Sunday, September 28, 2014

Key Thoughts

Key Thoughts

by Mike Landrum
(Updated June, 2015)
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A thought which does not result in an action is nothing much, and an 
action which does not proceed from a thought is nothing at all.

- Georges Bernanos, 
French Novelist & Political Writer
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Speech is conveniently located midway between thought and action, where it often substitutes for both. 
- John Andrew Holmes

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Every time U.S.Open Champion Jordan Speith approaches a golf shot; every time tennis champion Serena Williams steps to the line to serve; every time Mets first baseman Lucas Duda comes up to the plate with his baseball bat, a key thought is at work. These thoughts are the keys that unlock an athlete's best performances. They are the final and most crucial preparation that focus the mind, steady the heart and let the desired action begin. 

There is usually a ritual that goes along with it the same number of practice swings, the same series of moves, breaths and rhythms precede the start of the golf shot, the tennis serve, the baseball pitch. These external movements and gestures accompany an internal ritual as well. Jordan Speith must visualize a successful outcome for the shot he is concentrating on, he must relax, rehearse the move in his mind, and prepare himself imaginatively for the release of all his power. It is the most important thinking an athlete does. 

All performers have a similar preparatory drill. Actors are trained to enter a scene "loaded" which means to be present and alive to the character, circumstances, action and emotions of the play. A poorly prepared actor can destroy the audience's belief in the play as sometimes happens when a stagehand wanders out into a scene. Actors must adjust their thoughts and feelings in favor of those of the character they are playing. Imaginative thought creates real behavior. 

In 1945, Lawrence Olivier played Oedipus in Sophocles' great tragedy. At the end of the play when Oedipus discovers that he has unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, he let out a scream so horrifying that it sent shudders through the audience. His key thought for that moment came from the Russian method of trapping ermine, the white- coated animals whose fur was so highly prized that it adorned the robes of the Czars. In winter, when the ponds and rivers are frozen, the Russian hunters scatter salt on the ice. The ermine are drawn irresistibly to the salt and when they lick it their tongues stick to the ice. The hunters simply return the next morning and club the animals to death. Olivier imagined being stuck helplessly by the tongue like the Russian ermine and that was enough to create the horror of Oedipus's situation. 

What possible application can this have for speakers?  When speakers approach the lectern they should have an idea in mind of what they want to communicate and how to begin.  Sometimes the best key will be a thought of the objective of the speech, getting the first idea across, or making good eye contact with individuals in the audience.  
I'll provide one example which some of my clients have found useful. 
The late Helen Hayes, the "First Lady of the American Theatre," used to say "act with a warm heart and a cool head." This is the basis for a valuable key thought for speakers. Imagine your heart and lungs as a hot air balloon, swelling and rising as they fill with warmth, not to lift you off the ground, but simply to become the center of your being. Let your arms and shoulders drop naturally to your sides and get in touch with this "high- hearted"sensation.
Now, think of your mind, calm and tranquil, peering out of your skull, cool and solid as an ancient Greek temple. Let your head settle down in front of the column of your neck so that your eyes are level to the horizon. (Yes, that's another thing to be aware of - your spine connects to your skull behind your face, at about the same level as your eyes.)
This image, this dual key thought, can serve you in several ways. 

Your heart, your chest should be high, lifted from within, which lets your shoulder muscles relax and drop. This is a much more flexible and open stance than a military erectness imposed by the shoulders and rigid outer muscles. 
Above this high- chested, expansive torso, floats your head, serene and cool, with a level gaze. Just allowing your head to adopt this position will encourage your mind to take on a similar attitude. You will be standing at your full height, leading with your heart - open, vulnerable and strong. You'll be willing to drop your shoulders, arms and hands in a natural way. Your head and neck will float above, cool, level and alert. 

This is a perfect posture for speaking. Your lungs will be able to gather their full capacity of air. By letting the shoulders drop naturally, the diaphragm will take on its rightful role as the driver of your voice, assisted by the abdominal muscles. With a level head, the larynx or voice box will be in its optimum position between the resonating chambers of the chest and face. 

The biggest payoff may be the way this posture and these ideas make you and your audience feel. The word 'courageous' comes from the French root "cour" or heart. When you lead with your heart you feel both more and less vulnerable. This is a good definition of courage. It would be hard to find an attitude that is more attractive to audiences than a confident, level- eyed fearlessness. 

Of course, there are countless other key thoughts with which to begin a presentation, and you will surely find your own way. The chief message in this bit of coaching is to create your key thoughts intentionally. Let it become a habit with you, a ritual to begin every speech. As Earl Nightingale said, "we are what we think about, having become what we thought."