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. 





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.

Master of Auditions

[This is one of several posts about the Theatre Puget Sound unified general auditions, which presented ~400 actors to ~40 auditors, agents, and directors over 4 solid-packed days.]

Last week was the first time I’d sat through the TPS Unified General Auditions.

On Day1, I sat up close.   I couldn’t see the 40 or so other auditors behind me, but I could hear them.  When an actor would finish, sometimes there was a chorus of appreciative “Thank You!” or maybe just a few thank you’s, or sometimes, very little response at all.

Except one voice, which said the same warm, professional “Thank You” after every performer, without fail.

To the brilliant guy who just moved from Chicago, the voice said “Thank You.”

To the novice in the tiny dress and too-tall shoes, the voice said “Thank You.”

To the guy who was two beats ahead of the pianist, the voice said “Thank You.”

To the many people doing terrible Southern accents, and the people who lost their lines, or tried to walk out the wrong door, or became hypnotized staring into the spotlight, the voice waited patiently, and then said “Thank you.”

I didn’t know whose voice it was, but I deeply appreciated its capacity.  The Universal Thank You symbolizes my core feeling for all artists:  underneath all the variations in style, skill, look or experience, there is still an inherent honor in auditioning.

Even the worst audition is an offering to some obscure sort of god, so we show some respect.


On Day2, I changed seats, hoping for a better view of the performers’ eye focus.  Soon I realized my new seat had landed me next to the mystery “Thank You” voice.  She seemed a friendly, open and very normal person.

But over the next few days, I decided she’s not normal, she’s a Zen master.

She’s the long-time casting director for one of the most important theaters in the region, having held her position through 6 different Artistic Directors.  I felt stupid for not knowing who she was.  She knew who I was, though, from work I’d done — get this — 17+ years ago:  “I recognized that jawline,” she said.  Good lord, that’s a brain for remembering people.

I asked about which of the 6 Artistic Directors she enjoyed most.  I knew full well that some of them had rough reputations.   She was gracious about all of them.

Wait, to be in theater and not be tempted to gossip?

A fellow behind us complained about this or that auditioner, in the casually feline way some theater folks do; she neither agreed nor rewarded the commentary with attention.

The fellow in front of us slyly mocked what he saw as low-stakes delivery from the actors; she smiled at him, but added nothing.

One session block was particularly difficult, with very few skilled performers and very little interesting material.  My eyes were drooping, but hers never did.  I asked her if this was normal, this quality-lull.  She said “In every set of generals, there are days where you just see more people who haven’t yet developed their technique.”

…Haven’t yet developed their technique.

Holy shit, how light a touch is that?  How many times have I used a hammer like “that guy can’t act his way out of a paper bag”  or “she stank up the place” or just rolled my eyes and quipped “Oh, honey, no”.    Maybe not recently, because I’ve mellowed over the years, and never in FRONT of the performers,  but third person/different room?

Sure, I’ve said that stuff, I’ve done that.

She doesn’t do that.  She’s a pro.

She’s not trying to prove something, or win something, or demonstrate social dominance.  Instead, she’s doing her job, as effectively and pleasantly as possible, integrating what I think are crucial elements of professionalism and mastery for so many fields:

A head for remembering people
A discipline of attentiveness
Discretion about colleagues
The flexibility to work for different people successfully
And most importantly to me:
                              A habit of respect for the people taking the risks.

So, to the Zen master casting director I got to sit next to:

Thank You.


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.


Upspeak and Vocal Fry

I’m 48, old enough to have seen plenty of my firmest coaching beliefs morph like a CGI dream sequence.   One of those firm beliefs was that upspeak, vocal fry, and vocal fillers make people sound stupid.

Upspeak (aka uptalk or “high-rising terminal”) is when a person ends a statement as though it were a question.  Vocal fry is when the voice falls into the lowest vocal register – some call it creaky voice.  Vocal fillers are insertions such as “um” or “like”.  Here’s one guy’s explanation.

Thanks, cranky white dude!   I come from the exact same school of coaching.  The old school … in fact, the now outdated school.

For anyone who is still cultivating a moral outrage against upspeak, vocal fry, and linguistic fillers:  I’m truly sympathetic.  It was delicious fun to have a thing I was so right about, and I could point to it everywhere.

That really should have been the clue.

Once a linguistic tic is an “epidemic” and everyone is doing it (or as in this case, most people under the age of 35), it’s no longer just an annoying aberration, it’s a real linguistic shift and I need to account for it.

Check out this Bloomberg article, showing how upspeak is not at all about stupid women.   And now try this NPR story about the potential intersections with feminist issues.  And this one from Dictionary.com points out fascinating facts about vocal fry, its history and gender distribution.  And wonder of wonders, there’s even evidence showing that vocal fillers (um, uh, and like) are potentially valuable, in that they are natural parts of spontaneous communication, distinguishing it from rehearsed or written pieces.

Truthfully, I do still notice those verbal tics, and sometimes they bug me.

Shall I waste time whining and calling out my personal pet peeves as the “degradation of the English language”?   Maybe I’ll lump them in with all the other things I find threatening about Millennials, like their music and their tech devices and their horrible… youngness.  I could do that much more easily when they had no money to buy my products, and I didn’t need them as employees, contractors or audience members.

Not now.  Now I kinda, like…  LIKE them.

This is not to say I as the 48 year old white lady should attempt to pepper my speech with the latest urban dictionary entries , though it’s huge fun to read them.   Authenticity still matters.  People know when you’re faking your code language.*

The core question that we’re circling is “How Do We Communicate Authority”?  And of course, the exact answers vary depending on context. A county courtroom is different from a PopCap product launch, which is nothing like a TED talk.

Underneath any generational or industrial variation, and underneath any vocal pet peeve issues, I find the same foundations that have always existed:

  1. Actually know your stuff.
  2. Understand who you’re talking to.   
  3. Give them your stuff.   

These three pillars will hold up long after LOL-speak has gone the way of 60’s surfer slang and 20’s hepcat lingo.



*Fo shizzle.