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.


Nerves and Jitters, pt 2

See Part 1 of Performance Anxiety – Relief for Presenters and Performers
full article also available in PDF

Those first three tools from my previous post really do get the most complete and reliable results.   But for the curious, see below for more strategies to address Performance Anxiety and Stage Fright.

4.  Yoga-style Breathing Exercises and stretching.
Try 10 slow, deep breaths while stretching the back, torso, groin, chest and neck.  This and other breathing exercises can slow your heart rate, which is a good trick.   However, don’t do the slow breathing thing unless you’ve already done #3, or you risk looking sleepy, lazy or depressed.   Remember, yoga methodology is not primarily about social connection and communication, whereas performance is.

5.  Vocal warm-up.
Use the warm-ups you find most enjoyable from your relevant discipline.  Here’s a Royal Shakespeare Company warm up.  Here’s a warm up from a lovely opera singer.  BONUS:  there is one exercise that appears in almost every genre of vocal discipline – the motorboat sound, which coordinates breath output without adding tension in the neck.

6.  Movement disciplines.
Training methods like Alexander Technique, Skinner, Laban, Klein, NIA, Tai Chi, ballet, Zumba, all the various yoga forms – can all be wonderful.  However, if your favorite movement discipline isn’t thoroughly addressing your gut-curdling fear, ask yourself whether it’s aerobic or not.  See #3 above.

7.  Spa-type treatments.
Massage, sauna, hot tub, steam room, shower, heating pad, facial, etc –   who doesn’t love this stuff?  However, as with #4, be careful you don’t come out looking lackadaisical, like you just got out of bed.

8.  Memorization, part A.
The fight/flight alert system can sometimes cause us to freeze our thinking, so that we can only fall back on what has become “automatic”.   For some performers, this falling back is a welcome moment of comfort, as they get into the flow of a song, memorized prayer or familiar mission/vision soundbite.

9.  Memorization, part B.
Many performers who thought they had thoroughly memorized their material find that they lose lyrics or “go up on lines” (aka forget what to say) when they actually see the audience.   Eye contact initiates a different kind of brain activity than solo study does.   Bad coaches will say ‘then don’t look at the people.’

Eye avoidance is NOT a sustainable strategy, and will ruin your audience connectivity.

Go back to #1, and get used to it.

If your discipline doesn’t require exact memorization, don’t do it.  Instead, reduce your full speech to bullet points, memorize those and fill in the details spontaneously, for the audience you really see in front of you.  This prevents speakers from getting addicted to exact inflections, an addiction that can make a presentation sound perfunctory, like a boring pre-flight speech.

10.  Power poses.
There’s some evidence that shows holding a series of powerful Wonder Woman-type poses for two minutes or more can increase testosterone levels and feelings of confidence.   There’s also some evidence that it doesn’t, though.   Like other tactics, if it works for you, great.  It’s quick and cheap.

11.  Placebos, lucky charms, and ritual.
These are cognitive tools that work well on some people, but not on all.  Examples:
“This soup is an ancient Hawaiian recipe that cures anything.”
“I have to wear my lucky ring or I can’t perform.”
“I eat roast chicken and sweet potatoes at 5:30, without fail.”
Downside:  serious problems occur if the lucky charm is unavailable or the ritual is altered.  It’s best to avoid “must haves”.

12.  Special diets for delicate digestive symptoms.
The fight/flight response shuts down digestion in order to prioritize blood flow of stress hormones. This shutdown causes unpleasant symptoms like butterflies, gut spasms, stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea, frequent urination, flatulence, dry mouth and more.   Some people use a BRAT diet or other exclusion diet to minimize the unpleasant effects.  Others focus on timing their intake (and outflow).

13.  Special diets: comfort foods and folk medicines.
This mixes the power of #11 and #12.   Some people use special teas, lozenges, sprays, supplements, candies, or other foods that may or may not have some actual calming effects, though these are seriously strengthened by placebo and ritual-comfort effects.

14.  Beta Blockers.
These chemicals are well proven to interfere with the natural hormonal systems and reduce adrenaline production.  Expense, addictive properties, and side effects make these relatively unpopular.

15.  Alcohol, narcotics and other inebriates.
Not recommended. Results are unpredictable, methods are unsustainable, and use of these substances delays the performer’s *actual* development of skills and confidence.

16.  Hypnosis, NLP, self-talk, pep talks, prayer
These revolve around convincing the brain of something – e.g. that it is not in danger, or is not afraid, or is worthy of success.  I’ve seen these tactics work well for some people, but not so reliably that I’d put it any higher on the list.  For me, my inner caveman doesn’t put much stock in talk.
Got other strategies you truly believe in?  Post them in comments.

Nerves and Jitters

Performance Anxiety – Relief for Presenters and Performers
full article also available in PDF

I hate rhyming mnemonics, and if this one weren’t so sticky and helpful, I’d drop it.

Bless it.
Assess it.
Address it.

Bless it.  

We only call it anxiety when it’s not fun. Until then, it’s excitement, energy, focus, present-moment awareness, passion, commitment. But if the adrenaline and cortisol levels go higher than our personal level of tolerance – boom, now it’s Performance Anxiety.

Whatever you call it, this is your ancient sympathetic nervous system, your inner caveman, preparing for fight, flight, or freeze.

‘Bless it’ means don’t fear the fear; manage it, like the fuel in a rocket.

You need it, and it’s valuable.   

Assess it.

Trust your inner caveman.  For more than a million years, it’s been identifying dangers like death by tiger, and death by exclusion from the cave.  If it says there are dangers here, then there are, and you – modern pre-frontal cortex user – you need to assess them clearly.

Is it your job on the line, or even your whole department?  Is your family’s mortgage payment at stake?   Is the product you’re pitching going to save someone’s life?  Is this audition or open mic going to lead to being discovered by a hot producer?

Or are these illusions?

Even more importantly:  who exactly IS this audience, what do they know about you already, and what is it they need from you now?   ‘Assess it’ means identifying any illusions that stop a performer or presenter from being present and truly connecting to THIS audience, right now.

‘Assess it’ means being here IRL – in real life.

Address it.

This is where it all happens.   You’ve got plenty of tools in your toolbox to choose from, and you needn’t be shy about trying them.

My TOP Recommendations are:

1.   Live performance repetition.
Stand-up comics know that it’s all about Stage Time.  Our fight/flight systems overreact to the unfamiliar, BUT after we’ve done it 5 times, for 5 different audiences, the repetition blunts the teeth of our anxiety beast.  If need be, create ad hoc performances for your friends, family, or other co-workers, join Toastmasters, attend open mics, whatever you need to do to get into performance situations that make you anxious.

2.    Practice and preparation.
Audiences are expert at assessing expertise. If you truly know your song or your subject, the audience sees it in your eye tracking, vocal flow, body symmetry and coordination, as well as of course your actual content or performance.  But, while preparation is important, it’s not quite as important as #1 for overall impact on anxiety levels.   See also #8 and #9 below for discussion of memorization.

3.  Physical Aerobic Warm-up.
The inner caveman is preparing to do major exertion, so give it some exertion, and help yourself get back into a synchronized mind-body union.  Several push-ups, jumping jacks, a little jogging, anything that gets you mildly out of breath will do.  Be sure to leave enough time before your entrance to drink a bit of water and normalize your breathing.

Your coordination, alignment, balance and flexibility all increase, as well as your audience’s perception of your social status and well-being.  An aerobic warm up also eases circulatory symptoms like cold hands, trembling, sweating, chills/goosebumps, lightheadedness and heart-racing.


These first three tools get the most complete and reliable results.   But for the curious and the completists, see the next blog post for more strategies to address Performance Anxiety and Stage Fright.