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JUST BE YOURSELF, BUT BETTER

BE-YOURSELF-NEW  in a recent  coaching session, with a supposedly inexperienced and possibly nervous , speaker I was reminded that the first thing a coach should do is engage in some normal everyday conversation.

Chat away about something that interests both of you, listening and observing,  In almost every case, an entirely natural, animated conversation style will be revealed. Easy body language,  gesturing for effect and pausing for thought. You being yourself!

For a lucky few, this naturalness is maintained, seemingly effortlessly, in any performance. Few more so than Jamie Oliver. This is how A.A.Gill,  writing of his first meeting, described him:

“I can’t remember anything about it except he was one of the few people I ever met who had absolutely no fear of the camera. He was exactly the same on as he was off. There was zero performance anxiety. It wasn’t arrogance or vaunting confidence, he was just unusually comfortable behind his own character.” 

For the less lucky, most of us, the challenge is to maintain this naturalness under the pressure of performing perhaps for the first time.

Often the best first step is to  concentrate, not on the performance itself, but on the way you structure and arrange your script or content. Make it easy to deliver (and for the audience to follow), utilising the ‘rule of three’ with no more than three supporting arguments to your main theme. An earlier post  discusses this:  Handling the BIG speech nerves.

My book “It’s Not What You Say, Its The Way You Say It!” explores many practical aspects of performing naturally when it really matters, being yourself, but better.

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available in bookshops and from Amazon

 

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THE ACTOR AND EMOTION

Unlike actors who benefit from a script by, say, Shakespeare, most speakers or presenters have to write their own words. This can lead to a common error among the less experienced of getting so caught up in getting the words right that they ignore the emotional connection they must make with their audience, whether one or a hundred.,

When we watch a play we expect to be engaged in an emotional experience but sometimes forget that an interviewer or conference delegate ‘audience’ also expects a level of emotional engagement. Professional actors know how to play on our emotions. This is how one answered some questions

Where does the emotion come from, the script or the actor?  cute-doggy

Emotion is a difficult word. It’s quite ambiguous. I looked up the definition and it says ‘A strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances,’ which I think is the perfect answer. It is neither the words, nor the actor, but the circumstances of the script that will evoke emotion in the actor, if the actor allows them self to be available to emotion. The given circumstances include: what kind of environment the character is in, what they are doing, what they want in the scene, etc.

The script tells the actor where the actor is and what kind of emotional dilemma they have, and then it is the actor’s job to find a way to make the emotional dilemma and the given circumstances truthful. So the answer is both. It is a marriage of the two.

Can you fake emotion?

You tell me. If you can fool your audience you are a very good actor. I can’t. Maybe Judi Dench can. I can only try to be truthful. I’m not very good at the craft of pretending but I respect those who are. I think usually my way is to focus on what I want in the scene and let the emotion happen naturally, for example: I want to get my dream job.

Now I think about what is at stake if I don’t get my dream job: I will feel like I have never reached my full potential, I will not be able to express something I need to express, I will feel complacent and cowardly for not trying, etc. If I think about this, I start feeling all kinds of emotions – passion, excitement, fear, inspiration, and joy. But it happens naturally. Focus on what you want and why you want it. Make it personal to you!

People try to be emotional in their performance, rather than just trying to get what they want and to affect their audience or fellow actors. Sometimes you don’t have to show any emotion, but you can make people weep, just by saying what you are saying simply and clearly with commitment and conviction.

“Only connect! Only connect the prose and the passion.” E.M.Forster

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THE ACTOR AND PREPARING TO PERFORM

Generally pitches and presentations do not suffer from a lack of effort and hard work- research into the subject and the audience, development of an idea, a proposition and the supporting argument, a storyline or script and the visual aids/charts.

PREPARATION---compass  A lot goes on but, generally, at the expense of time spent in preparation for the performance at the end of it all, the performance, the way everyone comes across, which will determine success or failure . Professional actors perform for a living. Here is how one actor answered questions on preparation.

How do you approach preparing for performance?

Every actor has their own way of working. After time you find what works for you. There are two types of preparation for me: preparation that happens in the lead up to, and over the rehearsal period, and preparation that happens in the hours before the play begins.

During the rehearsal period my own private preparation work includes a lot of research and daydreaming, reading the script quietly to myself repetitively so that I become familiar with it.

Before I go on stage my warming up preparation includes doing a relaxation, stretching my body out, warming up my voice, and then going through my lines quietly to myself.

How do you handle the different demands of a script?

I break up my script into sections, or units, based on when my character changes tactic in a scene. This helps me focus on smaller sections of the script so that I can work on giving a more detailed, less generalised performance. Each unit is like each point in a speech.

At the beginning of each unit I write my intention, for example: to convince, to charm, to seduce, to make someone understand me, to inspire, to excite, to calm, to reassure etc. When I have worked out what my intention for each unit is, I focus on using my words to land my intention.

I underline key words to give more gravity to what I am saying.

How do you make the role your own?

When I start to read my script aloud I tend to move around a lot, or go for a walk. I physicalize what I am saying with my hands and my body, sometimes even in an overly exaggerated manner. I sometimes even stomp as I am learning my lines. All of this gets energy moving through the body, helps me lose any tension, makes me feel relaxed, and gets me out of my head.

The more embodied your script is in you, the more ownership you have over it, the more it is you. To me, performance is ownership of what you are saying and doing.

What steps do you take to connect with your audience?  

I try to say my lines as many different ways as I can so that I don’t get stuck in a habit.

I try to find a need to speak – I think of my lines as a need to communicate, rather than just a pre-prepared speech. No-one wants to hear something prepared. People want to feel like you are saying what you are saying to them and only them for the first time.

What do you look to get from rehearsal?

Emotional connection and clarity in what I want and what I am saying. To be comfortable with any blocking (movement on the stage) so that I don’t have to think about it – this comes from repetition. The more you can say your lines and do your movement over and over again in rehearsals, the more you can be free in performance.

Can you rehearse without an audience?

Yes. It is good to take time working on the script without the added pressure and nerves of rehearsing in front of an audience. You can get familiar with the script on your own.

However, it is then very helpful, if not essential, to have someone to rehearse with – to speak to, so that you stop thinking about how you sound, and you start focusing on how you are affecting the person you are speaking to. The most engaging actors are those who are focusing on who they are speaking to, not on themselves.

 “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”
Mae West

 

 

 

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THE ACTOR AND SHOWING OFF

No one wants to be accused of being a ‘show off’. It has the negative association of boasting, being vulgar, and being egocentric. But when pitching or presenting we are performing, and any performance requires a certain level of ‘show’. Showing off can be a positive thing. It can be about an enthusiasm to share, it can be about charisma and charm, and it can be about putting yourself out there. It is important to give oneself permission to show off.

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Various dictionary definitions cover the positives: to behave in an ostentatiously skilled and assured way with the intention of impressing others. Or: to behave in a way that is intended to attract attention or admiration (and that other people find annoying – the element to avoid!)

This is what an actor says about showing off:

Is showing off natural to actors or a by- product of performing?

I think if you are telling a story with as much conviction as you can, and you are trying to fill the space of the theatre with your energy, make sure you are heard by all, and have an intention to share with your audience, showing off happens naturally. I have, however, been watching many actors recently on stage and I think a bit of ego can go a long way in a performance.

How do you handle/manage showing off  without  annoying your audience?

If your intention is about telling a story, rather than just showing off, and you are using your charm in order to tell a story, you are maintaining integrity with the play. The play is not about you. The play is about the play. It is not for you. It is for your audience. That is the point. You need your audience.

When you give, your audience will appreciate your level of generosity. It’s called showing off with heart. It is easy to see when an actor is being indulgent and is only performing to please themselves and to take from an audience. Be generous and be joyful. Make showing off a gift, rather than a way to get something.

 I show off – I’m a very good show off. It’s what I do, it’s what I’m good at.” Robbie Williams

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THE ACTOR AND ‘SPREZZATURA’

The challenge in most pitches or interviews is to rise to the occasion and perform at your best when it really matters. The experienced  will, or should, have worked on what approach for them is the best way to achieve this in term of preparation, mental and physical.

DECORO-NEW  The sixteenth century philosopher, an Italian, Baldassari Castiglione, described the ideal approach as having two necessary principles. The first, ‘decoro’, is the graft, practice, preparation and rehearsal, the essential foundations for any performance.

sprezzatura    The second is ‘sprezzatura’ a word he coined to embrace the lightening flash, the rehearsed spontaneity, almost a joy in improvisation that can bring magic.

What would sprezzatura mean to you as an actor?

When, after you’ve done all the work; learnt all the lines, made all your character choices, identified your objective etc, that you allow yourself to let it go and be free in the moment. When you are free in the moment, you are the most open to anything happening, because you are present and ready for anything to happen.

You take a risk, step outside your comfort zone, respond to what is around you; the audience, the other actors, the environment, and let the story take you. You stop trying to be a good actor, or trying to have something to prove and you give more of yourself.

Then, when you are available and free to play and feel, if you’re lucky, some sprezzatura will come along. I think that’s what art is. But you need to do the work first.

Is it something that you can bring to a performance everytime?

Some actors can, but no not usually. Your technique is your basis – for theatre anyway. Film is so revealing that in a way it requires you to give more of yourself, thank god you usually only have to do a scene for a days shoot. Giving so much of yourself can be draining.

The more you rehearse the more you work out how to access certain areas of your work, and how to hit those marks. The more you can live in the performance and be in each moment. Warming up can really help me get in that place of readiness and playfulness.

Essentially, being playful, not trying too hard, and being flexible are very good places to start if you want a performance with a bit of sprezzatura.

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THE ACTOR AND THE AUDIENCE

Pitchcoach-004-SeriousAudience In any pitch, presentation or interview before an audience the way you come across matters, usually more than what you actually say. You need to perform, something actors do for a living. This is what I learnt from one actress, Imogen Sage, when asked about dealing with an audience.

How do you handle nerves facing a live a audience?

Preparation is everything. Through constant repetition in rehearsal you become so familiar and so comfortable in the role that knowing your lines will be no problem, even if you are nervous. This means you can enjoy, rather than fear, the sense of occasion. This is something that actors live for.

How do you respond to a difficult or disappointingly small audience?

You do your job and give it 100%. You give everything and expect nothing in return.

Pitchcoach-005-ClappingAudience.

How does the audience effect the performance?

Perfomances do not exist in the absence of an audience. There is two way exchange of energy, with a shared sense of anticipation. As an actor you tap into this to be ‘in the moment’ and tune in to what kind of audience they are. As much as they are listening to you, you are listening to them.

The theatre is the involuntary reflex of the ideas of the crowd”.

Sarah Bernhardt

 

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IF YOU DON’T LEAD, NO ONE WILL FOLLOW.

leadlikeants  Leadership, or lack of it, is in the news right now and rhetoric lacking that leadership is less persauasive.

obama 3In America a war-weary public is no longer responding, as many of them did, to his often soaring rhetoric. The reason being they do not see him as a decisive President, one who leads. As Max Hastings writes “His rhetoric remains as impressive as ever, but his conduct of office is hallmarked by weakness and indecision.”  Conversely, while David Cameron demonstrated a specific lack of leadership over his Party when the ‘war’ vote went against him, he is still seen according to the polls as a strong leader. His defiant “I get it ” front foot approach hits the right note.

Britain's Labour party opposition leader Ed Miliband arrives at a polling station in north London

Meanwhile Ed Milliband, who is not without eloquence and subtlety as a politician, has not had the greatest success in taking his ideas to the TUC conference. His argument for a changed relationship, and promises that a Labour Government would stamp out ‘Victorian’ employment practices, failed to sway the Union bruisers.

He did not come across as a strong confrontational leader worthy of their attention. In the latest IPSOS MORI poll  58% rate Cameron as a capable leader and only 28% rate Milliband (same for Farage, ahead of Clegg.) He is seen as less good in a crisis, with less sound judgement, all aspects of leadership.

All this is, of course. a question of perception as it is in the business pitch where leadership is operating on two levels. The first of these is the corporate. No matter how open-minded they aim to be anyone on the recieving end of a pitch will already have an opinion of the company they are seeing.

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This will be partly based on facts of market share and business performance but as much on the intangibles of innovative thinking, decisiveness, positive attitude- characterisics of leadership. If you are pitching a company without some level of perceived leadership you are going to have a problem. However, by the time you are invited to do battle you must assume your rivals are as good as you, with similar corporate reputations, or they would not have been short-listed. In other words, in battle parlance, their troops are your equal in numbers and weaponry and disposition.

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The winning difference is leadership. In preparation, in the signals of a meeting well managed, with clarity and certainty, but above all in the intangibles of attitude.

Spirit, desire, courage, camaraderie. These are what win battles, hearts and minds.

Shakespeare said it best:

“..But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood..” Henry V,

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THE LASTING FIRST IMPRESSION

A recent article  by Craig Brown in the Daily Mail noted that many political biographers are attempting -without much success- to emulate thriller writers like Elmore Leonard and Dashiell Hammett, well known for their dramatic opening lines. Best of them, Raymond Chandler; “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in the back of a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith…”

Apparently, Cherie Blair starts her In Speaking For Myself with “O.K, guys, that’s it. Let’s do the business.” While not the subtlest of phrases, you can’t question her intention to make a powerful, lasting first impression as important to the book, play, movie, speech, poem or song as to the pitch.

The film Patton grabbed attention with “Now  I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war  by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.”

Gentler but unforgettable words from Jane Austen set the scene for Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Two contemporary songs capture instantly different moods, and personalities, Amy Winehouse’s “They tried to make me go to rehab /  I said no-no-no.” And Sinead O’Connor with, “It’s been 7 hours and 15 days / since you took my love away.”

Two rather different love poems, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How I do love thee? Let me count the ways,”  and Andrew Marvel (in pitch-mode) To His Coy Mistress ,” Had we but world enough and time/ this coyness lady were no crime.

Of course pitch teams do not number a Shakespeare to give them a “to be or not to be” opening but this is no excuse for not having any kind of planned start, a feature of many otherwise reasonable pitches.  It is a wasted opportunity and a final quote – if you have not yet watched the ‘winning movie’- “Remember, a winning start means a winning finish!”

 

 

 

THE JOY OF IMPROVISATION

This morning on BBC Radio 4 they played an excerpt of a sermon from 2007 by Tony Crockett, then Bishop of Bangor. He must have been an outstanding speaker, As well as a lover of jazz.

He talked about  the great musicians, such as George Shearer, and their willingness to play with a theme, to improvise and see where it goes, letting the rhythm take them. Improvisation he suggested was an exciting way to engage with life Continue reading