Inside Out

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! ”

“Ah.  Puppethands.”


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.

knuckle pointing

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.

wtf dunno

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?

hands up 8

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.    


Pick a Verb 2 – Audience Boogaloo

See Part 1 of Pick a Verb, if you haven’t already started there.

So, you’ve found some evocative, immediate, playable JUICY verbs to keep you focused and present during your scene, or song, or speech.  But don’t get slack, cuz remember it aint about you.  It’s about your audience.

crowd 1

What do you want your AUDIENCE to do?  

In our Play Ball metaphor, the audience is the target.  It doesn’t matter if your ball is gorgeous and your throw is godlike;  you still lose if it doesn’t actually hit the target.  So, what does it look like when your ball hits the target, the communication succeeds, and the message resonates with the audience?

[Sidenote: Romantics will balk, saying that a real artist doesn’t care what his audience thinks.  I say to those romantics:   you’re confusing ‘artist’ with ‘asshole’.]

For an actor doing dialog in a scene, the “audience” is rarely the actual audience.  For my acting student in his Chekhov scene, his audience is actually Anya, the other character in the scene with him.  When I ask him “what do you want your audience to do?”, his answer could be,

“I want her to lean in to me for a kiss,”   or
“I want her to sigh after me as I pull away”, or maybe
“I want her to cower”,  or
“I want her to tell her family how brilliant I am.”

Here’s where finding the verb becomes a little bit magical:   technically, as soon as he begins to clarify what he wants to see her do, his eye contact immediately improves.  I didn’t have to say “wow, your eye contact is really fake looking”.   It fixed itself.   As he puts the focus off himself and on to her, that also improves his listening, body language, pacing and sense of present moment spontaneity, too –  even when there’s no real actor there playing Anya.  Verbs really ARE what’s happening*.


It’s a little different for direct-address speakers and presenters.

Oddly, when I ask them the question “what do you want the audience to do?”, their first answer is often dishwater weak, like “I want my audience to learn that….”  Or “I want my audience to realize that…”

Try again, and think juicy –  sensory, specific, immediate.  Bottom line.  What do you want them to DO?

I want my audience to… look at me attentively?

Meh.  Too small.

I want them to …. applaud me loudly?

Inner caveman wants that, but that can’t be the real bottom line.

I want them to download my sample software.

Yes, better.  When?

When they leave this room… or how about before they leave the room!

Yup, now you’re getting it.  Action verbs are stronger, and even measurable, and business leaders love measurables.

But what if the desired result isn’t quite as measurable as “number of downloads”?     Can we still create a powerful one-two punch of juicy verbs, that have real consequences?  Potent AND Provable?

Sure, how about, “I want to put a huge crack in their reliance on old methods, so they can’t do their jobs the old way even one more day without squinting and pursing their lips”.   And we shorten that to

  1. I want to CRACK their windshield.
  2.  I want them to SQUINT at the old stuff, and LUST AFTER my new stuff.

When?   By the end of this talk, when I show them examples of old and new again.

Juicy verbs like these help us get more creative about tactics and content, more physically involved, more streamlined, more spontaneous, and more aware of actually watching the audience, to see if we’re really succeeding.

And that’s the kicker.  Cuz we might not.

That’s one reason that people sometimes choose vague, wishy-washy verbs instead of potent and provable verbs:   it seems safer.   Maybe I succeeded, maybe I didn’t, but I’ll just imagine I did, right?

Picking a potent and provable verb means I confront the possibility of failure.  And if I really fail, I might have to change something.  So yeah, that’s scary.

But sometimes my verb needs to be “Fuck it.”

verb green

*I have the whole Schoolhouse Rock Collection. It holds up well. 



Pick a Verb

Pick a verb.  Not just any verb, but do please pick one.

Okay, ummm…

Great, you picked it.

Wait!   No I didn’t!

“The Form of the Destructor Has Been Chosen.”

And just like that, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man has absconded with your speech or song or audition or whatever.

Point:   If you don’t pick your verb –  what you’re DOING in your song or speech –  then your subconscious inner caveman picks one for you.   To defend.  To escape.  To impress.  To fight, to flee and other f-words.   Is this what you want?

stay puft

No.  So pick your verb.


Why Verb

One of the things I learned from Steve Pearson in grad school in the 90’s is:  action beats character.   Character is what we are, but it’s not a verb.   You can’t DO a character.  But you can do the crap out of an action, and actors need a thing to DO, more than they need persona.

Doing before Being —- it’s very un-Zen, which is funny because Pearson is a Zen/Buddha kind of guy.  King of the neutral face, no mugging ever, no cheap tricks; it’s got to be real and simple.  Just do the thing, Erin, don’t make a big show of it, don’t shout out “Look Ma!  I’m playing Hamlet!”   This was a revelation to me at a time when my persona was still made up of mostly lipstick and jazz hands.*

His point was:  you can build characters, but that’s like building a musical instrument.  It’s part one.   PLAYING it is what makes the actual music.

Of course I challenged this idea.   Cuz isn’t drama all about faaaascinating character and intense emotion?

NO.   You actually have to DO shit.


But what if I’m kinda woo woo, and I like the idea of just BEING.  Can’t I just BE?

Yes, I can, but my inner caveman can’t, at least not in performance situations.

If I don’t pick and prioritize my verb, my inner caveman’s underlying needs and desires start to run things.  When Mr. Pre-frontal Cortex is off duty, then Mr. Limbic System takes the wheel.

For example, maybe I was hired:

  • To nail down a clean demo-recording for this composer’s portfolio of songs, with no quirky embellishments; or
  • To sell the client on this product, not necessarily on me; or
  • To wake up the conference audience in between main presenters, even if it means I look a little stupid; or
  • To tee-up a performer that might otherwise come across badly, even if the performer is my rival; or
  • To lasso maximum sales for my client, whether she plans to re-hire me or not;

But if I don’t clarify and prioritize those active verbs, my inner caveman naturally attempts:

  • To impress this audience, or that particular person in the audience; and
  • To secure my social status in this company or community; and
  • To persuade someone that I am an effective teacher, a valuable teammate, a virtuous, trustworthy, loving family member, or an attractive and entertaining friend; and
  • To prove to myself that I am right, and don’t need to change my mind about something; and
  • To have fun, and create something unusual, and satisfy my curiosity; and and and…

Realistically, am I ever going to shut off those background needs?   Nah, probably not,  but what I can do is focus myself on the higher priority verb by defining it, chewing on it, and pasting it big on the windows of my brains.



How to Pick

When I ask my acting student what his verb is, he knows it won’t help him to say “to do a great job in this audition scene from Cherry Orchard”, or “to get into a good acting school”.

Instead he picks:  “To convince Anya that I’m the smartest person she’s ever met.”   That’s the verb that’s going to help him play this scene. Those others will actually distract him from what he needs to do.

Convince is a little flaccid, though.  So in the different beats (aka sections) within the scene, we notch it up.    “To hook her.”  “To backhand her.”  “To peg her against the wall.”  “To stalk her.”  “To shepherd her.”   “To stroke her.”

He’s not literally going to backhand her, this is all metaphorical, but notice how much easier it is to play the scene when the verb is more physical, and more sensory.   That’s what I mean by JUICY verbs.  “Backhanding” someone gives you plenty more to do than just “Telling”.   “Stalking” offers much more than “watching”.  “Stroking” is much more than “agreeing”.

So consider the last performance or presentation you did.

What was your verb?    Was it “to present”  or was it more like Unveil, Parade, Let slip, Strip-tease, Expose, Auction, Set Free, Dump, Unravel, Lay Bare, Infect …


Verbs that activate one or more of the 5 senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch – those are the juicy ones that will keep you in the moment.  Why?  Because they hold the attention of Mr. Limbic System better than vague verbs like “be” and “present”.

And when you’ve got Mr. Limbic System and Mr. Pre-frontal Cortex working together, shit gets done.

Continue to Part 2, where we learn about picking the verb for your AUDIENCE.


*By the way, there’s nothing at all wrong with lipstick and jazz hands.