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Category Archives: Body Language

Swim to the Deep End!

Thirty minutes into a challenging indoor cycling class when I was “seeing Elvis,” the instructor said, “If you have anything left in the tank, turn the tension up one more time.”  At that moment I had an epiphany:  the human body is capable of much more than the mind allows.  Once we push past the mental barrier that yells, “I can’t! It’s too hard!,” we find that we are stronger, smarter, and open to new possibilities.   Medal-winning athletes know this, and so do successful speakers.

When you are about to stand up and speak, what’s going through your mind?  Odds are it’s something like, “Let me just get through this without embarrassment,” or “Please don’t let me trip on the electrical cord.”  Chances are that you are not thinking, “I can’t wait to take a risk and really put myself out there.”

This blog post is an invitation to let your body move past the limits that your mind imposes.  If you want to really impress your audience and leave them with a pleasant aftertaste, consider incorporating one of these physical techniques:

  1. Change your volume.  If you are naturally on the church mouse end of the continuum, try speaking much louder.  If your style is closer to the carnival barker, try softening your voice.  Notice what it does to the rest of your delivery.
  2. Sing loudly right before you present.  You will be more energized and relaxed when you begin your presentation.
  3. Make a sound effect where you would normally use an adjective.  Go from bland to “Now that got my attention!”
  4. Step away from the lectern.  It’s a crutch.  Try speaking in the “magic circle” – that space front and center of the room.  Your audience will thank you.
  5. Break the wall.  Most speakers deliver their presentation at a “professional” distance from their audience.  Try moving closer into the personal space for an important point and then move back.

Break the mental barrier that keeps us stuck in the safe-and-average shallow end and move into the risky-and-fabulous deep end of the pool!  Your body should be in the lead role, not your mind.

– Barbara

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Larry Crowne and Public Speaking

Having taught undergrads at the college level, I believe that gives me license to critique the movie Larry Crowne.  Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are back together again, but in no way do they deserve your hard-earned money.  I went because I wanted to see what Hollywood would do to the art and craft of public speaking.

Julia Roberts plays a cynical, disaffected community college professor who reluctantly teaches Speech 217: The Art of Informal Remarks.  In every classroom scene she conveys a palpable loathing for her students, except at the end, of course, when she has been transformed by the “life is good” energy of her star student Larry Crowne, played by Tom Hanks.  Did she have to hate her job?  Would the movie be less compelling if she jumped out of bed every morning with the anticipation of shaping young minds and developing the talents of her students?  Oh, wait, I get it:  Larry Crowne is competing with Bad Teacher for box office revenues.  But I digress.

Do not see this movie.  I think Rex Reed said it best in his review:  “In an endurance test of 99 minutes that feels more like running a marathon on the Equator, nothing ever happens in this movie. There is no conflict. The characters are dead on arrival. Somebody must be held accountable for clunky, unspeakable dialogue like ‘I was worked up and under the influence of the demon rum.’ I mean, who talks like that outside the pages of paperbacks for hyper-thyroidal teens sold in airport departure lounges?”  Wow. Harsh.

On the bright side, the movie did get a couple of things right about public speaking.  First, Mrs. Tainot (Julia) suggests to her students  that they find three focal points in the room – one on the left, one on the right and one in the center of the room.  And when you have an important point to make, look directly at the center point for full effect.  Correct. One point for Hollywood.

The second thing they got right was how to deal with nerves.  Toward the end of the movie when Professor Tainot is preparing her students for the final speech, she has them stand up and move their bodies in all sorts of ways while reciting tongue twisters loudly.  This is a great way to diminish nervous tension and it was a real plus in an otherwise wasted two hours of my life.

Sorry Tom and Julia – I love your work, just not in this particular instance.  But Rita Wilson?  Your cameo as the mortgage loan officer stole the show.

– Barbara

Jane Fonda’s Autobiography: “My Life So Far”

I know I am getting older. And not only because of the number of times I have circled the sun, but because I find myself enjoying new interests like bird watching, peony-growing, and reading non-fiction.  Jane Fonda’s book was a revelation.

I admire and applaud her for writing with such intelligence and honesty. I was stunned by the duality of her life – what it looked like in pictures versus what was going on within. I was shocked that she shared so much about her very flawed parents, her fear, shame, disease to please, eating disorder and sex life. Fonda’s intellectual curiosity, transformation and journey to self are inspiring. Her true commitment to social and political change (especially for girls and women) is tremendous. This book is long, but it is very well structured, and filled with photos, celebrity insights, great quotes, and a comprehensive history of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Jane Fonda studied acting with Lee Strasberg, who developed a style known as the Method. He became the artistic director of the Actors Studio and Fonda learned her most important acting techniques and lessons with him. Fonda quotes him as saying, “Tension is the occupational disease of the actor.”

Hmm…just the actor? Dare I say that tension is also the occupational disease of the public speaker? As Fonda explains it, relaxation is key for actors, so that “the body’s energetic flow is unimpeded and inspiration can rise and express itself through the actor’s spirit: in eyes, voice and movement…the body as instrument.” She continues, “ You can’t do most things well without being relaxed, not in sports, not in lovemaking, not in acting.”

We know in our heads that we need to embody this same relaxation when we speak in public, so that we make genuine connections and deeply feel that we have done our best.  For the speaker, this state of mind (and body!) is called “relaxed readiness.” Being relaxed and ready means we know where we are going, we’re ready to attend to the ebb and flow of unexpected people, questions, scenarios, and trusting that the ideas, the eyes, the voice and the movement will connect with our audience.  This is an occupational aspiration for public speakers.

-Charlotte

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

“Does anyone have any questions for my answers?” – Henry Kissinger

Want a sure-fire way to speak extemporaneously without sounding like the captain of the All Drone Team?  Here it is: Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Lather:  While you’re waiting for your brain to kick into gear, fill the silence with build-up words rather than empty filler words like um and ah.  You could say “Thank you for that question [insert name here], I always appreciate an opportunity to talk about this important issue.”  This technique gives you a minimum of five seconds to formulate an answer without uttering one boring filler word.  Another option is to repeat or rephrase the question before you answer.

Once you’ve identified your primary message point, deliver that message with a confident tone. Your non-verbals need to say “I know this stuff and I stand by my answer.”

If you don’t know the answer to the question or don’t want to answer it, you can invoke the age-old trick of redirecting to your preferred question.  For example, last fall, when Congress was dragging their feet on whether to raise taxes, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell tried to get White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod to talk about the split among Democrats when he asked, “Who’s right?  The ‘go-home now’ Democrats or the ‘fix taxes first’ Democrats?”  But Axelrod did not want to criticize his own party so he answered, “Well, the question really is ‘what about the hold-the-tax-cuts-hostage Republicans,’ which is what this debate is really about.”  This redirect allowed him to emphasize his key message.

Rinse:  Provide supporting and interesting details for edification.  A compelling statistic, an example, a story – all these strategies work well for enhancing the attention and interest of your audience.

Repeat:  Now that you’re in the groove, simply summarize your key point in a more articulate manner and then stop talking. The stopping is just as important as the starting.

– Barbara

The Power of Superstition

I slammed the back door and heard a resounding crash. The Irish plumber ran in from outside to see what caused such a loud racket.  We looked at 1,000 pieces of shattered glass. In a heavy brogue he said, “You know, it’s not seven years of bad luck if you weren’t in the house when it happened.”

No, I didn’t know that, thank you very much. In fact, I’m too busy wondering if I would still be yelling my head off at one of my kids had they just done this. But now I have to worry. And come to think of it, did I not just break last night’s wine glass while cleaning up this morning? So, I’ve got potentially seven years of bad luck and we all know that bad things happen in threes. Now what? Throw salt? Spin in circles? Touch a tombstone?

I can’t believe that my chest is slightly constricted. Not only do I have a big mess to clean up, but I have to consider whether fate has knocked on my door and decreed a future outcome from this present state. Is this fear real?  Facts and science say no, but we all know that when our heart is beating fast, the relationship between facts and feelings is as disconnected as the vast difference between hearing and listening.

When I am presenting to a group and something unexpected and uncomfortable comes up, I experience this same chest constriction. It triggers a physiological “danger” response.  The motor of my inner voice starts gunning.  It takes concerted, against-the-flow effort to slow down the voice(s) and stay connected to what is happening in the room.  And then, most importantly, to genuinely move on. This is so hard to do and not unlike extricating myself from thousands of years of superstition. I cleaned up the shattered mirror, reflected on where this crash had led and wrote it down for you.  Now that was a good day’s work.

– Charlotte

Public Speaking Lessons from the Tony Awards

Award shows offer dozens of do’s and don’ts for aspiring public speakers. Sunday night’s Tony Awards telecast was no exception. Here are just a few that I thought were especially instructive:

1. Every so often, change the pace of your presentation. To understand what I mean, you only need to watch this opening number with Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris. The structure is pitch perfect (as were their voices) for a 21st century (tweeting/texting) audience. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast, these two gifted performers held your attention better than if they had done one song at the same tempo all the way through.

2. Use the silent pause. I would include a link to John Leguizamo’s performance, but I can’t seem to find one. He was charming, engaging, and hilarious. He puts the pause just where it belongs to get maximum return on investment. Sometimes the pause was to allow for audience laughter (don’t step on your own jokes), and sometimes the pause was meant to let the words sink in and hit their mark. Other than putting his hands in his pockets, he put on a public speaking clinic.

3. Use your whole body to full effect. Granted, when you are on stage in front of a few thousand people, you are more inclined to enhance your gestures, but even if you are in Ballroom B at the Howard Johnson’s Motel at 1:30 in the afternoon, your non-verbal communication can do wonders to keep the attention of your audience. Don’t stand in one spot for more than a few minutes. Use the full height and width of your gesture ‘box’ – that square space from the top of your head to your hips. Keep your hands in view at your beltline when not gesturing and every so often, close the distance between you and your audience.

4. Never admit to your audience that you didn’t prepare. The actress who won for best musical confessed that she thought the idea of winning was so far-fetched that she didn’t prepare any remarks. Bad strategy. If your goal is to appear self-effacing or humble, you can still pull that off by saying “I am so surprised that I am at a loss for words” or something similar. Your audience will get the point. If there is even a slight chance that you will be asked to speak, have something ready to go, just in case. Who knows, it could be your moment to shine and there you are with a deer-in-the-headlights look.

Marcus Buckingham and the Power of Showing Up

I admit that I would watch a 24-hour cable channel devoted to Marcus Buckingham.  He is not only a font of information on career advancement and workplace engagement, but he’s also, shall we say, telegenic.  I had the pleasure of seeing him present again this week on his new research and upcoming book called StandOut – the next iteration of strengths-based research.

This post has to do with his presentation rather than his new content (the book’s not out until September).  The key lesson I took away from his 40-minute presentation was that you have to show up completely to be a successful speaker.  The other presenters I saw at this conference were not nearly as impressive. They were just phoning it in.  You could tell they did not care if they were in Fresno or Fredonia so long as they sold products.

But Marcus was running on all cylinders and the audience ate it up.  It did not hurt that he was preceded by the amazing dance troupe called G Force who pumped up the audience and got the energy flowing.   Imagine if he came out on stage after that dazzling display with his shoulders slouched and mumbling an awkward introduction.  Everyone would have looked down at their I-Pads or smart phones (like they did in other sessions).

The lesson here is to stop strategizing and rehearsing right before you speak. Instead, take a moment to center yourself, enjoy a few, deep cleansing breaths and go.  When you show up fully, the audience responds in kind.

– Barbara