Consider the number of presentations, speeches and toasts you’ve seen in
your life and it’s fair to conclude that at some point you’ve witnessed a fully grown adult in agony. Annie O’Connor understands. An actress and improv artist, she’s seen business professionals and acting students alike come through the doors of the M.i. Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, Calif., where she’s Director of Education. Not everyone wants to be a star; many just want to get through the Friday meeting. Here then, are a few tips from a pro on how to survive your time in the spotlight, no matter how small the stage or the audience.
Improvisers and performers are not without fear or anxiety when it comes to being in front of people, they’ve just learned to control it. We have a concept of “warming up,” and when you warm up you’re not focusing on the material you’re going to be executing, you’re not running lines, not doing a play-by-play. You’re doing one of two things: calming your mind or burning off anxiety and energy in your body.
Burn it Off
For me, I internalize. So if I’m nervous it’s showing physically: my heart is racing, I have sweaty palms, I’m pacing, and so I have to do physical burnout warmups to help my body feel more centered and calm. One improv warmup that’s really dumb but very efficient is called “Crazy 8s.” You stand with your right hand in the air and count out loud—loudly—from one to eight, shaking your arm the whole time. Then you do it with your left hand in the air and count to seven. Then shaking your right foot counting to six, then your left foot counting to five, and so on. You keep increasing speed as you go, so by the time you’re at five it should be like WUNTATHEEFFOFIVE! My suggestion is that if you’re going to do a presentation with a group, then do this with other people so you don’t feel like it’s on you solo. It’s exhausting. By the end most people are heaving.
Bring it Down
One mental thing we often do in improv is stand in a circle and close our eyes, put our heads down and count to 10 together. Only one person can say a number, and only one person can speak at a time. So everyone takes a deep breath, and one person says “one,” the next person says “two,” and so on, all without looking up for visual cues. If two people say the number “three” together, for example, then the group has to start over again. We have a concept called “group mind,” you’re always trying to attain group mind because it’s the ultimate state of being on stage. Sometimes it seems like magic, but it isn’t. It’s pattern recognition, a hyperawareness. You can build to something very quickly together that’s seamless, that seems like it was written but it wasn’t.
The audience doesn’t want to see you flipping through note cards, they don’t want to feel like you’re doing this by rote memorization. They want to know that you know what you’re talking about. They want you to talk to them and not to “the audience.” What I mean by that is it should feel like you’re talking to friends, telling them about this thing that you know a lot about. You can have bullet points of things you want to cover, but the more you memorize the less enjoyable it will be for your audience. If you allow yourself room for improvisation, you can read the audience and adjust. Somebody smiles, you can say, “Hey, this guy gets it!” If everybody looks tired you can address that, “Ok everyone, I know the fall reports aren’t so exciting but we’re almost there…” If you’ve memorized a speech and you get up there and say it, you’re not leaving room for the human element, which is that they—the audience members—are in the conversation, too.
If you’re speaking to a group and suddenly you start to unravel, the thing I would do in that instance is to address it immediately. Verbalize it. I’d probably take a breath and look up to my audience and connect with them in a really human way: “Wow, I am really starting to lose it up here. Can you guys see me sweating? Ok, let’s get back to it.” Make a little joke out of it. Humanizing yourself in front of an audience helps them immediately to feel empathy, and then they start to root for you. By owning it you’re guaranteeing that the majority will want you to succeed, they will want victory, and even that shift can be enough to help you calm down. And anyway if you’re losing it up there you’re not hiding it, no matter what you think. They’re seeing it, so you might as well be honest with it and move on.