Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Oh, My Gosh! This Guy Is Talking Directly To Me!

I have been obsessing recently about a talk I have to give at a writers' retreat this weekend. Oh, who am I kidding? I've been obsessing about it since Christmas.

Well, something interesting just happened in relation to my obsession. On Jan. 24th or so, I blogged about The Young Writers Project in Vermont. Geoff Gevalt from The Young Writers Project e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago, which is a long way of saying I went back to their website recently. And I discovered an article by one Rusty DeWees.

Now, I'd heard of DeWees before because he's well-known in Vermont for a character he created called The Logger. I never paid much attention because I associated him with redneck humor, which I find very cliched. I'm going to reconsider this guy because his article on writing funny and performing spoke to all the anxiety I'm feeling this week.

I've spoken before groups often enough to know that what you say is only a part of what you're doing up there. You have to sell what you're saying. You've got to perform. Sometimes I can pull it off, sometimes I can't. No rhyme or reason.

I found DeWees' description of how he memorized a character for a performance very helpful. He said:

"To memorize Liddle’s description and characteristics for performance, I add a healthy dose of my own rhythm. When we hear a good impressionist, it’s the rhythm of the subject that our ear first recognizes and tells us, “Yes, I recognize that voice.” So when I write, especially for comedy, I write keeping rhythm and cadence in mind as much as I can."

This makes sense to me because as I've been practicing my talk (Yes, Virginia, I practice all my presentations. I practice if I have to do the readings at church.) I've noticed that I have an easier time with portions that do have some rhythm or intensity to them.

"The moment you walk on stage, or up to a microphone, is the moment your story starts," DeWees says, "and it’s also the moment you become interesting to your audience. Every breath you take is specific to you; every breath you take is interesting."

I'll try to remember that. It seems that if a speaker really believes that when she stands up to speak that that's got to help her.

More DeWees Wisdom: "In performing, don’t be afraid to fail. If as you walk across stage you unintentionally trip and fall, commit to it. Trip and fall better then you’ve ever tripped and fallen before. Try to make your trip and fall so memorable, the audience will leave the theater exclaiming, “Yes the singers were great, but did you see that story teller guy trip and fall? I’ve never seen a better trip or fall. He must have studied.”

I understand what he means. I don't trip and fall in front of groups, as a general rule, because I don't move around that much. But I have accidentally dropped some material I wanted to cover or misspoken. If I can run with it instead of going nuts, I can save the moment.

"When on stage, breathe, relax and be yourself 100 percent. If you put barriers up, and most of us do when we’re in front of an audience, you become something other than your true self, and you become less interesting."

I think a speaker could easily carry that sentiment too far. However, I've always had a thing about waving my hands when I speak, going way back to childhood. I don't try to control it when I'm speaking in front of a group. I let it go. Trying to control it would be too distracting, anyway, and might make me appear stiff. In addition, the gesturing gives some intensity to my presentation.

In my dreams, at least.

I may make a copy of DeWees' article and take it with me this weekend. He'll be my own personal coach. You know how Sasha Cohen will have someone pumping her up just before she goes out onto the ice tomorrow night? Rusty can do that for me.

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