A presentation is like swimming into an infinity pool; you don’t dive in with a splash, you don’t struggle to keep your head on the surface, you don’t panic when you cannot feel the bottom of the pool with your naked toes. You find your rhythm, you swim with long and calm strokes, you stay serene.
Swimming is about technique. Just like speaking on stage is about technique. The more you practice, the more secure and happy you get. Since teachers correct poor grammar, I don’t see why they should avoid correcting the poor grammar of the inarticulate body. However, in our western culture the body is regarded as an absent other, something unspeakable. Apparently, making comments on poor body language might even be perceived as indiscreet. Drew Leader refers to the dysappearing body in his landmark book “The Absent Body”, thus referring to the state when the body fails due to illness or an accident. When the body strikes back, everything else becomes secondary.
As a trained dance teacher I am in an advantageous position, since for me it feels more than natural to talk about flaws in body language, moreover, I can immediately offer a solution in the form of a precise correction or an exercise to practice at home. A simple example: insecure speakers often distribute their weight over the heels, this in turn leading to an incorrectly placed pelvis, again resulting in a sunken chest and collapsed shoulders as well as a weak voice. A very unfortunate chain reaction from the point of view of stage presence. By just a simple correction, the speaker becomes 100% more present to the audience. In my opinion, a grammar mistake in speech is less distracting in terms of communication than a mistake in the grammar of the body. An inarticulate body makes the message vague. I like to refer to the Swedish dancer Helena Franzén notion of the “poetry of the articulate body”.
Last spring I had the opportunity to prepare a group of remarkable young women for taking the stage at the annual Sales Pitch competition on Porvoo Campus, none of them being experienced stage performers, quite the contrary, many feeling intimidated by a big audience. We trained the grammar of the body, challenging the natural tendency of the human body to freeze or to flee in scary situations. Biologically, our emotional regulation system has ensured our survival. However, this regulation system also causes us to shrink in situations when we should grow even bigger, such as when performing a sales pitch on stage. For over a month the group worked on correct body language, voice prosody, pronunciation and the dramaturgy of the pitch itself. We kept swimming around in the Porvoo Campus lobby, our infinity pool – in order to feel all that empty space to be mastered. Step by step the contenders grew more confident and bold. Until at the end they were already impatiently waiting for the D-Day. I had to warn the students from practicing too much – just like athletes need to make sure that their peak performance will take place in the Olympic Games, a speaker needs to make sure that she does not get bored with herself and her story. There always needs to be room for surprise and inspiration.
On 5 May we were finally back stage doing Mikhail Chekhov warm-ups and voice opening exercises. For those who had taken part in my rigorous training, the performance went better than ever before. But one can always improve something – every single performer rushed off the stage too soon after the pitch was over. So next time, when you take the stage (and there will certainly be a next time) make sure that you stay on at the end for an extra curtain call. For me as teacher it was particularly joyful to see the tremendous improvement of students who are not the first ones to speak up in class. This made the process so much more interesting and rewarding. Finally, my advice to everybody is the following: “Keep looking for those scary places where you can test your full potential. Seek an infinity pool with a shark lurking in the corner. There is never a state of being fully ready to go – just take a deep breath and glide in, and every time it will feel a bit easier and less scary!”