If you are speaking to a large audience, a small room full of people, or conducting a personal presentation, nothing is as effective and engaging as living in the moment. This is a lesson taken from the stage to the boardroom by Pat Dolan, Fine Arts Chair of St. John’s.
As the Fine Arts Chair of St. John’s, it is Pat Dolan’s responsibility to prepare young men and women for the stage. As a teacher and mentor, his lessons are invaluable for life beyond the stage. He requires rehearsals with dedication and commitment. In the process of teaching communication skills he imparts confidence. In the process of challenging students to design the stage he unveils hidden creative talents. In the process of teaching his pupils how to act, he teaches them how to be.
After individuals and understudies are selected to play roles, each person begins the arduous task of learning the script by rote. The lines are rehearsed with constant repetition until the very words become memorized as a reflexive response to auditory stimulus, speaking without thinking. By the time that the actors achieve this level of emotionless repetition, Mr. Dolan begins to work his real magic.
As a first step, the cast was instructed to lay down on the floor motionless. With eyes closed, each member of the cast was instructed to tell the other members of the cast about one new sound that they could hear in the silence. At first this seemed absurd. However, once everyone was quiet, someone noticed the faint sound of cars outside. After a few moments, as the other most obvious sounds were identified, members focused with intent concentration on the most sublime sounds. Someone identified the sound of the wind on the windows, and another person quickly noted the sound of footsteps and laughter in the distance. As we became intensely aware of our surroundings, we started to notice the sound of each other breathing and the faint shuffle of someone moving. With all other stimulus removed, we noticed the pulse of our own heartbeats. It is amazing to realize how much we overlook and choose to tune out when we are focused on specific thoughts. How many clues and input do we miss from the world around us when we are concentrating on what we are about to say?
As the second step, the cast was instructed to sit on the stage in darkness. Completely motionless and with eyes closed, the entire play would be spoken aloud in the empty hall. Each of the players listened intently to the rise and fall of the other voices as they echoed in the otherwise empty chamber. The fluctuations, tones and subtle nuances of the voices became heightened once all other senses were stilled. How much did we learn about the inflection of our own voices and the ability to convey emotion in the sound of the spoken words?
As the third step, Mr. Dolan instructed us to act out the entire play in our own words. The simple rule was to complete the entire drama from beginning to end without using any of the scripted language. This sounds simple right? It is not. Imagine knowing what needs to be said and knowing that you can not use the very words that have been memorized. It was necessary to express the feeling, intent and purpose of the words without using the predetermined words to create actions and response. The feeling and intent had to be our own, the purpose was prescribed even though the words were forbidden. How much of what we say or hear in meeting or presentations is scripted or prepared in advance? How well can we convey our feeling and intent by adjusting our language to the listener, rather than our own prepared script?
During one production on the stage, we had an opportunity to apply this training in action. The play was based on the legendary Sherlock Holmes, and in one critical scene the great Doctor Watson was to be threatened at gunpoint by the leading lady. Unfortunately, upon walking on stage, in front of friends, family and strangers, the leading lady encountered a severe case of stage fright. As Dr. Watson delivered his lines with perfection, the leading lady froze, motionless and staring at the sea of eyes. Undaunted, Dr. Watson repeated his lines, and then tried to break the spell. He waved one hand in front of her eyes, but she remained as a statue. This moment would surely put the training by Pat Dolan to the test.
The great Doctor Watson began the most amazing one man show off Broadway. He adapted his soliloquy to incorporate both ends of the conversation. He uttered questions aloud and crafted a story that was as mesmerizing as it was spontaneous. As the story expanded, he wrapped the plot around a game of charades, pretending that the leading lady was a famous statue from ancient Greece. From time to time, Dr. Watson would guess at the name of goddess, giving the leading lady a chance to rejoin the activity. He juggled props on the stage and gracefully twirled his bowler hat from the top of his head to the tip of his fingers. He enthralled the audience with his stories, guesswork and animated activities.
As the good Doctor Watson was in mid-stride across the stage, the leading lady suddenly came to life and blurted out her scripted line. Needless to say, it had absolutely no connection whatsoever to the soliloquy that Dr. Watson had created. The audience responded with a stunned silence. Pausing for a mere breath, Dr. Watson shouted with excitement, “Ah ha, Galatea! The statue comes to life! And I, fair lady, shall be your Pygmalion. You win the charade fairly and squarely, and now on to matters at hand.”
The audience erupted in laughter and applause, and then the play continued as if never interrupted. The transition between the statuesque stage fright and back into the scripted activity was so entertaining that it was transparent. Even the director, Mr. Dolan, did not recognize that the play had taken an unexpected detour. The audience, cast and crew were so engaged in the dialogue that everyone thought it was part of the play.
In the Boardroom
Fast forward several years to boardrooms, stage and customer presentations. How many times have these thespians drawn on the lessons learned from Pat Dolan? No matter how well scripted or rehearsed, there is nothing more engaging than performing and living in the moment. Adapt your style of communication to the audience and to the moment. Incorporate meaningful dialogue based on the surroundings, the people and interactive communication.
The old adage is to ‘open with a joke’. The underlying purpose to this approach is to make a connection with the audience. Regardless of the size of the audience, the purpose is to recognize and engage your audience with some commonality and shared sense of being. Your audience may be as small as one person, in which case it is much easier to get to know the person and adjust your script to be a conversation. If your audience contains tens of people or hundreds, then it is a more challenging task to quickly identify a shared sense of purpose, mutual interest and method of communication, but it can be done.
Do not fear eye contact, interaction or individual connection when you are presenting. This is the goal, not to be avoided. It is as important to express the feeling and the intention as the purpose. It is as important to be interested as it is to be interesting. It is in recognizing response that you confirm connection, being aware of your surroundings and of your audience.
Another old adage is to imagine your audience in underwear. This is intended to mitigate fear by removing the intimidation and reducing the humanity of the audience. On the contrary, it is the humanity that you should be trying to reach with conscientious consideration. Do not fear your audience, but speak to them respectfully as if each person is a recently rediscovered acquaintance and long lost friend. Imagine yourself shaking hands with each individual as you speak to them and look them in the eyes. Welcome the audience into your presentation and make them an active participant, even if they remain in their seats. Be authentic with your audience, adapt your script to accommodate their style of communication, and live in the moment.
Words of Wisdom
“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…” – William Shakespeare
“I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did’.” – Kurt Vonnegut
“Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood.” – William Penn
John Mehrmann is a freelance author, industry expert and President of Executive Blueprints Inc, an organization dedicated to developing human capital and personal growth.