Picture this: a lively audience of 500 hooting and hollering. A group of twelve competitively selected speakers, all with a lot of gumption and varying degrees of speaking experience. The challenge: to present an idea, message or story in five minutes, make it entertaining and keep it short. 5 minutes. 20 timed slides. Then you’re out.
Last week, I had my five minutes of performing fame: How I Dumped Denial: 60 is NOT the new 40. I had a blast!!!
Always on the lookout for what makes a performance or event great, I made some observations about why the Ignite model works so well and offer them to you along with one secret key.
Why it works
Ignite Seattle is run by a staff of volunteers, who work together as an energized, well-organized team. Special bonus: they appear to like each other!
After hosting 36 events, the team has their procedures down–although at Ignite Seattle #36 they weren’t afraid to innovate or stir things up a bit. This Ignite included a make-your-own art section of the lobby as well as a play-with-a-costume photo booth.
The staff took care of us speakers, helping us to relax and prepare. Whereas some event organizers might say, “You’re selected/good luck,” Ignite offered us two advance opportunities for workshopping/practicing our talks–along with FREE DINNER and wine! Free food and great coaching is a winning combo! We were on an accelerated timeline to prepare our talks, and at the rehearsals, I watched as topics transformed, including my own. I can’t tell you how useful it is to try out material on a real audience rather than that not-always-agreeable face in the mirror.
The organizers take care of their audiences as well. They know their typical audience demographics and interests, and they take time to welcome everybody and then set up expectations. Ignite is not the MOTH (that quasi-professional story-event out of New York City, where people ultra fine-tune their talks). Nah, we were regular folks with something to share, and our Master of Ceremonies invited the audience to really support us.
They did that in spades. I’ve never experienced a more positive audience. I ended my talk with a little audience participation exercise; they complied with gusto–without missing a beat!
Now for the Secret Ingredient: Make it fun!
The audience was primed for fun–you felt it in the air. They entered the theatre after socializing and making art, and their mood was upbeat. The organizers were playful as well. They handed out a little box of dates to everyone so we could all break a Ramadan fast with one of the speakers; we closed with a bit of improvisational comedy.
One of the secrets to having fun as a speaker is to practice a lot. I did. Not just endlessly repeating a script, but walking my talk, miming my talk, finding ways to mix it up until the essence of what I wanted to say settled into my bones.
I can focus more on fun when I don’t have to worry about my words.
In the theatre, I had one job: to enjoy the audience. I knew if I had fun, the audience would have fun. That worked!
I coach presenters, and I’m going to underscore this secret: whether your topic is serious or light–if you are enjoying yourself, that spirit will radiate and help people connect with you.
And when audience members are having fun, they just might remember what you said.
Do you have a big project waiting in the wings that you can’t get started?
Maybe it’s de-cluttering part of your house, writing a proposal, redesigning your website, or fixing that piece of equipment that’s been out of commission for two years.
But when you contemplate starting, all you can say is “Ugh!”
Remember that proverb, “Don’t let the camel stick his nose under the tent.” The idea is that once the camel gets his nose in, he’s going to keep coming in.
Although this is usually spoken about as something NOT to do, it might be a GREAT idea if you want a camel in your tent.
Using similar logic, perhaps we can stick our noses into our big project a bit at a time until we find our groove with it.
Big projects can be daunting.
Sometimes our brains resist “big.” We may need to trick them to get started.
In an interview in CU Boulder Today Colorado University professor of psychology and neuroscience Randall O’Reilly, was quoted as saying:
“The brain is wired to be very cautious and conservative in starting big projects, because once you do start, it takes over your brain.
The brain, researchers think, is wired to track progress towards whatever it is you’ve decided to do, like spring cleaning, which is hard work. You have to make a lot of difficult decisions and the outcome is uncertain.
Your brain recognizes that and says, ‘Maybe I won’t start on that project after all.’
It’s an adaptive property of the brain.”
In other words, your brain smells something BIG and, as a result, puts up a natural defense.
Which is probably why I have found it so hard to get started weeding my mammoth garden.
There’s an alternative: Start small.
Recently, I’ve been contemplating the art of taking very small steps. I invent ways to use the breaks and cracks in my schedule, rather than waiting for the perfect moment when I have time to tackle a project that I’ve tried to ignore.
I tell myself, “you can do this,” and take a bite of work – for maybe ten or twenty minutes. Once I’ve faced the project and begun to chew on it, I’ll probably discover it isn’t as distasteful as I thought.
Think small bites.
At the Pacific Northwest’s famous Bite of Seattle, local restaurants lure you with petite servings you can purchase from their food trucks. They hope that a taste will entice you to try their fuller fare.
In starting your project, ask yourself what you can do to gather momentum so that your brain can relax its defenses, you can earn a little dopamine (feel-good) booster for having achieved something, and you end up wanting to do more.
In my garden, I gave myself the assignment to “Go outside and weed for ten or twenty minutes, max.”
In that time, I could only do one thing, so I chose to weed the front walkway. I stayed focused on the weeds that had grown between the bricks, rather than on the jillion other tasks awaiting me in the garden.
It was very satisfying.
I neither exhausted my body nor overwhelmed my spirit.
I’ve become curious about what can be done (or at least started) in the small chinks in my schedule.
I can begin a writing project by composing a few paragraphs, even if I trash them later. With the proposal waiting for me, I can open the document and read the requirements (done in ten minutes!). With de-cluttering my bedroom, I can start with one drawer. (Yes, I know that some organizers like Marie Kondo want you to tackle a whole area of your house at once…but that can come later.)
I’ve begun to make a cool list of things I can do in ten minutes as I lure myself from avoidance into action.
Now to go find that wandering camel and invite him to put his moist and furry nose under the corner of my tent.
I woke up this morning thinking about what to write and…and my brain was empty.
What do you say when your brain has gone blank?
This is what introverts face all the time (self-included)…when we have to say to people that we don’t have anything to say (or talk about not wanting to talk.)
This is also an issue when my husband comes home and wants to greet me and I’m in the middle of writing a sentence that will fly away forever if I even murmur a word…and he say’s “Hi, Honey…”
(We’ve developed a code.)
To help us introverts and others, I’m designing a line of T-shirts you can wear to avoid this problem. (You can send me your order…we don’t even need to talk.)
Do you have any suggestions for the line? You can post them below…quietly.
Patience Is NOT my middle name.
As I age and am aware of the years passing, I still want to do so much, and my tendency is to hurry up. But this week, I was wondering if the path to more creativity later in life might actually require learning to wait.
Many have written, over time, of the virtues of patience:
The poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote in his famous Letters to a Young Poet, “I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart.”
The writer Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
Even Elon Musk, the fast-moving founder of Tesla said, “Patience is a virtue, and I’m learning patience. It’s a tough lesson.” (I understand that!)
This week I interviewed the founder of the blog site “Later Bloomer,” Debra Eve, for my about-to-be-relaunched Vital Presence podcast. Debra shares stories of people, throughout history, who have blossomed creatively at midlife or beyond.
She inspires with accounts of artists, explorers, and writers such as:
The beloved folk artist Grandma Moses, who became the poster girl for launching a creative career late in life, when she started painting at age 78.
The poet Wallace Stevens, who was particularly prolific late in life, even though he never quit his day job in an insurance company. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry at age 75, just months before he died.
The artist Mary Granville Delany (1700-1788) who began her life’s work in her seventies, creating botanical prints now held by the British Museum. She is also said to be the founder of the art of collage.
The lexicographer Dr. Peter Mark Roget who embarked on his most important work after retiring from medicine in 1849. The world knows him for the Thesaurus that he published at age 74
The adventurer Alexandra David-Néel, who became the first Western woman to visit Tibet’s forbidden city of Lhasa when, at 56, she slipped into the city disguised as a sooty-faced male servant.
Check out the Later Bloomer website for many more fascinating examples.
Advice for later bloomers
When I asked Debra what advice she would give someone like her who is embarking on a creative venture in midlife, she offered this:
“Be gentle with yourself. Have patience.”
I knew Debra had been working on a book of her stories, but when I asked her about it, she told me that she was choosing to slow down the project. She’s not ready to quit her job as a legal assistant, and she’s OK letting the book project wait for a while longer, perhaps until she retires from a demanding, yet rewarding, job.
If a younger coach was working with her, he or she might try to pep Debra up with phrases like: “Take a risk.” “Don’t wait.” “Just do it.” “Quit your day job,” etc.
They may have not yet learned that patience is part of later-bloomer wisdom.
Transformation in a week or a weekend
During my 30’s and 40’s, I attended a lot of transformational workshops that championed thinking big, pushing the edges of possibility, transforming participants (in a week or weekend) and moving projects forward with urgency. Often “breakthroughs” came as you felt yourself being pummeled by a transformational two-by-four.
Today, I don’t need to go to a workshop to be pummeled. Life can do that for me, thank you very much. I can be gentler. I can let time transform.
As Elizabeth Taylor (the novelist) wrote:
“It is very strange that the years teach us patience–that the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”
It isn’t easy
Like Elon Musk, I don’t come by patience easily. I’m learning that some projects, like the book I’m writing, have their own life and will take the time that they take.
Dang! I wanted to do it fast.
As I work on my practice of patience, I’d love to hear what you have learned. Have you experimented with stepping back and letting a project follow its own natural rhythm?
Where have you allowed the future to pull you forward rather than thinking that you had to do all the pushing?
I know it may take me a while to learn patience. Fortunately, I can wait.
I usually love the turn of the year, when I set time aside to do visioning and planning, think about the big picture of where I’m going, and get revved up for the months ahead. But this year, my life took a different turn. I was ambushed by a nasty cold, the kind that lies in wait until you say to yourself “Now, I have some space to let down” and then attacks.
This wasn’t the rest time I had imagined. Indentured to a period of forced relaxation, and attached to a permanent kleenex, the last thing I wanted to do was figure out my future. I’ve learned to not think too far ahead when I’m feeling punk and wearing mud-colored glasses.
The only future I could see was the next hour, as I tried to imagine what would get me through an afternoon of feeling dumpy.
When I sat and asked my team of inner advisors for a piece of advice, they offered me this wisdom that I share with you:
Find something of joy. In the next hour.
A new way to look at joy
I’ve often thought of joy as a state enlightened beings achieve, like happiness on steroids. Because I’m still in remedial enlightenment, I don’t have high hopes for achieving an ultimate state of bliss in this lifetime. I’m challenged by my ability to see the not-joy parts of the world around me (aka the suffering) even on the days when I’m feeling especially good. So how would I ever attain this perma-state of enhanced happiness?
One way I occasionally experience joy is when it runs into me. Joy sparkles in the wake of external victories: our team wins, the lottery calls our number, we win a contract or score a date, our child is born or our dog has puppies. Joy like this feels great, but it’s a gift that doesn’t last because it comes from outside. And big successes can’t just be conjured up when you need them.
What I needed was now access to joy I could find in the moment, joy that would get me out of my funk, out of my nightgown, and into the world (or at least the portion I felt well enough to be in).
I decided to concentrate on the suggested assignment and look for a moment of joy in the next hour. It wasn’t that hard. Soon, I progressed to looking for joy every fifteen minutes.
The process is remarkably easy. You just tell yourself you’re going to find a moment of joy and you find it. You take an inner snapshot of anything that awakens your sense of wonder, awe, magic, beauty or whatever turns you on. The moment only needs to last for a few seconds, just long enough for you to pause.
Because you’re not trying to achieve a state, you don’t have to deny that there’s tough stuff in the world. You can delight in the absolutely exquisite, orange mushroom that is growing beside the smelly garbage can.
Joy-hunting shifted my focus.
When I decided that the color royal blue brought a bit of joy to me, I began seeing royal blue everywhere. I had never noticed it was the color of our county’s recycling bins.
You see what you give your attention to.
On my joy-quest today, my first day I ventured outside the house, I found joy through:
- a fascinating conversation with a stranger on the bus
- gazing at Mt. Rainier set against a cloudless sky
- watching my mother almost smile from her bed
- feeling my thighs burn as I ran to catch the ferry
- dreaming of puppies
and those were just a few of the many mini-moments.
Finding simple enJoyment in these moments didn’t have to be significant in any way. I was relieved of the pressure to make something meaningful out of them, or make sense of my life, decide whether an event was good or bad, or determine the direction of the world. Instead, the equation I used was much simpler: did something make me feel a hint of joy: yes or no?
I really recommend this as a practice, especially for those of us who need to occasionally claw our way out of the doldrums. I made it back to the land of the living, where perhaps I’ll start that process of visioning in a couple of days.
Now to you. I’ll give you fifteen minutes: Where will you find your moment of joy?
‘Tis the season of light in many faiths. But not all of us are feeling jolly. This is also a time of year that can feel dark and heavy, especially with what’s going on in the world.
Given all that is dark, how can we find a little light, levity, and lightness?
I recently wrote about bringing in more light this season. Then this weekend, I attended a workshop on Lightfulness, a word coined by Moshe Cohen, a master clown and teacher from San Francisco. Just thinking about the word lightfulness inspired me to relax and breath a bit more.
Moshe has plenty of experience injecting levity into dark and heavy places. As the founder of Clowns Without Borders, he has traveled the globe bringing laughter, magic, and healing to children whose lands have been devastated by floods, earthquake, violence, and war. Challenging places to get people laughing, yet that’s what Clowns Without Borders strives to do, with delicacy and compassion.
Moshe has invited children who are near-paralyzed with fear and trauma to play his games. As they move with silliness and spontaneity, the children can safely release deep, difficult emotions while they enjoy Moshe’s Mr.YooHoo clown persona.
The group of us attending his workshop at Seattle’s Nalanda West Center were mostly meditators. Moshe is often referred to as a “zen clown.” (Thanks to my clown-buddy Lynne Marvet for bringing Moshe to town!) We hadn’t been devastated by war, but we were feeling pretty heavy about the world. We needed Moshe to show us how we could discover traces of humor and lightness in the load of concerns we were bearing. We discovered that levity isn’t just about feeling “up;” it can accompany any mood.
Lightfulness is an opening to a subtle lightheartedness. Rather than playing for guffaws, it invites an inner smile, a sense of whimsey, a touch of humor that can be found even within otherwise difficult emotions, like fear, anger and extreme frustration.
Lightfulness invites humor to come out–but doesn’t force it to play.
Moshe invited us to play with huge, colorful, plastic bags that we floated in the air and then caught. At first, we just delighted in the game, but then Moshe offered us some variations. We were invited to bring to our game a feeling of frustration, a too-easy assignment for most of us. As we tossed our bags into the air, Moshe asked us to notice feelings within our bodies. Sometimes he suggested we try on a feeling such as floating, then switch it to frustration, then return to floating.
As we explored moving with our frustrations (discovering that play and deep emotion can go together), Moshe invited us to inject a little lightness into whatever we were doing. He did not tell us how to do that or what lightness meant. We found it in our individual ways.
There were no rules for lightfulness…(that would have defeated the point). Silly loves experiments.
Sometimes lightfulness comes through the twinkle of an eye. Or discovering a little oddness in a movement. Perhaps we find it as we become curious. Or find ourselves in a little game with a partner. During the workshop, we explored lightfulness through our awareness without needing to make some else laugh.
Lightfulness lives happily in quiet spaces, inhabiting a glance, a shrug, a small movement, a funny inflection in the voice. Lightfulness does not try to be funny. It lives best in a subtle connection with another person, in a wink, a secret smile, a moment of mutual wonder even in the midst of an argument.
Thinking about my last week, would there have been any way to add levity to that awful customer service encounter? When I think about it retrospectively, it was pretty absurd. Could I have taken a time-out to just laugh at it? Or could I have found a way to play with the customer support person who was robotically trying to solve my problem?
Any little change might have allowed me to breath better. And stop banging my keyboard in frustration.
Sometimes feelings come up when I’m alone. What to do then?
Maybe I could:
- Make a funny face while talking on the phone (not on video!)
- Become fascinated by something completely small, like a spider web and put all of my attention into it.
- Make a weird, small noise.
- Become fascinated by just about anything…or anybody.
- Spin in a circle.
- Step out of my emotion for a moment, to see it from afar and then step back into it (if I want to…)
- Replay a difficult conversation in my own head in gibberish. (Or grunt sounds.)
I bet you have some great ideas!
Shakespeare, (now dead), author of many works, and Cathy Salit, (very much alive), author of Performance Breakthrough, would agree that “all the world’s a stage” and a lot of life and leadership can be viewed through the lens of performance. As actors in our own drama, we can try on different moods through which to play a scene. Without striving to fix or change anything, we can shift our performances and open the door to a little levity.
Lightfulness suggests that we have more room for creating our experiences than we might have originally believed.
As we celebrate
This month is a time of light and celebration in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism as well well as the pan-African Kwanzaa. It’s a perfect time to practice lightfulness, injecting lightness and levity into pain and heaviness, and looking for that famous crack that lets the light get in, as Leonard Cohen sang in his hymn-like song, Anthem.
I love and cherish finding still spaces for myself at Christmas time, hoping that a light bearing mystery and possibility can once again be born out of darkness.
Whatever your faith, may you find light, levity, and lightfulness as we move towards the new year.