I’m being interviewed tomorrow and my topic will be presence. More specifically, if it can be learned or taught. These are my thoughts on the matter, put forth in a sort of interview-y preparatory style, still a little raw. Forgive me if I rattle on or sound pedantic. I’m still working it out.
What does it mean to be present? It means being aware of and responsive to what is actually going on right now, in the present.
How do I become aware of what is actually going on? You practice. Most of us have developed habits that lead to not being present. We have to become aware of those habits and work to release them. For instance, many of us don’t practice good listening. We may engage in a conversation with the intention of listening, but when our partner says something that we either disagree with or want to respond to, we stop listening and start rehearsing our response. We have then lost our presence in the conversation. And whether or not your partner is consciously aware of it, they know it, and the communication breakdown has already begun.
What other kinds of practice lead to awareness and the ability to be present? Be aware of your body – literally. Be aware of your breath. Your breath is your point of focus.
What are some ways to become aware of your breath? (examples) What are your feet doing? What do you feel with your head, your hands? What sensations do you have – this includes all five senses. What do you hear, see, feel, and, to a lesser degree, smell and taste?
How being focused and aware helps us to notice micro-expressions. (examples) In the study of body language, we learn to pay attention to micro-expressions. Often those of us who have trained to notice these small behaviors are credited with amazing intuition. “How did you know that?” is a common response from the person whose behavior has been witnessed and identified. The fact is that it’s not hard to notice things – if you pay attention, you notice.
Second-guessing – how it keeps us from being present
We have allowed our conscious mind to gain ascendance, and we question what we define as our “intuition” and, having questioned it, we often dismiss it. But it was not some spooky sixth sense that we were using. We were adding up impressions that we gained by being aware. And all those impressions add up to knowledge. Sometimes we don’t know how we know things. It happens when you see a lot of things without paying attention. Your body stores the informationIf you are present you will have use of the information. People have great instincts. Aware people can act on them. The leader with presence is aware of her impulses, which have been generated by her presence in the moment, and she acts on those impulses.
Why do most people fear taking charge of the stage?
Many of us are reluctant to “take charge” because we fear being wrong, or we fear that we’ll impose ourselves on others. But that fear comes from a not knowing. If you KNOW what is going on with your conversational partner, you will not violate them. And if we pay attention, we will know what is going on. Everyone is giving cues, all the time. All we have to do is notice them. (examples) Some people think of Presence as a kind of charisma, the power we use when speaking to an audience. That power comes as a result of multiple learnable skills.
- Getting the feel of the room – as a professional comic, I learned to sit in the back of the club and watch and listen to the audience. Even before the show begins, you can make some informed judgments about your audience. Are they quiet, fidgety, loud, sedate? What happened just before this meeting? What is the topic? Many factors influence the feel of the room, and the receptivity of your audience.
- When I first became a headliner, I interviewed my friend Rob Bartlett, who’d been headlining for years, about how he managed the fine art of closing a show. It’s a far different situation to be the third act, and to speak for 45 minutes, than it is to be the opening act, whose job is to “warm up” the crowd, and to introduce the other acts. Emceeing is not easy, but at least it’s over quickly. Maintaining the audience’s attention for nearly an hour is a feat. I said, “I’ve noticed you enter the stage to music. What is your feeling about that?” He said, “It’s a dirty trick. Use it.” Whether or not it’s dirty, it is a trick. And knowing that it works is part of your job as a speaker. We use technique, on purpose, when we address an audience. Some are in the form of bells and whistles – musical fanfare, visual aids, or audience participation. Some is performance technique – such as the ability to moderate your voice, to use movement or stillness effectively, to craft your presentation so that it has the same kind of phrasing that a symphony has. Perhaps you want a flashy opening, followed by a moment of sharing a confidence, followed by a moment of humor. All of this is craft. And a good speaker has practiced her craft until it’s second nature.
- Managing your own attention is important to a speaker. And this issue of managing attention comes back to the first topic – presence. If you are not present to yourself, you won’t be able to manage your own attention. If someone starts texting or dozes off in the front row, what do you do? It’s wise to have some basic methods in your tool belt to deal with this – but even more importantly, you must know yourself, and be able to distinguish the difference between a reaction and a response. If you are thrown off by the behaviors of your audience, your presence disappears. You have exited the room and are now stuck inside your head, most likely indulging in that most useless exercise, the SHOULDS. He should not be texting. She should wake up. Rather than protest against what is, find a way to handle it. Either ignore the distraction or address it – but waste no time wishing it were not so. Presence is about being present – and what should or could be has nothing to do with it.
- Releasing your energy. A sense of ease and joy is essential to having presence. You cannot hold back your energy and be effective. What aspects of character, what practices, are required to have a full release of energy? One is trust – we must know ourselves well enough to trust ourselves. Which means we have engaged in enough practice to know our instrument. For a speaker, that instrument is your voice and your body, and your brain. Discipline is important. Preparation is the key. How can you speak engagingly if you are not sure of your topic? How can you guide someone if you don’t know the way? How can you have a good time if you are worried? Know what you want to say, practice saying it, and find a way to express yourself that is joyful and exuberant. Be aware of your impulses. Do you have an urge to do something? Then do it. Be willing to make a mistake. The time for questioning yourself is before the seminar, or after you go home.
- Adjust for trim. In nautical terms, this means to make adjustments for changes. If you have enough hours at the helm, you’ll know how to adjust when things shift. That is a key aspect of presence – the ability to make adjustments on the fly. Everyone notices and applauds the speaker who acknowledges the truth of what’s going on. Be truthful to the situation, manage it as best you can, and you’ll get credit for it.