Preparing for an informal presentation style like story-slams…through critique

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A former colleague asked for critique and feedback for a talk she was to present at a Washington, DC lounge. The informal event’s dynamic was inspired by The Moth’s compelling story-slam style and community.

I was so curious how this really casual venue and audience could impact engagement for my colleague.  So ‘Sure!’ I gladly attended her gig which was hosted at nearby lounge and (sometimes) jazz club. The storyteller lineup, a neighborly group of social advocates, often gather casually for this purpose to share perspective.

It was a lot of fun observing her and the venue’s energizing stimulus (and tech imperfections too!).

My colleague Jan’s presentation & storytelling focus addressed how social tech is creating a counter culture from her point of view. She was pretty new to this group of people, presentation, and public storytelling in general. So it was a pleasure attending to offer support and feedback.

Most of the critique (shared with her directly via email; …she is “the you”) follows below. 

Points incude:

Jan’s content & structure; tenor (and conveyed, unspoken messages from that tenor); her physicality; and a few other factors. The energy of these types of short talks can be so enlivening and community-rich.

  • Boldness: your creative confidence are bold. They were evident from stage despite the strange technical issues with sound.
  • Technical failure (and how you handled it): the inconsistant audio and video tech distracted, in my view, from you achieving consistent audience connection. It seemed you were cognizant of this as well. People in the audience including myself were physically leaning in and sometimes sighing from frustration. Given this audience squirm-like reaction (and the tech issues being beyond your control) – you brought perceived steadiness and (mostly) sense of command. Congrats! This can be so hard to do.
  • Assertion of vocal volume and ideas: Your sense of command came across as flustered at first (briefly, once you realized how off-putting the audience found the poor audio tech to be). But overall, to reiterate, you appeared centered. Audio is paramount as you are aware, and when it fails especially in front of a robust nighttime audience, drawing from pure inner resolve can be the only accessible tool to relate. You raising the volume of your voice and even slowing down more helped the audience better register your concepts (a lot). Very effective.
  • Content structure (with a suggestion): It was clear a lot of big picture consideration went into your ‘five ways tech is creating a counter culture’. I craved however a tight, clear reference to those five things up front — a simple forecast of what was to come from your point of view — before you elaborated on them further in the body of your talk.  As a raw example potentially for next time:
    • “I want to look at inclusion, democratic themes, leveled hierarchy….and how these factors lead to a culture we couldn’t even imagine before our social tech era.”
    • That’s my rough vernacular I realize vs your authentic voice. But given the energetic crowd and you being the last act, I sought knowing what your five things were very early on, again in a brief way, as to fortify my retention rate by the time you explained each one directly. This structural choice gives the memory a chance to identify and better sequence meaning. It helps the audience’s brain recall, connects, and mentally cement core elements i.e.  “Ah yes she’s mentioned this term or phrase before – I’m with her…”
  • Your use of the term ‘counter culture’: It’s a bold and assertive term. At the end of your talk however, I didn’t believe your progression/lead-up to this type of term was clear. It left me curious, and somewhat unresolved about what you meant to communicate.
  • Potential visual distraction (your hair): You brushed your hair from your face at least three times — which is not the end of the universe by any stretch! The hair style certainly is flattering. Given your confident and animated expression however, I wanted to engage with you visually -without- visual interruption from hair and related hand movement to brush it away. Please consider pulling the hair back in future.
  • Word of caution for when your ‘inner voice’ escapes with self-referentials: A few times you expressed self-referential phrases like “Yes I’ve had three kids with this bod”, with a few others yet those didn’t linger in my attention span like this ‘bod’ reference. This phrasing comes across as playful, but also as an unintended escape by your inner voice. As your (friendly but resourceful!) storytelling coach, I want to emphasize that these self-referrals are a verbal distraction from consistent audience connection (and also a deterrent from your content’s overall progression). You may try – before your next talk – an intensive practice run of this specific transition in your talk.  Try repeating this chunk from the one preceding concept to the next for at least 10 times in succession. This repetition exercise gives your brain’s linguistic nerves a specific outlet, and helps to alleviate the pressure off your mental ‘inner voice’ wanting to escape.

 

Photo attribution “Final thesis critique” by adam under Creative Commons license

A belated valentine story for a revolutionary feminist-spirit-sculptor-spy

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This valentine’s week, with the actual day yesterday powerfully syncing up with Ash Wednesday, has rekindled the history of one of my favorite activists from the American Revolution: Ms. Patience Wright, b. 1725-1786.

Truth be told there’s zero overt or historical connection with Ms. Wright and our modern culture’s celebrated rituals of this particular week

But! 

Here’s why this blog-post-gone-valentine (and Ash Wednesday) feature is just for her:  her entrepreneurial, fearless approach to an 18th century career in art -and- spy craft.

  • After her husband died in the late 1760s, Wright needed economic streams immediately. She elevated her hobbyist art to professional attainment, and is considered the first known American wax sculptor.
  • Also after her husband’s death, she was raising three children and pregnant. This alone makes her deserving for valentine acknowledgement.
  • Wright’s sometimes patriotic and spiritual devotion to the new America’s cause for independence wasn’t always popular (as she was a resident who lived both in New Jersey and London); her courage seems timely to honor though, since her advocacy goes parallel to the preparatory strengthening of Lent first established for the once young & unpopular Christian faith.

Ms. Wright alienated her American friends even more when she pressured (Benjamin) Franklin to support a rebellion in Britain itself. Writing to him in France (in the mid-1700s), she encouraged him to lend his services to “poor and oppressed” Britons as spiritual brothers and sisters of the American Revolution.

Patience Wright was a wax sculptor, mother of four, and to my heart’s delight – an American and quite revolutionary spy living in Britain throughout the 18th century.

I dream of this make-believe-story below!

…a.k.a. a quick imagining, fueled a little by the inner spy I’d love to be, with the stealth, artistic espionage of Ms. Patience Wright in full-swing.

So Happy Valentine’s Day to Ms. Patience Wright.

Here’s some playful fiction inspired by your spiritual grit, going back to when the United States was a fighting idea at war:

It is a late, motionless night in the streets of London. The year is 1776…that unwavering bearer of change for both sides of the Atlantic.  One house in particular has stayed audibly quiet since dusk; and with the full moon …..there’s just enough light for Ms Patience Wright to sculpt the hairline of a neck.

She sits at full artistic alert near her northern most window.  How she loves a studied confrontation with a block of wax..unveiling human form with every chisel. And much of London and the British elite consider her the best of the best……a renowned wax sculptor producing work in a suite of pastels.

This is the work of Ms Patience Wright….widow, sculptor, and mother of four.

She leans in closer now toward the window sill to catch all possible light from the moon. Her fingers work in their primal rhythm with the wax …. what looks like a fluid sway between smoothing-molding-lifting-pressing.

She sits back to stretch her shoulders and take in her work.

“Yes…yes…this will serve good purpose,” she says to the wells of her own self-respect.

Now all her interest turns to the final test of the bust’s left ear. But before Patience adheres the lower arc of the ear lobe, …..she writes a tiny note of intelligence (some critical news against the monarchy). She then scrolls it up, and secures the note in the ear’s upper curve.

“This will do,” she whispers in the private, moonlit arena of her craft. For Ms. Wright knows her creative trade fulfills two needs very, very well:  the art of sculpture and the art of spy craft.

Once she convinces herself the bust’s ear chamber was sealed with precision and a look of innocence, she packed the small bust in a gift container and folded away her tools.

KNOCK

KNOCK

KNOCK

She heard the front-door taps with shifting angst. She knew that knock brought loyal support to the patriot cause. But like any fight for sovereignty, even such a sound of allegiance courted potential threat.

Nonetheless she summoned her feet toward the door.

There a shadowed figure greeted her. 

With a simple flip of the agent’s cloak over his right shoulder, he said one phrase coded just for her:

“A night for liberty madam, is it not?” he asked with the impatient flare of an insider on the run.

Patience nodded as she granted the agent the box. The shine of his black riding boots then twirled away in the moonlight back to his mount…and off they went…couriers for the west bound for Benjamin Franklin himself stationed now in Paris.

Patience shut the door…and stood a moment in the stillness of her home.

Then came a stir upstairs.

“Mama, mama…” cried her young ones with their dawning appetite.

She lofted up the stairwell with satisfaction, the depth of which anointed her heart with cravings for future risks on moonlit nights.

###

 

Photo attribution “I spy a girl working on a Sunday” by Janine licensed by Creative Commons