In performance instruction, especially for public speakers and direct-address presenters, let a bell go off in your head whenever you hear these types of phrases:
… so you can look more … <ding>
… so that you come across more … <ding>
… so you seem more … <ding>
… what gives you away… <you get the idea>
Are we teaching them to speak, or to lie?
Truthfully, yes, a large part of early performance training is about managing the symptoms of anxiety. What do I do with my hands? How do I stop avoiding eye contact like I’m a criminal?
How do I just look NORMAL?
Stop trying to LOOK something.
Yes, of course you want to know what you look like to your audience. I’m a huge proponent for video*, because sometimes we’re unaware of a behavior that’s denting our communication, or maybe we’re in denial about it. “I do what? No, I don’t, I’m sure I’d know if I did THAT.” One 15 second video later, and teacher and student are on page.
After seeing the vid, instead of denial or blank looks, I’ll hear:
“Wow, I felt like I was really being crazy over-expressive with my body, but I’m barely moving at all.”
“I thought I was delivering really directly, but I’m totally talking into the ceiling, aren’t I? And OMG I’m actually backing up. Look! I’m doing it again! ”
So, yes, seeing yourself from the outside can be useful for spotting a problem.
But it’s not how you FIX the problem.
Oh it’s so tempting. Nitpicking problems is so easy from the outside, and makes you feel so smart. He’s pacing! She’s doing a self touch! He’s saying Umm! She’s using high rising terminal! See that? Stop doing THAT!
Like the Bob Newhart sketch where he’s the psychiatrist and he tells his patient “Just STOP IT.”
Generally, that doesn’t work.
When you try to fix something with an outside-in solution, you mostly end up with an additional problem.
Example: Billy Graham scared the crap out of his audiences by pointing all the time. The gesture said: YOU! You’re going to hell! No wonder he did best in large stadiums — people closer than 20 feet were at risk of being poked to death.
Attempted solution: tell public speakers they’re not allowed to fingerpoint anymore.
Result: a generation of politicians who knuckle point.
The gesture became so pervasive among politicians, it was known as the “Clinton Thumb” and was picked up by SNL.
The problem wasn’t that Graham was pointing. It was that Graham was ANGRY. The pointing was a symptom. Replacing the gesture in our physical lexicon, then, only creates an awkward gesture, that’s out of sync with the speaker’s other communication parameters – it reads as physical fakeness. Humans pick up on physical fakeness ultra fast.
So how do we really solve the problem, if someone is too finger-pointy? Show them the behavior, and ask them what they think of it, and then re-focus them on their main verb. (See Pick a Verb post if you haven’t already.) If their main verb isn’t “to poke,” then you’ll start to find other more productive avenues for what is likely just anxious energy.
That’s solving the problem from the inside out, not outside in.
Let’s try it with another common problematic piece of body language.
I call these the What The Fuck Hands. In most of the pics below, they also coincide with elbows tight to the ribs, a pose that one of my students calls T-Rex Elbows. If you twirl your hands in this position, they look like little propellers. It turns into a repeated filler gesture, and often starts with a little scooping-up-from-my-belly gesture. I don’t know why speakers do it so much right now; some guy in a TED talk told us that palm-upward gestures were great, so maybe that’s why it’s all over the place.
So what’s wrong with it?
Well, nothing, when it’s telling the truth. That’s the point. But is it?
Funtime! Caption each gesture with the truth it expresses. Here are some options:
• They’re about this big.
• I’m juggling.
• Please, suh, just a biscuit?
• I mean, really, WTF??
• No, YOU take it.
• Hrm….Cake? Or Death?
• I’m holding ten hidden pencils in each armpit – Ta Da!
So this gesture can become a problem.
But we don’t solve it by saying “stop it”. And if we want a student to develop his own natural stage presence, we can’t really even solve it by giving him options for replacement gestures.
SO what do we do?
Let the student see himself and tell you what he thinks the gesture does.
Then re-focus his attention on his own stated priorities:
1) who is his audience – the target
2) what is his message – the ball
3) what’s the best way to get the ball to the target – aka the VERB.
To fix my problem, I don’t focus on my problem.
This is the Zen.
What is the sound one hand … not doing empty filler gestures?
The sound is “YAYYYY!”
* Use of video in coaching, while much more common than it was 10 years ago, is still somewhat controversial. One of the best coaches I know still tells her students not to use it, because many students fixate on the wrong things – my thighs! my nose! my butt! Yes, that’s definitely a hazard at first. But it’s 2016, in the age of YouTube and Instagram. So unless your audience and clientele are confirmed Luddites, make peace with video. I’ll do a separate post about that, for those of us who, like me, tend to cry when seeing how terrible, awful, no good and very bad we look on video.