense stance in the long shot beginning at 2:04.

There's nothing inherently distracting,here, but it's a posture for the camera, not for standing in front of a live audience of any size. While not distracting, it is limiting, and therefore, may invite distraction on the part of the audience. And an audience member with something else to think about (that's all audience members, btw), might not be drawn in. Although she is apparently restricted to the red carpet for the purposes of the recording, she could still move some - but the tense arms and narrow stance make movement unlikely. Movement, fluency and vocal presence go together. If you ever have to split the difference between pleasing a camera and pleasing an audience, then favor the audience: cameras don't blink and the camera operator will tell it where to look. Ms. Nichols knows her stuff, but it's not coming across as strongly as it might were she to move, even within the resticted zone allowed. 


Issue Two

The "tsk" that initiates new sentences.

Some might think: well, that's just the way she talks. But it isn't. I don't know Ms. Nichols, but there is another, shorter talk by her on a similar topic, before a smaller audience in which this mannerism does not appear. My guess is that nerves may be one source of this vocal fidgeting in this larger venue. It's something which might be avoided by warming up and relaxing facial muscles, the jaw, lips and tongue beforehand. But muscular tension doesn't seem to be the whole story.

Why are so many sentences initiated this way? There's something going on here between thinking in the moment and behavior, which is more subtle.

At 2:29-31 there's an interesting combination of behaviors that would provide substance for an actual coaching session. The shift of the eyes downward - did she lose her train of thought? Was she looking at a monitor to get the next thought? Did some thing else distract her? Possibly - but, it doesn't seem like this "tsk" and the freeze with the raised arms are panic. There isn't a word out of place here: no "ums", no "deer in the headlights" sensation, which actors recognize when a scene partner has lost their lines. To me, this text seems memorized and these behaviors come across as feigned spontaneity. Indeed, we do inhale sharply with a new idea or surprise, and we might even freeze to take in a surprising piece of information. However, the repetitive "tsk" and intake of breath at the start of this presentation read as a kind of nervous indication to the audience: new idea! new idea!  

But if every idea is equally important, then no idea will land clearly - something to keep in mind, whether speaking extempore from a prepared text, or from a memorized text. Here, the content is intriguing, the visuals are arresting but the speaker acts as though she has to underline the novelty of the ideas. And this indicating is distracting, and the extra effort actually diminishes her authority. It takes the place of real, moment-to-moment interaction.

If the preparation is good, and here it quite evidently is,  then the speaker's task becomes completely present tense: not relying on a monitor, or memorization of a particular word, to produce an effect. That is to say, the task becomes the more challenging, and more rewarding one of actually getting the next idea from the instant of relating directly to the audience. And allowing oneself to be affected by that. That's when real inspirations can happen for speakers and audiences alike.