As a young actor, I spent many happy hours watching plays so I could learn acting techniques from my talented colleagues. One night, I went to see a performance of a big, splashy new musical. The stage was filled with at least a dozen actors singing, dancing and acting up a storm, all working hard to be noticed. But only one of them commanded my full attention: Alittle girl sitting on a set of stairs in the middle of the action, reading a book. She was relaxed and fully present, unafraid to simply be her genuine self in front of an audience. And even surrounded by many, more experienced actors, even without making much effort, she was focused and concentrated on what she was there to do: Which was to simply read the words on the page in front of her. As a result, she was utterly riveting.
Thinking back to that performance, I am sure that my most influential NYC acting teacher, the brilliant Michael Howard, would have pointed out that the little girl on the stage was exhibiting a major acting strength: The ability to concentrate, moment by moment, on the task at hand. As Michael puts it in his wonderful new book, The Actor Uncovered, “Concentration catches and holds an audience, pinned, to the story. Always, the actor’s most important strength is the ability to concentrate moment by moment—without forcing—on what the artistic choice demands.”
It’s about giving whatever you’re doing—whether it’s wooing another character, or cracking walnuts into a bowl—your total attention… in a relaxed, breathing body, in an unforced manner.
In our daily lives, relaxed, unforced concentration on what we’re doing (e.g. washing the dishes; reading the newspaper; balancing our checkbooks) seems so easy that we barely think about it. That ease flies right out the window, however, in what I call a spotlight moment—when eyeballs are on you and the pressure to come through is high. If you’ve ever frozen up while giving a formal presentation, or when eyes turn to you as you begin to speak in a board meeting, you understand just how elusive focused concentration can be. As Michael Howard states, “For the actor-artist, nerves, anxiety, wanting to do well, being watched, and self- judging all gets in the way.” This, of course, holds true for anyone who wants to perform at their peak under pressure—like the speakers I coach and train.
Working with focus and concentration is a hallmark of peak performers from athletes to speakers. And I agree with Michael Howard that to improve your concentration—or, as I like to call it, to “solve your intention” (to do what you’re there to do)—you must treat concentration like a muscle that increased in strength through regular workouts. As an actor, I worked out my concentration muscle by getting on stage in front of my colleagues in Michael’s class and doing what he called a Five Object Exercise. This simply meant I brought to the stage five object-based activities (e.g. peeling a carrot; folding underwear; sorting socks; writing in a journal) that I quietly focused on doing in front my audience.
Learning how to stay fully focused on an activity, and then turning my focus fully on another activity while an audience was watching and judging took time and patience. Sometimes I allowed the audience to distract me. When that occurred, Michael gently directed me to take a breath, let go of any tension in my body, and then resume my focus—or concentration—on the task at hand. Over time, I learned that concentration led to ease and flow, and my ability to think, be and react in the moment. This has served me well in front of the multitudes of audiences I’ve had the privilege of stepping in front of, whether as an actor, touring singer and songwriter, motivational speaker, or presentation skills trainer.
If you’re wondering how to practice working out your concentration muscle so that you can be more relaxed, real, and relatable in front of an audience in a spotlight moment, here’s what I suggest: Practice regularly in your everyday life. When you pour a glass of water for a visiting client, be utterly focused on that action. When you’re driving your car, keep your phone in your briefcase or purse, and concentrate fully on the act of driving. When you step in front of your next audience, concentrate fully on a very specific intention—like connecting with each audience member as thoroughly as possible with your eyes and your heart, or focusing on feeling the solid support of the floor under your feet as you stride across the stage.
As a speaker and performer, the more you concentrate on what you’re there to do in every unfolding moment, the more you honor the material and serve the audience. And, like the little girl who pulled my attention in the middle of a crowded stage so many years ago, the more compelling you become.