Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Communicate with Enthusiasm, Part III

Say Cheese. Here’s another psychophysical circuit that can be a great boon to public speakers. As you read this, put a smile on your face. A happy, just-received-great-news kind of smile, twinkling eyes and all. If you keep this up for a few seconds, you’ll probably notice a related, warm and tingly emotional response start to form. Years of smiling in response to positive stimuli creates a channel between the physical action of smiling and the feelings associated with smile-worthy occasions. Seeing others smile can also produce this response (that’s why the whole world smiles with you, as the old song goes). What use is this to public speakers? Bright eyes, an open face, an upturned mouth, these are all things we associate with the enthusiastic communicator. They are the outward signs that invite us to share in the speaker’s positive experience. Unfortunately, out of nerves, the desire to look professional, or simply unconscious habit, many speakers put on a grim “game face” as they approach the podium, unwittingly shutting out the audience. To counteract this tendency, take a moment in rehearsal to run through the opening of your speech with a big grin on your face. You’ll probably feel foolish. Good. This might make you smile even more. The goofier the better. See what it does to your speech to begin from a grin. Now internalize that smile so you feel it but it’s not manifesting itself in an unnatural way, and keep going with your speech. Use your eyes to communicate the smile to your imaginary audience. This is a great way to achieve a warm connection with your crowd, one that looks and feels authentic. Even if you’re giving a serious speech, you’ll want to find moments to share either an outward or an inward smile, one that lets your listeners know you’re with them.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Communicate with Enthusiasm, Part II

Get Physically Involved. Here's a great rehearsal technique for those real-life acting moments. It's easy and works every time: Before you begin a run-through of any kind of presentation, do thirty (or more) jumping jacks, counting each one out loud as you go. As soon as you get to thirty, jump right in and start your speech. Don’t even pause to catch your breath. You may find yourself perspiring or breathing heavily as you speak, and that’s just fine. The point is to get your body into a state of excitement and start the speech from there. When your heart is thumping and your physical energy level is high, your vocal energy can’t help but follow. Even as your heart and breathing rates return to normal, you’ll probably find that your speech retains a quality of urgency that is non-habitual for you. Try to hang on to this heightened sense of physical involvement all the way through to the end. The great thing about an exercise like this is that it works with the principles of kinetic memory. With enough practice, your body will start to remember what it feels like to be physically committed while speaking and will automatically return to the heightened energy level it found through the jumping jacks, every time you start your speech.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Communicate With Enthusiasm, Part I

In our experience, one of the most powerful applications of acting techniques to everyday life is in the arena of public speaking. In a world of PowerPoint drones, how can you learn to stand out? Our next few blog posts will teach you how to Communicate With Enthusiasm.

In public speaking as well as in theater, the audience takes its cue from the performer. If you’re excited, they’ll get excited; if you’re indifferent, then they will be too.

According to Meryl Streep, “All an actor has is their heart, really. That’s the place you go for inspiration.” Oddly enough, many public speakers go out of their way to circumvent the heart, to avoid all emotional expressiveness. They’re so afraid of overacting that they don’t want to act at all, or they worry that injecting personal feelings into their presentation will somehow undermine their status as “the expert.” Quite the opposite is true, however; the more value the material has to you, the more it will have to your audience. By speaking from the heart and sharing your enthusiasm for the subject, you actually increase your expert standing (because only someone who truly knows his stuff would dare to care so much about it) as well as your ability to move the crowd.

Some people are naturally enthusiastic communicators. They can make even the most mundane events seem like the stuff of action adventure movies. Most people are not. If you’re someone who can make the latest Vin Diesel film sound like a documentary on the digging habits of field mice, don’t worry. Like just about every other aspect of public speaking, the habits of enthusiastic communication can be learned.

Here’s a little exercise that can help:

Approach Every Speech Like a Motivational Speech

Take any passage from a speech (something you’ve written or something you’ve found)—the duller, the better! Now, instead of picturing yourself talking to the actual people for whom the speech is intended, imagine you are a college basketball coach, addressing your team moments before the start of a championship game. Use the actual words of your speech but imagine that they are intended to light a fire in this eager but anxious group of young players. Instead of merely imparting information to your team, you need to do what any great coach would do and whip them into a frenzy! If sports aren’t your thing, you can imagine you’re a preacher firing up a congregation, a politician giving a fervent stump speech, or even Joan of Arc leading the troops into battle. Any situation that requires you to speak from the heart to the heart.

When you’ve finished, take a moment to consider what effect this visualization had on your communication. Were you more physically active than usual? Were you emphasizing different words than you might have otherwise? Did you care more about the response from your imaginary crowd that you normally would? Any changes you’ve noted probably have to do with the fact that you were communicating more enthusiastically than you are used to. You might even feel like you were “over the top,” going so far with the image that you lost touch with reality. But it’s important to note that, because you’ve had years to build up your present communication habits, almost any change in the way you do things might feel like going too far. So you probably aren’t as “out there” as you think. Even if you are, you can always pull back later. In the theater, actors are always trying to go too far in rehearsal because it’s easier to pull back (do less of something) than push forward (do more).

Now ask yourself, which of these new habits of enthusiastic communication do you think you might successfully incorporate into your actual speech? From now on, anytime you feel lethargic about what you’re saying, conjure up the coach scenario and let the sparks fly.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fear Itself

"Courage is like a muscle and it must be exercised, first a little, and then more and more. All the really exciting things possible during the course of a lifetime require a little more courage than we currently have. A deep breath and a leap."
Academy Award-winning playwright and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Doubt and Moonstruck)

One of the main reasons people self-identify as “not very good at” something (be it public speaking, meeting new people, going for a job interview, or any number of high stakes social interactions) is that the activity, or sometimes the mere thought of it, makes them nervous. The nervousness itself is seen as incontrovertible evidence of a talent deficiency—the old “if I was cut out for this, it wouldn’t feel so scary.”

Talk to any longtime actor, though, and this notion will be debunked pretty quickly. Actors are paid to put themselves on the line in front of other people. And that’s inherently scary, even for the best of them. Most actors are quite nervous on opening nights and when the critics are in the house, and many actors—even very good ones—are a little bit nervous before every show they do, even when they do eight shows a week for fifty-two weeks out of the year. In fact, if being nervous was a reason not to do it, here’s a short list of all the performers you would never have seen on the stage or on the screen:

George Burns, Johnny Carson, Stockard Channing, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, William Hurt, Liza Minelli, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Carly Simon, Barbara Streisand, and Oprah Winfrey. Hmm…lucky for their millions of fans that these folks didn’t let a little fear stop them.

Avoidance is a natural response to fear—and a good one if you’re in danger of encountering a mountain lion. But if mountain lions aren’t a big issue for you, then avoidance just allows small fears to calcify into big ones. So, for instance, the less frequently you speak in public, the more likely you are to become nervous at the prospect of public speaking. The nervousness then becomes a reason why you don’t choose speaking opportunities…and a vicious cycle is born.

Actors know a secret that the rest of the world would do well to pick up on: being nervous doesn’t mean you will give a bad performance. In fact, many actors embrace that extra little adrenaline boost that comes with nervousness because it makes them feel more fully alive. Actors have more experience being nervous than just about anybody, so they know it just comes with the territory. No big deal. In other words, actors don’t get nervous about being nervous.

And they also have one big advantage over regular folks—rehearsal. They get to work out their fears in a low-stakes situation where no one but the director is watching. They get to make mistakes along with their discoveries, and practice non-habitual behaviors until they become second nature.

Think about that the next time you’re preparing to walk into a stressful situation and ask yourself: Did I give myself an adequate low-stakes opportunity to work out the kinks? Did I go through my speech in front of a friend? Did I do a mock job interview with my partner? Did I contribute one more comment than I would normally make at that informal meeting with my boss and colleagues, just to practice speaking out?

These are the little things you can do to help yourself prepare for any interaction that falls outside of your usual repertoire. Stretch yourself in private so that you will be more limber in public. And do as the actors do: embrace the nerves as a healthy part of growing.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Do Be Do Be Do

"Try to find verbs . . . and avoid adjectives."
Sam Waterston

A lot of people have questions about what they should be doing to survive—or, if possible, thrive— in this economic downturn. We certainly can’t say acting techniques are going to solve the problem, but they do provide a helpful way of looking at the whole concept of an action plan. Sam Waterston’s advice about adjectives and verbs is a central idea in acting theory. Like most of the smartest stuff, it pretty much boils down to common sense, but not enough actors (or real-life decision-makers) take advantage of its full power.
Say you’re Dorothy, plopped down in the Land of Oz. Things are scary and you’re unhappy. What do you do?
Well, before you can decide what to do, you have to know what you want.
Since you’ve seen the movie before ending up in this horrible situation, you know you want to get home to Kansas. But say you don’t have the benefit of this foreknowledge. If all you know is that things are scary and you’re unhappy, you might think what you want is to find security and happiness, anywhere you can find them.
Now say you’re just you, but in the following situation: You’ve just been laid off. Things are scary and you’re unhappy.
What do you do?
Like Dorothy, you should start with determining what you want. And also like Dorothy, you may well want to find security and happiness.
The problem both you and Dorothy face is that that goal, though a great one, is not specific enough to be achievable. There’s no direct route to security and happiness. Would that there were.
In Dorothy’s case, she takes the first important step toward her goal when she gets concrete and decides that what she wants is to get home. There’s a person (a wizard, actually) who has the power to get her there (or at least so she thinks). She sets out to persuade that person to give her what she wants. There may now actually be a direct route to her goal. (In this case it happens to be yellow.)
Once she has specified her goal, it becomes—not easy, certainly, but easier—to do things that might help her achieve it. Pick up some potential helpers along the way. Throw a few apples. Steal a broomstick.
An actor playing Dorothy, if she’s any good, is going to concentrate on Dorothy’s specific, achievable goal and finding ways to actually achieve it. She would not be well advised to put most of her energy into making sure the audience thinks Dorothy appears Dorothy-like, whatever that might mean. This is a fundamental misconception a lot of non-actors have about the craft of acting. They think it’s primarily about taking on lots of characteristics that are not your own, turning yourself into "someone else." And yes, being flexible, able to take on non-habitual attitudes and behaviors, is important to an actor—but a good actor puts her focus not so much on how she’s being but on what she’s doing. Not the adjectives, but the verbs.
Dorothy herself (if she were real) would probably not be particularly worried about how Dorothy-like she’s being in this situation. She might even find that the whole idea of "being in character" flies out the window when she discovers herself capable of doing lots of "uncharacteristic" things in pursuit of her goal. Is melting down a witch, even accidentally, a Dorothy-like behavior? Who cares at that point?
So the actor playing Dorothy puts most of her energy into pursuing Dorothy’s goals, by doing everything she can to achieve them. Many of the elements of acting that non-actors often think constitute the craft (facial expression, line delivery, emotion) actually arise largely as by-products of that active pursuit of a goal.
It’s a technique that makes a lot of sense in "real life," as well. If you’re laid off, you’re not going to get very far by focusing on being resilient or being ruthless or being employable. If your child has broken an expensive dish, simply being angry does no good on its own, and neither does being reasonable. Those are not goals, and they’re not steps toward achieving goals.
Part of this is vocabulary, but the way we put things says a lot about how we’re thinking. If "be reasonable" really means, among other things, "use examples to make points that might change the child’s behavior," then great—just choose the latter way of putting it, and you won’t get caught in a vague, passive stance. If you decide the active equivalent of "be resilient" is "make a list of all the transferable job skills you’ve acquired and brainstorm about possible job opportunities," then great—that’s how you should put it to yourself. And then you should do it.
Take Sam Waterston’s advice and find the verbs, because that's where the action is. Take the emphasis off who you are and what you’re like and put it on what you do and might do differently in the future.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Roles of a Lifetime

"Vanessa was usually the President of the United States and Corin was usually the Prime Minister. I was usually the dog."
Lynn Redgrave, on role-playing with her siblings

We play roles. Like it or not. You can make your own list: parent, child, sibling, boss, employee, co-worker, instigator, consoler, motivator, prime minister, terrier ….
We play roles. Like it or not. So why not like it?
Well… there are reasons. One reason role-playing is not always seen as a ton of fun is that it comes with all the negative connotations of fakery, deceit, manipulation—or insincerity, inauthenticity, and partial truth at best. (Of course, those qualities are exactly what make role-playing fun for some people, but let’s not be those people.)
Where did all those negative connotations come from? Our Puritan roots? (They hated actors of all kinds, including "Papists," who they saw as putting on a show rather than having true faith.) Our fear that we’ll be manipulated by the people around us, who may be playing all sorts of roles without our knowledge? (Con artists certainly do exist, and that’s a form of role-playing that may have given the whole practice a bad name.) Or is it our own insecurity about who we really are and who we wish we could be?
Ultimately, the origins of the negative connotations don’t matter all that much. When we play a role like "good spouse," "tough-love dispenser," "patient tutor," "truth teller" or "cheerer-upper," we tend to be pretty okay with the role-playing thing. It’s a question of the particular role—is it one we can be proud of, and one we (therefore) assume comes naturally? We might get around the whole issue by not acknowledging praiseworthy behaviors as roles at all, but of course they are.
Notice that it doesn’t make much sense to talk about playing a role all by yourself, with no one else there to praise you or blame you or be immediately and directly affected by your actions. When you’re by yourself, you’re just…yourself. But that doesn’t mean we "put on a mask" or somehow cease to be ourselves when other people are around; it just means we behave differently when we have different people to interact with. We play roles in relation to others. To some extent, our relationships with other people define the role or roles we play with them.
When you’re with your boss, one obvious role you might play is that of employee. No-brainer. Directly determined by your relationship.
When you’re with your mother, one obvious role might be that of offspring. But what does that really mean? That role is not necessarily well defined. That’s because every mother/offspring relationship is different from every other one. And, come to think of it, every boss/employee relationship is unique, as well.
But sometimes we allow ourselves to think that our roles are completely defined – written in stone, even—and that’s one way the role idea can seriously backfire. "When I’m with my mother, I play the role of enabler." "When I’m with my brother, I play the role of conciliator." "When I’m with my minister, I play the role of hypocrite."
Isn’t it true that sometimes when you’re with your mother, you play the role of … mother? You can mother anyone you please, including her.
We have more choice in this matter than we sometimes allow ourselves to believe. The idea that a role can be played at will is another thing that makes people uncomfortable—if it doesn’t "come naturally," then it partakes of the evil of play-acting—but the simple truth is that we consciously choose various roles for perfectly benign reasons and with perfectly benign results all the time. In fact, the world would be a better place if we all did a lot more of that.
Good actors never let themselves get stuck in a narrow interpretation of a role, but in real life we do it all the time, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Many of the roles we choose to play are appropriate and useful, but others are unhelpful or downright counterproductive. It would really help if we could all be better actors in our lives.
Since the terms for these roles are all so poorly defined—boss, mother, servant—maybe we’d be better off talking about specific behaviors—what we choose to do rather than who we think we are. That approach might allow us to find more helpful variations of the roles we think we’re doomed to. A mother might be a caretaker, a motivator, a teacher, a challenger, a needler, a clarifier, or a shoulder to cry on. Like an actor making a role her own—a good actor, who knows how to access herself in a thousand authentic modes—she gets to choose.
So the next time you’re facing a situation that puts you in a narrow box—I hate evaluating my employees because they treat me like I’m the enemy—try doing a better job of casting yourself. If the version of "evaluator" that you're playing is being received by your employees as "enemy," maybe "evaluator" is not doing the trick. Choose a more specific and active role—try teacher, or ally, or mentor, coach, cheerleader, doctor…something as far from "enemy" as you can imagine. Even if you use the exact same words in your employee evaluations, changing your sense of your role may completely change the way your "performance" is received. Give it a whirl—and please report back on your results.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


"I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and finally, I became that person. Or he became me."
Cary Grant

People tend to have a fairly limited sense of who they are. With this blog, we're setting out to change that.

As actors, acting teachers and presentation coaches, we spend a lot of our time helping people to expand their sense of who they are - or who they can be - and to use that expanded sense of self to communicate more effectively, whether onstage or in "the real world."

There's a widespread misimpression that the habitual you is the real you. If you tend to speak softly, you probably think it will be difficult if not impossible for you ever to command a room with your voice. If you get nervous in public speaking situations, you probably think there's nothing you can do about that, which can lead to avoidance of advancement opportunities, or just hesitancy to say what's really on your mind. If you tend to make people uncomfortable, you may assume that's just the way it is. And conversely, if you tend to be well liked, it may be easy to rest on that impression and refuse to believe in and respond to the negative signals that probably do occasionally come your way.

But thinking like an actor can unlock behaviors and skills and powers that you never knew you had. We're not talking about being "fake," but about being authentic in new or non-habitual ways. We're talking about opening yourself up to new perspectives on how you could see yourself, so that others can see you in new ways, too.

In the current economic climate, a lot of people are out there looking for jobs, or working to present themselves at their absolute best to stay on top of the game. Whatever your own situation, flexibility is key at a time like this. Our hope is that these blog entries, based on our many years of both research and practical experience, will help you maximize your flexibility, improve your relationships, and fulfill your potential in directions you may not even have thought about yet.

We'll explore:
  • What it means to play "roles" - why roles are not a bad thing; how they help both the role-player and the people in his or her life; what roles to play in life and at work; how to play them effectively
  • Self-motivation - how actors commit to a "need," clarify objectives, and adapt their behavior to get what they want
  • Creating "chemistry" with the people in your life - what it really means to affect another person positively, act as an ensemble, take your cues
  • Improvisation - thinking on your feet, staying open to possibility
  • Imagination and visualization - how we limit ourselves to too small a "reality," and how to break out of that trap and discover new potential
  • Relaxation - how to become more comfortable in life, both physically and emotionally; silencing your inner critic; conquering stage fright
  • Concentration - what it means to be "centered"; focusing on what matters; honing powers of observation
  • And the many other crossovers between acting and life

Thanks for reading. Please click the links at the right to learn more about our presentation consulting services and our not-for-profit actor training studio. And subscribe to this blog or check back often for tips on acting the role of you at your best.