Vital and Faithful

This is the opposite of a nuts-n-bolts post, in some ways.   It’s a “foundations” post, describing one of the underlying theories of communication that I’ve found useful.

It’s not useful because it’s rock-solid disprovable or experimentally predictive.   We’re not talking Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics or Relativity.

But because the field of performance and presentation can get so bogged down in tiny prescriptive details – do this, don’t so that, sound like this, look like that – it’s helpful to have a few root-level ideas to turn to when we’re getting overwhelmed by complexity.

One of my favorites:   meaningful communication is the balance of old and new.

Part of my overly-fancy education included being miserable for a year at Wadham College, Oxford, England.  It sucked but I learned tons. My 20th century classical music don dragged me through hideously complicated aesthetics and philosophy books.  (Pity him, not me; he was a Jehovah’s Witness and I was truly God’s challenge for him.*)  One of those books stuck with me:  Leonard B. Meyer’s Music, The Arts, and Ideas, which has a section about Information Theory.

In the broadest view, I.T. looks at how we get information from a source to a target.   In digital networking, that means we deal with language, coding, transmission, redundancy, decoding, and interpretation, among plenty of other concepts.

Same in people.

If your communication has too much new – like if you use jargon or a language your audience doesn’t know – then the communication falters.  There’s not enough redundancy in the system, so it’s less effective than it could be.  Over-my-head jargon might impress me, though, so maybe that’s valuable to you, more than delivering other content would be.  (I had a teacher who said we’re always communicating SOMETHING, but it might be the fact that we’re shitty at communicating.)

Conversely if there’s not enough new – like say someone is simply repeating a mantra 108 times – then we are no longer primarily communicating.  Instead we might be performing a RITUAL, which can also be valuable.  Ritual is different from communication in the way that giving a homily is different from reciting the mass, though both are done by the priest within a single Catholic service.  They both have meaning, but the communicative power of a homily is much greater.

Why should we care?

Because when we want to improve our performance and presentation, we can look at these two vectors – new and old – to see which one needs our attention at the moment.

Can I improve my communication by increasing the old?

Better understanding the language of the audience; using their jargon.
Using examples from their experience.
Repeating myself or rephrasing.
Using cultural references they recognize, e.g. through shared demographics, or business history.
Using pronunciation, speed, clothing, and gesture that they recognize as normative.

But maybe I want to improve my communication by increasing the new.

Creating moments of anticipation, uncertainty, and revelation
Presenting extremely unusual examples, or miracle stories
Proposing an appealing shift, or breaking a convention
Opening to spontaneous interaction

In many contexts, old against new is a tension that feels like a war.

Churches have long experienced a form of culture conflict called The Worship Wars, where advocates for music with drums and guitars exchange insults with organists and hymn-lovers.   When I say “long experienced”, I mean it. According to Karen Armstrong, there were New vs. Old complaints in ancient Asian sacrifice practices –  “No, no, it has to be THIS kind of goat!” through early Judaic ceremonies “You kids and your newfangled shofars, harrumph!”, from the Nicaean councils up through today.

However in his book “Beyond the Worship Wars” Thomas Long re-frames Old vs. New as “Vital and Faithful”.    Note the lack of “versus”.

This is a gorgeous way to think about your communication.

How is what I’m doing vital – alive, active, flexible, in motion, exciting, juicy, green and growing?   And how is it faithful – true, solid, strong, accurate, respected, supported, reliable, and real?

And again, it’s about the audience’s definitions, not mine.   It doesn’t matter if it’s old to me.   My audience might still need a primer.  And it doesn’t matter if my ideas are lightning-bolt thrilling to me, unless I can complete the electrical circuit and light YOU up, too.


*I don’t remember that professor’s name, but I do remember the book.  Now THAT’s a teacher.      


Making It Yours Pt 2

See also Making it Yours Pt 1, for discussion of the Speak-thru, an exercise for singers, that similarly helps increase communicative power and authenticity.


This exercise for actors and speakers is especially useful for people who have to deal with very formal or heightened language, for example: ministers who are dealing with scripture, or execs discussing company mission/vision or formal PR communications, and of course actors dealing with verse or historically informed language.

I learned the value of paraphrase when studying Shakespeare analysis with the hyper-brilliant culture snob Roger Downey.   For other great approaches to Shakespeare, the John Barton series is super fun, but paraphrase was by far the most useful tool I ever gained for approaching any heightened or sticky language.

The simplicity of the tool almost feels like cheating.

Take your text, re-write it line by line, word by word, so that you could say the line to your best friend’s jaded younger sister who doesn’t know your industry, and she’d get it.  Be brave with your word choice and take liberties.   Use metaphors and your own slang.

Then act the paraphrased line, fully committed, and observe how your natural communication strategies come through.   How do you use your inflection, your body and gesture?   Once we do this, we go back and use those same delivery techniques on the original  heightened language.   Almost always, the result not only makes more sense to even an untrained ear, but also carries much more personal, individual interpretation.

Paraphrasing won’t teach you to sound like Royal Shakespeare Company actors or BBC newsreaders, but it will absolutely turn dormant, vague text into active, blood-pumping text that belongs to YOU.

Try it, it’s fun.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Here’s one possible paraphrase:

You want me to say you’re as pretty as a summer day?
No, no, no, baby, you’re way prettier, and way more gentle, too.
One bad summertime storm can ruin your whole garden,
And besides, summer’s just a short little season.  

When I choose these words, I’m subconsciously also choosing a character, one that I more easily understand and identify with.  I’m making stronger choices about situation and relationship. I’ve even imagined a Moment Before.  So when I speak this second version, I’m using inflections and intentions that are more immediate, evocative, clearer pieces of communication, and I embody them more fully and naturally.

Now, if I like those physicalizations, intention choices, character traits, inflections and conceptual emphases, I can swap them wholesale into the delivery of the original verse, and observe what happens.

Here’s another example using biblical verse:

1 The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
2 Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge.
3 They have no speech, nor are there words, no sound is heard from them. 

One possible paraphrase:

Look at this sunset, good gravy!  That’s God talking right there.
See those clouds?   Those clouds are saying “God made us!”
Every passing hour of the day is like a squad of cheerleaders, cheering about how great God is.
And nights, ooh, nights are like crazy college professors who want to tell you the coolest secrets.
Now they don’t have actual voices, they don’t blather on, like we do.
They do all this….   Totally silently. 

Read this paraphrase and imagine the inflection, pacing, gesture, emphatic energy and dramatic arc.  There’s a character inside this language.  Now try using those same techniques while speaking the “heavens are telling” version.

It feels irreverent at first, almost always.   But reverence often kills language.

I’m certainly not a traditionalist, but I believe we discard older, more formal texts sooner than we have to.   On the occasions when we do use it, we often unconsciously imitate a stentorian formal cadence we think indicates intelligence or authority.   It’s deadly to communication.  Thus, we kill the text, encasing it in this airtight interpretative glass, and then we complain that it’s dead.

Fortunately, in the case of the best heightened language and sacred poetry, it’s not dead at all.  It just needs a little wake up, and an invitation to dance.

I hope these two techniques – The Speak-thru and the Paraphrase – work for you and your studies.   Or, to whip out my Deuteronomy 32:2:

Let my teaching drop as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, As raindrops on the tender herb,
And as showers on the grass

*And that’s some that’s barrel-aged King James lingo, baby.  That’s the good stuff.    


Making It Yours Pt 1

More nuts and bolts, in this post and the next.  Here are two techniques I use often:  the Speak-thru (for singers) and the Paraphrase (for actors and presenters).

Both techniques help to break students out of stiff, lifeless or artificial performances, but more importantly, they help them make their performance more authentically THEIRS.

Both techniques use a substitution, whereby we move the text from a more removed, formal, or unnatural area of thinking, into a more natural mode of communication.  Then we use what we learned to move back into the more formal mode, but with a greater sense of individuality and direct communicative power.

Speak Thru (for singers)

Sometimes I hear a student sing in a way that feels fake or empty.  OR the student may be technically out-of-sync with his lyrics, e.g. running out of breath or forgetting lyrics he should know.

I ask the student to speak the lyrics, somewhat in tempo but not strictly so, as I play the accompaniment.  If the student doesn’t understand, I play them some Rex Harrison.  (For some more examples and an interesting side discussion, try this NPR article.)

I ask them to keep trying it until it sounds like a true spoken phrase, with no “ta-tum ti-tum” meter, no feeling of recitation or reading, and no weird Shatner-izing.

The idea is to click into the brain regions we normally use for our direct spoken communications, the way we talk to real people, when it’s the first and only time they’ll hear what we’re saying.   When we do that, we temporarily turn off our preconceptions about singing technique, or the limiting conventions of the musical genre.

Instead, we primarily want to be understood.

Once the student is giving a naturalistic (but still vaguely in tempo) speak-thru, we look at the technical differences between their spoken and sung interpretations.  When they use their normal speech function, how do they vary their execution?   We look at:

Rhythm                      Phrasing

Inflection                    Dynamic (volume)

Breath                         Pronunciation

Gesture                       General pitch rang (aka tessitura)

Then we consider how we might import some of these differences back into the sung version.  The result is more individual, but also dramatically increases the communicative value of the content.  That is, the audience focuses on the message more easily.

For example, when students do their spoken versions, they typically don’t hang on to a word’s final syllable past its sensible length.   In most musical genres, this is a great choice for the sung version, too.   Here’s why:

Audiences don’t “digest” a word until we stop saying it, because that last syllable might be important.

Improv singing this line:

“Look out!  He’s got a guuuuuuuu  —- vernment job.”

Cut offs are crucial for meaning.  This is a technical reality that we automatically use in our speaking, but we forget it when we think it’s time to “sing”.   We prioritize the critique of our singing ability over the meaning of the lyric.

When we speak for communication, we don’t hang on to syllables unless there’s an emotional, emphatic reason.  So if as interpretive artists, we ARE holding out a note, we need to know that reason, and mean it, or don’t hold the note.

Another example:  the spoken versions often include interesting back-phrasing, rhythmic anticipations, even some improvised repetitions.  If the musical genre allows, these may be incorporated into the sung version.  This is how jazz singers and musical theatre artists create signature versions of standard songs.

Often the spoken version also eliminates overly affected pronunciation quirks that some students pick up from pop genres, but which aren’t really authentic to their real communication style, like the excessively dropped R’s or ‘mah’ for ‘my’.

The most interesting and consistent change between spoken and sung passes is that students never wonder where to breathe when they do their spoken version.  This is a major revelation.

One of my early voice teachers, Judith Shahn, said that in natural speech, we inhale when we have the thought to communicate.  We don’t decide to inhale, we simply do it as a result of having the thought to communicate.  She went further, saying that the size and speed of this natural, thought-spurred inhale perfectly matches the size of our emotion, and the strength of our desire to communicate.

So when my students speak their lyric, we find out how they really feel about the text, and what level of emotional commitment they think the text really deserves.   Once we see that, we can argue the point if need be.  This is especially important when working with stricter genres of music, where we don’t get the option to change timing.

For these exact genres, we come at the problem from the other end, and answer a question like:   under what real-person circumstances would we take a full 8 beats to say the word ‘love’?   

What kinds of things can slow down a person’s speech, alter normal scansion, or force spoken pitch or dynamic into those areas the composer dictates?  Could the character be experiencing difficulty getting the words out, hesitancy?  Or maybe it’s emphasis, or playfulness?  Maybe it’s something mechanical, like the act of calling to someone far away?    Consider lyrics like these:

          Loooooove for sale!   


          …Papa, watch me flyyyyyyyyy!   


          …for Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glooooory… for ehhhhhhhhhver…. ahhhhhhhhhhhh-mehhhhhhhhhhn! 

Here’s yet another example of an interesting difference in spoken vs. sung execution:  often in a spoken version, the student chooses a pitch tessitura (aka general pitch range) that is much lower than the song, and requires much less physical engagement of the breathing muscles than their sung version requires.   I ask them under what circumstances they would actually speak in that much higher range, and use their breathing muscles that actively.  Often the answer is “if I was desperate, or really committed.”

So what happens when you “act” the spoken lyrics with that high level of commitment?
The answer:  your body gets more involved.  The stakes of the moment go up, and it becomes a much more interesting piece, communicating much more than “see how well I can sing this song?”

Some singers become embarrassed when they speak the lyric.   They’re happy committing to a note, using approved musical techniques, for which they may have been rewarded in the past.   But the spoken version feels more naked.  For these singers, their technique is a mask they feel safe hiding behind.

But in the arts, safety is an illusion, a dead end, a trap.  

The Speak-thru often strips off the illusion, and challenges the performer to become more authentic, more direct, and more naked.  Naked singing is SO much more fun.

See the next post for discussion of Paraphrase, a similar exercise for speakers and actors.

Play Ball

When I was in grad school, I detested metaphors.

I was told “Breathe into your butt.”

I replied “Do YOU have lungs in your butt?  Because I don’t.”

I’d already had massive amounts of vocal training, so I had some expectations, and my bullshit detector was on maximum, 24/7.

“Sing into your teeth and — ”


“The inhale is like drawing the bowstring back –“

No it’s not.

“The sound arises from a pool at the center of your pelvis –”

No, it doesn’t.

This was way before grumpy cat, but I sure was grumpy.   Eventually I wound up in the Head’s office, deciding whether or not I was going to play ball.

Today, I work in technical language as often as I work in metaphorical language.  It depends on what the issue is, what the student needs to learn in that moment, and how they CAN hear it.  I sometimes even breathe into my butt.

Ironically, one metaphor that I use often is this one:   You have a ball.  You want to give it to the audience.   This is a central metaphor for all performance and communication.

Your Ball. 

What’s your message?  You need to know its size, shape, weight, and how it feels in your hands.

Do you remember the first time you tried throw a football?   Yeah, that was hilarious.  Know your ball.

Your Target.

Who’s your audience?  How far away are they, how well do they catch?  Can you even SEE them?

Too often we throw just to throw, without knowing where they are, whether they’re open or even looking in our direction.

Your Throw.

…Or pitch, or lob, or pass, or serve, or hand off, or roll, or bowl, or shot, or drop.  You need to know how movement works in your context, if there are obstacles to avoid, rules to follow, a track to use, time limits or other conventions that have to be considered.

Ever seen a baseball player play tennis for the first time?   Again, hilarious.

How is this metaphor useful?

Some examples:
A student actor is auditioning for a play with a monologue.  At first, he thinks his target is the auditor, and his ball is the fact that he’s talented and worth casting.   But neither of these things is true.    (Wait!  I mean – yes, he’s talented and worth casting – of course!  But no, that’s not the ball and his target isn’t the auditors.)

His target and ball are within the play’s text.

For this one specifically, he’s doing a piece from Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, a Trofimov monologue to Anya.    So, his target is Anya, and the ball he’s trying to get to Anya is – well the student has to DECIDE what it is, because Chekhov is a sneaky bastard, but one possibility is – his “revolutionary brilliance”.   He wants her to see it, catch it and be awed by it.  Or my student could decide that Trofimov’s ball is actually the revolutionary ideology itself, and that he wants her to catch that and become another mouthpiece.

Another example:
A Board member has to present a facility renovation plan at an annual meeting.  Two Board factions disputed the plan, and his side eventually won.  At the meeting, he needs to know if his presentation target is that other Board faction, or the full meeting membership.  If he’s not sure, he could sow trouble where there isn’t any.

Another example:
A singer snags a gig, opening for a band that is fairly well-known.  She’d love to go on tour with them as their consistent opening act.  She also wants to sell as much merch as she can at this gig.   Does she sing her signature favorites from a previous album or a piece of new material?  Ballads, or rockers?  Covers or originals?   Answers will vary depending on who the target is – this audience tonight, or the band’s manager, who hires opening acts for their specific ability to raise energy for the headliner?

You can plug in your own examples from almost any real life communication, and the ball metaphor can work:  parent/child conversations; customer service situations; negotiations with a spouse.  Even training your pet (don’t look at my hand, dammit, look at the ball!)

But especially for presenters and performers, when we’re not fully aware of the target, the ball, and the rules of motion, we sometimes start to play our own subconscious games.   Social anxiety, knee-jerk desires and habit take over.  Do I want you to like me, laugh and applaud, or do I want you to truly get my message?

Here, catch.

The Robust Artist

I love artists, pretty much ALL artists.  And I think all humans are inherently artists.  I’m a commie.

I teach a free workshop twice a year that begins with “The Arts are a Human Birthright”.  And if you want to see me draw my spiritual sword, say something like: “Some people just don’t have the talent.”

<Shing>  I’m comin’ at you like Joan of Arc, you heathen.

Those walk-the-plank artistic competition TV shows?   <Shing>

Mean-girl art-shamers?   <Shing>     Catty critics?   <Shing>

A former musical hero of mine said “Some people have soul and some just don’t,” so I threw out his CD’s and recycled his posters.  He may as well have said “Some people have A SOUL and some don’t.”  You’re fired, ex-hero, go clean out your workspace.

Today, I work with artists ranging from brand-new novices to advanced professionals.  Regardless of their experience level, I still run into echoes of internalized, critical elitist bullshit, bouncing around their brains:

“That guy doesn’t even belong on the stage.”
“God, she thinks she can sing.”
“He has no business in this business.”
“They are so not-ready-for-prime-time.”
“Just mouth the words, honey, you’re not a real singer.”
“Give it up, you’ll never get anywhere. It’s pathetic.”

Usually the poisonous weed-thought is wearing the face of a middle-school teacher, or a family member, or an ex lover, or a director, or a boss.  Sometimes, the face is the performer’s own, baring the same critical fangs they’ve been biting other people with for way too long.   (I’m guilty there, and someday I’ll write Confessions of a Repentant Mega-Bitch, a 12-volume compendium.)

So I mercilessly hack out this leftover psychic garbage.  Or sometimes I trade my Joan armor for Glinda wings, coaxing baby artists out of the shrubbery, offering a plate of cookies while I sing my commie Snow White songs.


I’m also a professional director, a gatekeeper, a judge and critic.  I hire and fire people; I cast, cut, curate, manage and program.

I see the reviews and survey data, and I see the bottom-line (aka financial) consequences of any off-the-mark choices.  I’ve worked for contests, churches, theatres, concerts, team building and production companies, conferences, festivals, TEDx and other lecture events, so I have to understand and serve the specific aesthetic context, not just follow my own personal taste.

I have to be able to say NO – no, not for this one, not yet, not quite, not now, not any more, not for this context, just…No.

Thank you.

How do I expect my baby woodland critter artists and my noble unicorn-riding warrior performers to deal with all this no?

Just like Joan:   nobly.

One of my projects is running a network of 200+ artists, where we teach adherence to a model I call The Robust Artist.   The human world of shared art and communication is not for scaredy-cats.  It’s not a Julia Cameron paradise where all art is beautiful and everyone gets a turn on the best-seller list.  In the real human world, every attempt at communication includes a danger of failure.

But, we create a virtus around confronting that danger.

When I teach in church contexts, we talk about the “The Christ Moment” – the pinpoint moment when we offer up our thing –  which sometimes feels like being crucified, hanging there, exposed and bleeding.  And we have no idea if we’re getting raised up in 3 days or not.

We do it anyway

Why?  Because that’s what makes it glorious.

Plus:  get real, people, it only FEELS like being on a cross.  Our limbic system is worried that a loss of reputation will get us locked out of the cave.  50,000 years ago that was a literal death sentence, but today, bad art rarely gets you killed.

I tell my people:  we’re not doing brain surgery.  No one dies when we screw it up. 

Bus drivers can’t say that.  But we can.

So I push my students to perform often, risk often, try new things, get shot down, defeated, crucified.  Get booed or panned, and then go share your war stories (and love stories, and ghost stories) with your artist friends, those saints and fellow travelers.  Get drunk and sing songs together about your glorious adventures, your resurrections and ascensions.  Let them inspire you to rashness and more daring.  Quote Shakespeare, kiss barmaids and speak in French.

Je n’ai pas peur, je suis née pour faire cela!”     

I do not fear this – I was born for this!    


Obstacle Exercises

Alright, nuts and bolts time.  I’m sharing a category of exercises that I use (and plenty of folks use, I didn’t invent them) to increase a performer’s sense of urgency, creativity, and audience connection.  It requires a teacher, or at least a skilled partner, to provide role play.

This is the performance equivalent of sparring, and similarly requires the partner to adjust the level of difficulty so that it surprises, and builds muscle, but doesn’t injure.  I always allow the student to “win” eventually, and then if they seem shaken up, I remind them that they are noble, righteous flag-bearers of virtue and they ride unicorns in my mind.  (Cuz they are and they do.)

My obstacle exercises come in three flavors:  verbal, non-verbal, and literal:

I pepper in phrases of disbelief, argument, or confusion in between their sentences or sung phrases.  Depending on the content type, the student might repeat what he just said, or might be able to improvise a specific response.
I say things like:
“Are you talking to me?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s bull.”
“You don’t seem convinced, yourself.”
“Why do I need to know this?”
Then eventually,  I open to his ideas a bit:
“I dunno, I need to know more …”
“Maybe you’re on to something.”
“And you’re sure about this, because…?”

I can also use very fine-focus pepper questions, to work the student through a variety of contrasting readings or emphasis choices.  For example:
Actor: “The quality of mercy is not strained…”
Me:  “The quality of mercy is not WHAT?”
Then the student then repeats the line, with a new emphasis.

This is related to an acting exercise called “The Moment Before” which teaches us to focus on our lines as RESPONSES, rather than as simply pre-determined output.

Another example of specificity in the peppering:
Speaker:  “I’ve faced mountains in my life…”
Me:  “Oh, come on, you’re a gorgeous middle class white woman, what mountains have you faced?”
The student replies that she’s a survivor of a double mastectomy.  Then she repeats the line, but she says it differently, her eye contact with me is different, her pacing and body-centering are different, and she even chooses to alter it slightly:  “I’ve faced mountains in my life.  Oh yes.  I have.”

I ask the student to take long pauses after every 3 or 4 phrases.   At each pause I ask:  “What do you see?” and the student replies describing what he sees me doing.   Note, the student chooses where the pauses are, in this one, and in this way, develops a habit of conscious audience in-take.

I do tough-audience things including:
Look down, or furrow my brow.
Glaze-stare, and then slow blink.
Shake head or purse lips.
Then more open cues:
Raise brows.
Nod and smile.
Lean forward, face becoming slack but eyes widening slightly.

When I ask “what do you see?” the student needs to respond out loud, verbally and specifically.  So, rather than saying “you’re not listening,” she says “you’re looking at your phone.”   This stalls the emotional judgment around her observation, and sometimes opens the possibility of the behavior having a neutral cause.
After each time she replies, describing what she sees, I ask “So what should you do?”   The answer may be to shift tone, tactic, or tempo, or to interact, or use more concrete imagery, or more emotionally accessible touchpoints.   Or the answer might be ‘don’t worry about it, because it’s part of being a Robust Performer.’    I’ll post more elsewhere about that.

For this exercise, I can progressively back out of the driver’s seat, meaning I change “What should you do” to just “so…” and eventually to just a nod. I talk less and she drives more.

I’ll also shift her responses from verbal to non-verbal.   I say, “okay now I’ll ask what you see, but only answer in your head, and then move on.”

Then I say “now I’ll stop asking what you see, but still take those 3 second pauses and do your adjustments.”

This exercise also works well for speakers who habitually rush or singers who habitually over-sing, to teach them to tolerate (and then use) these golden moments of silence.  After all, rests are music as much as the notes are music.

I stand behind the performer, holding his arms behind him, pulling him off balance, or attempting to cover his mouth or to turn him away from the audience.  His task is to get his imaginary target audience to hear him and understand his message, but without him actually physically wrestling with me, or acknowledging me at all.

Or I may send the performer to the spot furthest away from the audience, forcing him to deal with communicating across increased distance.   I may ask the person to sing his song from another room entirely, or even from the other side of a window.  I may introduce distractions, or deliberately (okay, sometimes deliberately) play the wrong notes for a singer’s accompaniment.  I might have him perform for my two teenage sons, who often have glazed expressions even when they love a performance.


Why Obstacles

Isn’t a performer’s job hard enough without making it even harder with all these obstacles?  And doesn’t it foster an adversarial view of the audience, or of the presentation situation itself?

Certainly, there are some students who need purely positive support, to begin with.  Communication is about getting the message to the target. Some students need to experience a successful ‘ping’, to see the arrow vibrating in the bullseye, in order to have the courage to try it again.

However, all performance and presentation implies intentionality, and that means at some level, you gotta want it.  Obstacles show you how much you want it.

Private Answer

I don’t pay for group workshops and seminars.   That’s a traitorous, semi-suicidal confession.  It’s like a chef saying “I don’t eat here.”

I’m a trainer, a lover of trainers, a booster for the training field.  Training, yay!

But no, I don’t pay for those group things.

When I pay for training, it’s one-on-one with a solid, local teacher. 

It’s not a 4-hour presentation at the airport Red Lion conference room with 150 other lucky registrants.  It’s certainly not the 3-day follow-up course at a Colorado retreat center where I’m promised to get a full 30 minutes alone with the facilitator.  It’s for sure not the 5 week intensive where I’ll earn a teaching certificate in that guru’s trademarked brand of revolutionary whatever-the-hell-he’s-selling.

Am I jaded and snarky?   Don’t I know that some of these large-group presenters are award winners, the real deal, amazing storytellers, inspiring motivational speakers?   Don’t I know that some of them have changed lives, been on Oprah, and founded multi-million dollar empires?

Yeah, I know.  I’ve met a few of them.  (Remind me to tell you an embarrassing backstage story about Les Brown*.)

There are indeed some completely fabulous keynoters and excellent performance coaches.   Absolutely worth watching.

For Free.

But when I spend money to improve MY skills, no group training is as effective as a solid, local, one-on-one teacher. 


For the same reason Jon Hamm goes to a tailor for his suits:  specificity. You are not an average.

Also, for skills development, timing matters.  Your kid’s pre-school teacher knows that one, but somehow as adults we forget.  You can be given great info but if it’s not attuned to where you are in your progress, it’s wasted.  A good teacher sees your unique profile and progress, rather than plastering you with their patented fix-for-everything product.

So why are there so many personal development coaches offering giant group sessions at the Red Lions of the world?

Girl, we’re just trying to make a living.

We don’t sell group training because it’s more effective than one-on-one training.  We sell it because it’s a better economic model for us. It earns us more money, in less time.  I might make $500 for a 3 hour workshop, plus maybe merch sales and freebie brand PR, but I’d only make $200 for the two private coaching students during the same time.  (For bigger name folks, inflate those numbers to $1500 vs. $500, or $10k vs $1k).

And for the workshop, I just repeat something I’ve done lots of times, my signature bullshit that gets applause. Whereas for the private students, I have to actually pay attention, tailor the work to the student’s real goals and skills, and then care about their actual growth beyond just this session.  What a colossal pain in my ass.  Especially when you compare it to being fawned over by a large group of people at a swank hotel.  Ooh, that’s a high, totally.   

No doubt, a group training is nice for the trainer.  And the meeting planner who snags a slam-dunk speaker for the company meeting is a freaking hero.   But when I’m the one looking for education, I want measurable impact on ME, and that means one-on-one with a master.  (also, I have to say my students are all delightful, and not ass-pains at all, but maybe they’re special…)

If you need to make change or build skills, take one-on-one instruction, not just group sessions. 

Be warned:   the one-on-one won’t give you that excitement of being among 700 like-minded people (our team is the biggest team!).  It won’t give you the feeling of being associated with a national-status leader (our teacher is the most popular teacher!).  It won’t give you the safety of potential  back-row anonymity within that large group, nor the promise of a set path of rank advancement up a pyramid as you become more and more invested in that brand-tribe.

Instead, it’ll work.  As actual education.

So is going to those big group things just stupid?  Nah, not any stupider than going to Disneyland, or a pep rally, or a shopping mall, or a fast food joint.   If you go with full knowledge of what you’re doing, then so what if it’s a little cheesy and impersonal?  Maybe it’s fun.

But if your point is personal development, well, then yeah.   You don’t get that at the drive-thru.



*The story I promised:   Okay, so I’m on a conference music team in Vancouver and everyone is buzzing about the upcoming keynoter that day, Les Brown, who’s supposed to be amazing, and almost all of the rest of the production team is making sure they get out front to see the guy’s talk, right?  

I’ve never heard of him.  But I’m not letting on, cuz I’m being told he’s a multi-millionaire, has several talk shows, books, has won multiple public speaking awards, Emmies, and generally gets 40k per gig.  

Cool, maybe I’ll get to meet him, though first we’ve got our little music set to do. 

I’m prepping, uncomfortable in the backstage darkness, not thrilled about having to wear Spanks for 13 hours a day for the past 3 days of this conference, but it’s a good gig.  I’m lucky.  The spanks really are riding twisted, though, so I slip into an extra dark corner to rearrange the whole affair under my skirt until the camel-toe madness stops assaulting my tender ladybits.  It takes some time and effort, because Spanks fight back, but I manage not to attract attention. 

I turn around in time to see Mr. Amazing Les Brown and a giddy entourage rounding my corner like a backstage royal parade, Les smiling, very charming, clearly at ease, alpha, flirting, cajoling.  He’s greeting some of the conference leaders and backstage crew.  I smile my best bland Bond-girl smile, and he stops to ask my name. I tell him and reach to shake his hand, exactly as I realize I’ve had my hand straight down my crotch for god-knows-how-long-and-oh Jesus – he’s decided to kiss my hand.  He’s kissing that hand.

His smile doesn’t change.  My smile doesn’t change.  Words are said (probably? I have no recollection) and he eventually moves past.  I melt back into the corner and take a hesitant diagnostic sniff of my hand.


I can only imagine he is a very straight man, with no small amount of worldly experience.  


First, go watch this video from Stanford Graduate School of Business, called Make Body Language Your Super Power.

Did you go watch it?  Because I really want you to have your own opinions and not just see what I’ve primed you to see.

Okay, what did you notice?

My professional opinion is:   oh my god they are so freaking adorable, they’re like puppies and I want to eat them up.

Where to start…  okay, so there’s an immediate laugh as we hear about gesture as an effective presentation tool, demonstrated using the most unnatural and awkward looking gestures I’ve seen in, maybe, oh, ever.   By minute 4, I already love these people for life. 

Why do I love them, when they all suck so very, very badly at body language?  Like, if Siri and C3P0 tried having phone sex, that level of bad?

Because of what they actually ARE saying with their bodies.

They’re saying, “We studied so hard.  We’re good students, who trust our professors and enjoy our classmates. We’re pushing ourselves beyond our limits, and trying like fun to learn this strange, exotic language called Business Gesture.”

And they DID study hard; this is their final project for a Strategic Communication Course at a highly respected institution, from super high-end teachers including Nancy Duarte and JD Schramm.

The give, the show, the chop, palms down, no pointing, congruency, creativity, power position, audience as hero – this unit gave them some of the most popular contemporary public speaking advice available, and by God they’re learning it.

And we in the audience are learning that these techniques are completely artificial.

Maybe we’ll get used to this particular lexicon of “Business Gesture”, like we got used to politicians doing the knuckle-point.  Like we got used to the inhuman vocal cadences of newscasters of the 1980’s, or the Life Magazine styles of the Jackie O media set, or baseball’s wonderfully bizarre radio announcers of the 40’s, or the fake-English Received Pronunciation accents and steamy over-the-shoulder glances of Golden Age Hollywood.

Maybe the chop, the give and the show are like the selfie ducklips of contemporary business meetings.

If so, dump them now.

Here’s how they were created:  someone watched people who were passionate and persuasive, and tried to analyze what they saw.  Ducklips aren’t sexy; ducklips are people “doing” sexy.   Knuckle pointing isn’t authoritative; it’s people “doing” authoritative.   It’s what actors call an outside-in attempt, and it comes off looking like either a little kid wearing mommy’s boots or an alien trying to pass for hyoo-mawn. (“We’re from France.”)

For direct address presentation, we want to know what you ACTUALLY look like when you’re passionate, and you know what you’re doing, and you’re committed to sharing an idea.

What does Matt really look like when he’s shocked about a video?  How does Colin really move when he wants everyone in the room to hear him?   What does Jeong Joon do when he’s explaining something crucial?   And what does Jennifer look like when she’s really interacting with her audience?

Happily, we do get a tiny taste of that last one, and it’s delightful.   At 12:14, Jennifer actually does what she’s telling us to do:  she interacts with the audience.  And in the moment of her true listening and being surprised by the answer (amethyst? WTF??), she suddenly pops into being real.

It’s like night and day.

We only see that kind of present moment truth in one other place, back at 2:20 when Matt screws up, and for just a moment, his gesture becomes real: spontaneous, appropriate, balanced, grounded, fully extended, coordinated, and targeted.

Sometimes we humans get it right by getting it wrong.

So did I learn to make body language my superpower, like the video title says?  No, but I did learn:

  • Audience interaction absolutely works, even if you’re kind of a novice.
  • A fumble can actually improve your game.


  • These grad students are flipping awesome and should be hired immediately.

Gawd bless ‘em.  And may no one ever unearth any video from my own graduate school days.

Where Do I Put My Hands?

“Where do I put my hands” ranks with “How should I stand?” as the most F of the novice FAQ’s.

Here are the answers:

Q:   “Where do I put my hands?”    A:  In your Content.

Q:  “How should I stand?”   A:   So I can see you.

I’d love to just mic drop right here, but these questions are so F they deserve a full treatment.


Imagine your nervous body is a pioneer fort under siege.  Siege commences.

Some people are scattering in panic — that’s like your hands fidgeting, and body pacing.  Some are hiding (like sunken chest, backpedaling, hands in pockets).   Some run to protect the back gate (hands clasping behind back) or cover the weak points (hands covering crotch, elbows tight against ribs).  In this chaos, it feels like a blessing to get any instruction at all from an external authority at high command: “You there, form ranks, present arms, and hold THIS position!”  (stiff poses and canned gestures)

“Oh, and act casual.  YOUR LIVES DEPEND ON IT.”


And that’s probably the third most F of the FAQ’s:  “How do I hide the fact that I – ”

Stop right there.

“But how can I come across as – ”    Stop.

“But I want to seem more – ”    No.     Nup.    Bup.

Our bodies naturally want to tell the truth.  We can spend years learning tips and tricks to cover over an icky truth, spotting anywhere the truth pops out, and stomping on it.  Don’t clasp hands, don’t put them in your pockets or behind your back, don’t point, don’t saw, don’t pump, don’t drum, don’t hairtwist, don’t touch your nose or ears.  don’t dont dont. Plenty of people communicate brilliantly while breaking these rules, but teachers still create these giant no-no lists.  This one even called the issue of hand gesture a “minefield”.

Jesus Christ, who wants to play in a minefield?  No wonder we’re nervous.

Wouldn’t you rather play in a field where there was buried gold all over the place?     So, let’s make one.   And then we’ll invite the audience to play in it with us.

The Gold

What’s the treasure you’re trying to share with your audience?  It’s not something like “that I’m a great performer” or “that I’m worthy of admission to this fine drama school”. That way lies empty chests.  No, the gold is going to be something specific to your content and that audience.

Maybe you’re singing Ave Maria, and the gold is a sense of comfort, or joy, or release, or remembrance, or reverence for motherhood.  Maybe you’re giving a sermon, and the gold is a renewed commitment to a specific spiritual practice, or a social justice cause.  Maybe you’re auditioning with Portia’s Quality of Mercy speech and the gold is the always-relevant reminder to Shylock that forgiveness is his highest possible choice.  Maybe you’re giving a TED talk and the gold is an innovation in symbiotic fungi production that holds hope for food security in the 21st century.

You’ve got gold here, buddy.  I don’t care if you’re nervous, share the damn gold.

Yes, absolutely there are some behaviors that are so distracting they will disrupt your ability to share.  But you’ll do better focusing on positives.  Don’t think of a giraffe in high heels.   See?  Your brain skipped right over the “don’t”, and now it’s deciding whether they’re spikes or wedges.

So instead look at the vast range of gestural possibility, and seek to enlarge it.  Gestures are tools to help us reveal the gold, and we can always be shopping for cool tools.

Consider the Laban movement lexicon, intro here by a squad of adorables from U of Colorado.  Or test your global gestural understanding with this excellent Japanese teacher.  And this bit o’ awesome is snatched from a class on Chimpanzee body language, though it also inspires questions about the primacy of gesture over verbal language.

These things won’t give you the satisfaction that a list of do’s and don’ts will give you.  But they do help you find your own personally authentic ways of sharing treasure, without turning into a singer-bot or robo-speaker.   See the Puppies post for more on that.


Must Have Gig

Most teachers have some prized nugget they discovered that’s so shockingly effective, they tell everyone.  This is mine.

I require all my students to have an upcoming performance gig scheduled.  If they don’t, they take a break from coaching until they’ve got one.

I’m not picky about what kind of gig it is, and I can help them schedule one if they’re novices.  It could be an audition, karaoke, Toastmasters event, a church gig, an open mic, a choir gig, a club gig, concert or recital, a house concert, a studio session, a conference session, a Youtube video posting, a contest submission, an application deadline, a talent show, an anniversary offering to their beloved, but SOMETHING with an audience, and an actual date picked and circled on their calendar.

You know why:  deadlines motivate.

I would never have instituted this rule, it seems so mean and results-oriented, and I’m nurturing and I value process.  Really, do we have to be on the treadmill all the damn time?   But the evidence from my own students, as well as from the 200+ artists in my local network was undeniable:   the ones who had upcoming performance gigs on the books made progress, and the ones who didn’t… didn’t.

Well, shit.

And it didn’t matter if they were good or bad students, musicians, speakers, or actors, novice or pro.  Age made no difference; it was a 100% predictable result.

The students with upcoming gigs did their homework, asked questions, chewed on things, sometimes panicked or argued, often experimented.  They sizzled in the pan.

The students without gigs apologized, found excuses, and missed session appointments.   And charging them for missed lessons didn’t fix it, but the performance deadline did.  Here’s a solid Duke behavioral psych study about it, and there’s good speculation that it’s because risk to our reputation is a more powerful motivator than risk to our bank book.

I tell other teachers about this “Must Have Gig” rule, and many like it, but I understand why they can’t all do it.

If you want to maintain a full schedule of ongoing students, you don’t tell them they have to take a break until they’ve got an upcoming gig.  No, you keep them paying, you don’t take it personally, and you just wait it out til they get interested again.  But I suck at baby-sitting, and I’m lucky enough to have multiple income streams, so my “I’m an effective teacher” ego wins out.  I do it because it works.

I’ve run into disagreement, mostly from reticent students. I’ve had several people decline to start sessions when I told them up front.  One came back to me with a link to something about the 10,000 hour rule – like, the person wanted to practice for 10,000 hours before performing. I sent back this link.

If you believe in the 10k hour rule, go read it.   I’ll wait.  Good.  So, now you know that the 10k rule is kinda bullshit.

However, the kernel inside it is true:  experience matters.   The “Must Have Gig” rule is about getting that experience, and with a good teacher to leverage it, progress comes fast.

I’ve also gotten this argument from a pro recording artist, which I took more seriously:  he said, “if I put out unpolished work, I’ll do damage to my reputation.”

Yes, you will.  That’s why this works.