Let’s face it: Even the most seasoned speakers and performers among us experience the feeling of being “tapped out,” of having their creative or emotional well run dry. It’s not always easy having to “come up with it” time after time, speech after speech, audience after audience. Sometimes, too many consecutive days on the road, or a couple of tough audiences in a row can leave us feeling tired, raw and cranky. And yet, there we are, facing yet another performance, another presentation, another audience. And our audience is expecting us to be at our best, even if we’re not exactly feeling our best. It’s a constant—and interesting– challenge.
So, the question is, how do we prime our pumps when our wells have gone dry? Or, put another way, HOW DO WE TURN OURSELVES ON, SO WE CAN TURN OTHER PEOPLE ON?
I got a great lesson in how to do this when I was a young actress, just starting out in New York City. I was working on a film directed by Sydney Lumet called “Running on Empty”, standing-in for the wonderful Christine Lahti. I had never worked on a movie set before, and was blindsided by the numbing tedium of waiting for scenes to be painstakingly set, lit and, finally, populated by actors and so they could be filmed. Actors had to sit around for hours, marshalling their energies, waiting to be summoned to the set. How did they keep fresh and emotionally available, I wondered?
I was especially curious about this on one particular day that seemed to go on forever. All sorts of technical problems were causing massive delays in the shooting schedule. Knowing that Christine Lahti was scheduled to do only one scene, at the very end of the shooting day, I began to wonder how she would handle this challenge—especially since I knew the scene she was scheduled to shoot was an emotional nightmare: While she had no lines in the scene, she was required to run across a street, pause at a storefront, and burst into tears. How, I wondered, was she going to keep her center, and be emotionally ready to give her all for the scene, after such a long and trying wait?
I began carefully observing Christine, and noticed that she was choosing to remain apart from the rest of the cast and crew, plugged into a cd player and headphones, her eyes closed. She kept those headphones wrapped around her head hour after hour, up until she was, at long last, finally called to the set to shoot her scene. She took off her headphones, handed them to an assistant, and took a deep breath. Then, while the cameras were rolling, she raced across the street , paused at the storefront and burst into tears, exactly as the scene required. She nailed it in one take. It was a beautiful thing.
Later on, I discovered that Christine had been listening to a beautiful ballad called “I Dreamed a Dream, from the Broadway show, Les Miserables. The song evoked all sorts of deep emotions for her. By keeping herself plugged into the song, throughout a very long and trying day, Christine helped herself stay in the emotionally available place she needed to be in order to shoot her one scene.
Christine did whatever it took to help herself do her job. We have to do the same. We have to find ways to refill our well, so we can be fresh and more available to the given moment. What does that mean, exactly? Well, for one thing, it means taking the time to figure out what inspires you or fills you up in the first place. For myself, I find that great performances by other actors, singers or speakers can fire me up and reconnect me to my sense of mission, vision and purpose. Great visual art, especially impressionistic oil paintings, can do the same. Taking a long walk in nature, or a luxurious bath can help me decompress and find my center. So can sharing a homemade dinner with some really dear friends and loved ones, where I can laugh and talk and just plain be myself.
From a purely practical standpoint, when I need to help myself be present and accounted for in front of an audience, I do what I tell my coaching clients to do: Stack the deck in my favor by helping myself be at my best. That can include leaving early from a late night event hosted by a client, so that I can get some additional sleep before a morning performance; or politely retreating to a quiet room a half an hour before my performance time, so that I can do some breathing and relaxation work or vocal exercises before stepping out, warmed up and ready, onto the stage. And it always, always means taking the I need time to be prepared– I mean REALLY prepared– for the presentation.
Since it is my job to do my best in front of each and every audience, I have to treat my audience as if they are my only audience, each and every time. If, like Christine Lahti, I have to help prime my pump by taking some special, small measure, like looking at an photograph that evokes a particular memory or feeling in me, or re-reading a letter of inspiration someone special has written to me (or I have written to myself), then that’s what I’ll do. Making these choices helps me step onto that stage fully present, all cylinders blasting. And when I’m blasting on all cylinders, inspired and alive, when my senses and my energies are flowing fully and richly, I stand a better chance of firing up my audience and giving them the kind of presentation that we both deserve: Authentic, fresh, and in the moment.
So ask yourself: What turns you on, so you can turn other people on? What can you do to prime your creative pump when your well runs dry? Remember: It is up to you to inspire yourself, so you can keep inspiring others!