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.    



Have you seen presenters and performers with these?   It’s not their fault.  They tried hard, and studied what coaches most often say about gesture.

They learned they absolutely MUST use hand and arm gestures. They learned they should stay inside the shoulder-to-waist box. They made sure they didn’t point. They made notes in their text about where to gesture. They learned their palms should be face up. They avoided mime, too much repetition, pumping, pocketing, crossing, hip-holding, behind-the-backing, and a ton of other no-no’s.  They learned plenty.

And yet they still look like a clock-work Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents.

They have Puppethands.


Like the marionettes from Thunderbirds Are Go, like C3PO, like Barbie. Puppethands attract attention because they fail to move in natural coordination with head/neck movement, their articulation is stiff, and their dynamics don’t really make perfect sense with the timing and emotion of the voice.

Anyone can get them.  Not just puppets.

So do these unlucky performers need to learn even more precise rules?  Should they practice more to make it look realistic?

Nerp.  “Looking realistic” just aint enough.  The human brain currently assesses movement with a higher level of sophistication than we can describe it.  So no matter how many rules you follow, movement tells the truth.

Check out these clips of video games and androids. These are so freakin’ cool. And the stillshots look amazing, right?   It’s the movement that tells us that what we’re looking at is a fake. Lifelike, yes. But we can do better than “lifelike”.

Beyond the movement issue, we recognize fakey gestures because outside-in coaching just doesn’t work as well as inside out.

That means stop trying to “seem” more this, or “look” more that, or “come across as” something.  It’s pointless.

But I seem nervous!

–    Because you are.

But I don’t want to seem nervous!

–    Why not?

… and here’s the fork in the road.  Either the answer is “because it will make me look stupid,” or the answer is “because this message needs to get to this audience.”

Which road do you want to travel down?

The coaching that goes down the Not Looking Stupid road focuses on externals about the speaker. And since they don’t really work, the road eventually dead ends.

The road called Audience Gets Message is more a verb than a noun. It’s movement, and it requires us to focus more on the message and the audience than on ourselves. The Audience Gets Message road leads forward to the goal and well beyond it in all directions.  It allows for innovation, rule-breaking, weirdness, and non-standard but effective new kinds of communication.

But if I look stupid, they won’t hear my message!

–  Are you sure about that?

Usually, when we are outside-in oriented, we don’t actually pay attention to the audience, not really.  So, ask who IS this audience, and what do they think is stupid?   Tell me about their specific context, their needs, challenges, strengths, and expectations.

But how do you fix puppethands?

Start by not treating yourself like a marionette with a superego hanging out above your body.  Instead, get right down inside your body.  And now take a look at this audience, right now.


I know, it’s MUCH more frightening.

More on that in posts to come.

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.      

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.

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.