Figure of Thinking - Actions: The Actor's Thesaurus

Want to present better? Pursue fun actions. Who are the experts on fun actions? Actors. Here's a resource you might want to have handy next time you're brainstorming for a presentation: Actions: The Actor's Thesaurus.  It comes in nifty app forms too.

On behalf of your next audience: Please do more than inform or report or analyze in your presentations. Formulate goals and then pursue them. Or chase, hunt, scheme, advance, run the gamut, or cross the Rubicon to get them....but DO as you talk!

"Just tell me what to do" or, Fixing, Submission, Healing, Coaching, Learning, Progress.

Recently, my wife was on-call and had a hard case: a patient with a terminal illness and mental health problems was calling for advice about how to handle a downturn. In short, and with more bedside manner, the advice she offered was: take your medicine and go to the hospital. The paitient didn't want to go. The patient wanted to stay home and smoke, and the medicine had unpleasant side-effects. There were no good choices for that patient - just a variety of unpleasant ones. And it was beyond my wife's powers to fix the situation, even though the patient was asking her for a fix, while, at the same time, rejecting the only responsible advice she could offer. My wife's advice promised a sort of progress from a clinical standpoint, but it did not constitute progress in the patient's view. And all paths toward healing were closed. 

Fortunately, my "cases" as a voice coach aren't as heavy, although bad presentations have been described as deadly in some quarters.

I once had a client under time pressure to make improvements in his delivery style. The client told me: I don't see any problems with my presentations, it's other people who have problems with my presentations. Essentially, the feedback he received was that his presentations were smart, but soporific, on account of his lack of presence. I offered some advice and exercises. I used imagery, I told stories, I was slow and careful. He was afraid of getting stagey. I was worried that he would disappear in plain sight. 

At the end of the session, after receiving some specific guidance on posture, the client's response to my approach was, basically: I don't need imagery - just tell me what to do. Strangely, after a brief work session, the person who started by saying: "I don't have any problems", wanted to be told what to do, yet was suspect of the value of the guidance I offered. 

In both, my wife's situation and mine there's a "patient" looking for a fix, with a readiness to submit to the expert - but only if the fix fits the idea of progress in the scope of the patient. 

Coaches like me want to help, but have to remember that the power to progress is in the hands of the student. We can only be useful as guides when we meet the learner in their situation.

For the learner in distress, getting a fix from an expert seems to be a short-cut to progress.

Experts know that a learner looking to be fixed is apt to move along a continuum of submission, in a state of "unconscious incompetence", without gaining the tools to progress to "conscious incompetence", stumble toward "conscious competence"...experience "unconscious competence" and "flow"...mastery. There isn't always time for that progression; sometimes a person only has time to become a jack of the trade. 

In my situation, given the time constraints, I could have been more directive:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart;
  • Don't lock your knees;
  • Don't lean back - it makes you look detached;
  • Don't stand with your weight off-center, it makes you look indifferent;
  • Relax your belly;
  • Relax you arms;
  • Stand tall;
  • Drop your shoulders;
  • Lift your chest;
  • Open your mouth more...

All valid prescriptions - but when offered as bullet-pointed pills, not very useful, let alone, healthy.  The chances of any one of these clipped directives being experienced as progress, rather than experienced as submission is very low. I can substitute the fix of "knowing what do" for the real learning that comes with coaching the tools of feeling what to do. And feeling what to do is the only real progress that can come with voice work. Action is sensation, not knowledge. Presentation is an action. 

On the other hand, I also could have met the client goes my own slow progress.

I wish I had asked my client versions of the question Saul Kotzubei asks when he has clients who have trouble being audible: Do you really want people to hear you?

  • Do you really want to expose your ideas to the scrutiny of an intelligent audience?
  • Do you really want to motivate others to join you? 
  • Do you really want to express yourself and experience the impact that has on others?

Any one of those questions could start a long conversation, but they could also bring goals and obstacles into focus with dispatch. 

Ultimately, these are the questions underlying every session spent with a voice/presentation coach.  The answers to those questions could be choices or they could be prescriptions from an expert. The tools offered as choices are on a continuum with progress and healthy self-expression. Prescriptions offered up as directives, without giving a client the chance to experience and test the prescription, are on a continuum to submission.

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.