Thanks to MassMouth for the opportunity to do some storytelling at “Stories from the Stage” in the WGBH studios. It was a great experience!
I’m still a newbie to publishing, though read on many/many/many stages for over 20 years; so, I have to say- something about putting it all down for real is weird but hey. That’s what they say you do.
Here are 3 of my poems- thankful to this publication, Scarlet Leaf Review.
I really like a lot of these writers- they mostly seem like real folk like myself.
randomly- B & W selfie; cowgirl painting by Reino Gustav Carlson; MassMouth semifinals storytelling slam event; reading at Out of the Blue gallery in Cambridge, MA; performing Forked Road at Inter-Actions for Fort Point Theater Channel group collaboration in a parking garage; and identifications
To start, I am not an expert on public speaking in the realm of TED Talks for instance. I’m just a regular person who happens to get on stage sometimes. At first, I was doing poetry slams wayyyy back in the way back (early 90s) at the Green Mill in Chicago, which is credited for starting the slam movement. I was there in the early days, and learned a lot, maybe because the audience was tough and might hiss at a bad poem. That’s what this is about: how not to freak out in front of an audience.
Lots of friends and colleagues have expressed to me over the years just how much they hate public speaking. I get the feeling that many folks are beyond dismayed at the thought of getting up in front of an audience- not even having to do it, but the THOUGHT. Friends come to me for advice as I’ve done this sort of thing. Over the years, I’ve done slams, theater, poetry readings, companywide meetings, presentations for work, and other areas of public speaking.
The picture for this blog [taken by Dan Dahari] is from last week, when I did storytelling in front of a live studio audience for a recording with the Boston station WGBH, “Stories from the Stage” collaboration with MassMouth. That’s what made me think to share what I’ve learned over the years, because yes, I nearly freaked out on that stage.
Here’s what keeps that from happening for me, which might help you to not only hold it together, but to actually do really well:
- Practice, practice, practice. You can use index cards, voice memos on your phone, video recordings, and other people. Get the material into your head, so when nerves kick in, you are solidly locked down on your message. When your nerves want to drop course, the rehearsals keep you from losing your mind.
- Scan the room and look at people. You will want to look down, up, or vaguely into space, but a good connection helps. Don’t freak out about these people. Pretend they are friends and want to like you.
- Beforehand, like an hour or two before, drink water (or hot tea if your voice is dry), and do vocal exercises like saying “yellow leather/red leather” over and over, so that you don’t mumble or sound pasty into the microphone.
- Breathe from your diaphragm and project to the back of the room. Your voice can get nervous and strained, which you can hear when recording yourself on voice memos, so be sure to breathe and pull from your center, not your tight, nervous throat. Stand tall and open up your chest.
- When alone and doing your rehearsals, put on a song and dance in an exaggerated manner. You will probably feel ridiculous, but what you’re doing here is loosening up your nervous, tight body. When you get in front of the microphone, this body memory helps you from becoming a stiff rock statue.
- Take your time. But don’t take up too much time. Speak so that people can understand you, but don’t spend too long on any one point, because to be honest, it’s a short-attention span kind of world. I try to keep my work fresh and to the point. Have some meaning in there, not just words. Connect to your material.
- Alternate your voice. Don’t drone. Go up and down, emphasize certain points, be yourself as if talking to a trusted friend, be enthusiastic. If you are boring yourself in the middle of your own story, then switch it up quickly, and think of something to bring people in closer to you. Let your guard down and relax. Remember: people are on your side. If they aren’t, who cares- the negativos are not your focus.
- If you start to freak out, just be cool. Keep your head together. If you get to sweating, blanking out, screwing up, or bombing out, just be cool and say to yourself, “You’ve got this”, “it’s good”, “I’m okay” ,”carry on”. What helps me is to focus on the material, representing it the best I can. It’s my job to deliver my communications, and that’s what I’m about. I can only please the audience by doing my best, so I keep that objective first.
- Wear something you honestly feel good and comfortable in, so that you aren’t distracted by yourself. Stay away from shirts you have to tug down, a button that pops open, zippers that don’t stay up, or anything that makes you feel dumpy and unconfident. Spend time picking out this outfit, and then forget about it, don’t fidget. Same with shoes, hair, the overall appearance.
- Speak into the microphone. Don’t waver around, or push your mouth into the mic like you’re going to beatbox.
- The more you speak in front of audiences, the better you get at it, but nothing is ever guaranteed. You can always bomb, and let’s be truthful here: the audience wasn’t stupid. The main point is to learn from your mistakes, and if the audience didn’t get it, then take it on the chin. It’s your responsibility to connect, and if you didn’t, then be humble and learn. Live audiences are excellent workshops, but not a reason to freak out. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Ultimately, the best way you can avoid freaking out in front of an audience is to work on your strong mind. If you are particularly nervous, then affirmations on index cards will help you to dig deep into your background mind and noise. Personal improvement in venues like courses, books, workshops, and rehearsals is a valuable way to get better at public speaking, all activities that I have done.
At the moment when I nearly freaked out in this photo, to the point where I almost blanked out in stage fright, I quickly thought to myself: “Don’t take it in. You know this story. This is yours.” And I was back on track. When coming off stage, being done, and knowing that it went well- this is the best feeling of all. Practice, practice, practice!
Back in the olden days (the early 90s- eek!), I got into reading poetry at open mics, starting at Cafe Kismet in Waukegan, IL and the Green Mill in Chicago.
Since then, I’ve read in many venues around Boston, Chicago, NYC, and in Leeds, England (where I lived for a year during college). Meanwhile, I noticed a lot of the pieces were narrative and character-based, a bit different than the Slam Poetry scene, so I cobbled them together.
Having studied experimental theater at Leeds Uni with major love for Caryl Churchill, I decided to fashion this work into a play called “Forked Road”. This was further influenced by acting in a wee part of Caryl Churchill’s play, The Skriker (our review c. 1999 ) which was a deep education of memorizing her words & hearing others perform them over and over.
Now I have a chance to perform some of this play at a Fort Point Theater Channel project here in Boston come July. I’m tremendously excited and grateful for this opportunity.
Exclamation Point! 14: INTER-ACTIONS: Performance Art x Art That Performs, a merger of installation art and performance art. July 14-19, 2015
The concept is loosely based on Edgar Lee Master’s work, “Spoon River Anthology” with a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream, surrealist poetry, Samuel Beckett, and Caryl Churchill’s feminist theater work done in 1970s London.
When you snap pics, you don’t know what yr going to get. I took a million of this guy on stilts in a giant flowing bird costume at a marketing event w/ a carnival theme, but it was tough bec. he was so flowing & so movable, and I had just the iPhone on hand & the Instagram filled in the rest. To be critical, yes I wish it was sharper- that is the downside of iPhones.
But I liked in the end how it captured this creepy feeling about the scene when put to art & imagination, like the seedy side of vaudeville, the grotesque desperation of characters in the book/film “Night of the Locust”, or the Tom Waits telling of sideshows & creepshows.
In the end, this is what came out & it wasn’t- just like writing/art- *exactly* how my mind set out to represent reality w/ art, but it told a story that could likely be edited to an even BETTER story.
How much do you need people/ audience/ readers/ viewers exactly lined up in your vision & how much of it isn’t up to you?