In the year after college, my friends and I decided to start giving each month a theme. There was Anything Goes January (not all that much “went” for the innocent crew we were), followed by Freedom February and Meditation March… you get the idea.
This year - older, wiser (?), and often kinder to myself, I’d like to propose a new title for February... Fun with Failure!
I could tell you all about Albert Einstein, JK Rowling, or Denzel Washington (the later two have excellent speeches here).
Chances are, you’ve already heard a lot of stories like this. But as much as we often know intellectually that failure is good for us, it’s hard to greet the sinking feeling of plans gone awry with open arms. We tend to distract ourselves, blame others, or devolve until self-criticism. It may hurt more than the disappointment itself, but at least it’s in our “control.”
And so, I propose a project for the month: fail once a day. This doesn’t mean to sabotage yourself, but it does mean to put yourself in situations where you don’t know you’ll succeed. Ask someone out, crack on a high note, yell out a window, make an awkward joke on Zoom… you get the idea.
The most important part of this project, though, is what happens afterwards - which is a Celebratory Silly Dance. You may shout “yes, failure!” if this is possible in your location. OR it can be a subtle, internal, “yes” and silly dance. But know this: the more we can welcome failure, the more we can take the risks necessary for success. So the slightest moment of getting to know that uncomfortable feeling is of great value.
“HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO SPEAKING?” You ask.
We don’t remember speakers who are sleek. We remember speakers who got out on a limb and show us their humanity. Otherwise, we would just read the information - it’s much faster.
Before bed each night, you can ask “when did I fail today?” Perhaps jot it down, and celebrate that you are living a life of passion and growth, that you’re creating a story worth telling.
(And yes, I do write the blog posts that I myself most need to read!)
Any description of the past year feels like an understatement, and events of the past week are similarly beyond words.
I've been finding comfort in Pema Chodron's book Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. She writes:
The truth is that we're always in some kind of in-between state, always in process. We never fully arrive. When we're present with the dynamic quality of our lives, we're also present with impermanence, uncertainty, and change. If we can stay present, then we might finally get that there's no security or certainty in the objects of our pleasure or the objects of our pain, no security or certainty in winning or losing, in compliments or criticism, in good reputation or bad- no security or certainty in anything that's fleeting, that's subject to change.
When the outer world feels scary, I often habitually grasp onto something I feel I can control: work, chocolate, self criticism...
And yet, the only true security is accepting insecurity- change upon change upon change.
Of course, this interests me as a communicator. We never know what will happen when we get up to speak. We can practice consistently, analyze our audience and their needs, and clarify our message: all of this creates the conditions for the speech to go well. But the actual speech only happens once (even if you speak the same words another time). And to be effective, we have to jive with mood of our audience, the environment around us, our own internal feelings: like a crazy jam session.
But an awesome thing about a jam session is that you're never alone. When we're present, we can be carried by the moment: it's not all up to us. To speak is to collaborate with an audience, a space, and a message. And that kind of unity can heal ourselves, our audience, and maybe even our world.
Performers look at their whole being as an instrument. There is artistry in the way you call to someone across the street, your posture as you write a job application, and your breathing as you sit in traffic.
The modern world can tempt us to abandon this awareness. We feel constant pressure to “do” from our iPhones and “be” from the flat image of our web presence.
All people deserve to connect with, and express from, their truest selves -- to know that their bodies, voices, and thoughts are an ever-evolving mystery and a means of bringing compassion, awareness, and joy to others.
Ultimately, whether you are at a family dinner, running for office, or playing “Juliet,” your whole being tells a story, and your whole being matters.
Most of us take chronically shallow breaths.
But being told to "take a deep breath" can bring up a bit of... well... resistance.
Instead, I challenge you to breathe like an elephant, from the tip of your trunk to your big, heavy feet.
ESPECIALLY, if you're feeling rushed/ on the spot/ depleted.
You deserve your breath!
Have you recently muttered anything of the following phrases, either aloud or in your head?:
Augh, I’m just the WORST!
I’m SO much better than ________! Why did they pick them?
If so, I want to start by acknowledging the enormous bravery of putting yourself forward in any way, and that frustration/ anger/ discouragement are a highly difficult but often unavoidable part of that process. Please seek help when you need it, and know how many others are struggling alongside you, whether or not you can see them.
If, however, these phrases have a certain tone under them... one of, well, self-importance, I have urgent news for you: you may have been overtaken by your inner ARTÍSTE.
Oh now, you don’t need to be a professional artist to have one of these. We all have them.
Mine wears a black turtleneck and large round glasses, and has an exceptionally long neck. He drinks straight-up vodka and smokes, and he likes to say things like “now the night is ruined!” or “no matter how hard I work, I’ll never be good enough”-- that sort of thing.
Unlike your inner ARTIST (and trust me, you have one of those, too, in any line of work) your inner ARTÍSTE is concerned almost entirely with themselves. I bet you can guess what that “e” stands for-- yup, big fat EGO.
I was lucky enough to be in a show in Charleston, SC the night of my 26th birthday. My parents and grandmother flew out for it from New Jersey. After the show, they took me out to a lovely dinner at a beautiful hotel on a lovely, warm night in one of my favorite pastel-covered cities.
Did I feel overwhelming gratitude to have their support? Hopefully somewhere, deep down. But mostly, I felt depressed and angry. The show hadn’t gone the way I wanted it to. I sat in front of my bubbling prosecco feeling deeply sorry for myself. Who could care about seeing their 80-year-old grandmother when they hadn’t landed all of their laugh lines?
Communication, be it a formal performance, speech, or interview, is extremely vulnerable. It can be highly fertile ground for all of our inner critics, those creatures who simultaneously sabotage us and make us feeling extremely IMPORTANT.
Luckily, the ARTÍSTE has a powerful foe: your ARTIST.
Your artist isn’t speaking to impress people-- they’re speaking because they have a message to share. They know that their vulnerabilities are what will connect them to others. They recognize that so much of communication (and life) is out of their control, and the best they can do is work with the resources they have at the moment. They realize that the person they are after the talk/ show/ meeting is just as important as the one in the spotlight.
Above all, they know that it's not about them, but about the amazing human ability to share information that moves our world forward. That space at the end of their name? It stands for "awe."
I wish you a day full of space for your generous, unpredictable, strong, and majestic Inner Artist to come forward!
After finishing a talk, we're often so ready to get off the podium and onto celebrating/ relief eating/ schmoozing that we mutter "thank you," almost as an apology.
Next time, try taking a breath, looking one person in the eye, and making that "thank you" the most important part of your presentation.
It gives your audience time to process what you've just said, makes you look poised, and recognizes the time people have taken to listen to you.
No matter how your talk went, you've just made the world a better place by offering some sincere gratitude!
How are your feet doing?
Are they cold, like mine always are? Can you feel them tingling? How about your toes clenching?
The furthest body part from our attention-seeking brain, feet often get “swept under the rug,” so to speak- especially when we're about to do something important like give a talk.
And yet, feet hold a super power! If you’re standing to deliver a speech, wait for the bus, or give a cute someone your number, your FEET are connecting you to the ground.
And what an amazing ground it is. It’s roughly 6,370 miles to the center of the earth. That’s a lot of matter on your side (if you’re curious about exactly what’s below you, check this out: http://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/story/20150306-journey-to-the-centre-of-earth/index.html).
Feeling our feet can pull us out of our uber-opinionated head and into the present moment. And everything moving, inspiring, and liberating happens in the here and now (it's called stage PRESENCE for a reason!).
It takes less than a second, and it might remind you that you deserve to be here, on this earth, sharing what matters to you.
Oh, you're an actor? You must LOVE being the center of attention!
I heard this phrase often growing up-- and as the picture at right attests: yes, sometimes I did.
Then there are the times I ate lunch in the girl's bathroom in high school, so no one would see that I had nowhere to sit.
Both of those young women are still a part of me: the one attempting to act out "Les Miz" for first grade show-and-tell, and the one sitting at the back of the class not raising her hand.
Many people assume actors are naturally outgoing. In my case, though, social situations have never been simple. For me, performing has always been a safe, structured place to express all parts of myself.
One of the coolest things about training as an actor is that it helps you develop skills you can use in all forms of communication. I learned to expand my physical presence by playing gutsy musical theater characters, so I'm aware if I start to hunch at a job interview. I developed all registers of my voice in order to act Shakespeare, so I can speak with clarity and ease when I'm teaching. You never know what might happen onstage, so I learned to be present in high stakes situations. Above all, I learned about the incredible power of vulnerability: how it can connect you to your scene partner, and to the important people in your "real" life.
I still get nervous before a performance, party, or interview-- and sometimes I still want to hide in the bathroom. But I also know the joy of feeling deeply connected to yourself and others simultaneously, and of using your “instrument” (your body and voice) to share information that matters to you. I am committed to a lifetime of developing the skills needed to communicate with truth, depth, and freedom; and so honored that I get to share what I’ve learned with others.