P-E-R-F-O-R-M: Seven Tips for Maintaining Professionalism

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Written by: Lenn Millbower

During my earlier performance career, my band was performing at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. For the fifth time that night, we were forced by an insistent crowd to repeat a song we’d become bored with. It’s not that the song (Celebration by Kool & the Gang) was terrible, it’s just that we’d had too much of it. The audience, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough. We wanted to change the lyrics from “Celebrate good times come on!” to “Can not stand this song no more!”

This experience is common to show biz professionals. Actors in a play must deliver the same exact line, thousands of exact lines in fact, night after night while appearing that the lines are coming out of his or her mouth for the first time. Comedians must deliver the same joke every night while acting as if they made it up on the spot. Classical musicians must perform the works they have spent their lifetimes learning without variation in any of the notes: ever!

It is also an experience most trainers, teachers, and presenters can relate to. Be it diversity, leadership, or asbestos awareness, delivering any learning program over and over can become a facilitation bore. Even though, for the audience, it’s the first delivery. Those participants hope for, and deserve, our best performance. But how do you ensure that every delivery is as fresh as the first? You do it through an acronym: P-E-R-F-O-R-M.

 

>> Learn more at the webinar: Controlling the Haunted Creatures in your Classroom.

 

Tip One: Play for the Audience

Performers perform because the audience exists. The primary reason for a performance is to please an audience. Rehearsal is not a substitute. Blank walls do not applaud. Only an audience ignites the performance.

Performers who have tired of their role tune the mechanics of the role out and tune the audience in. For those watching, the experience is new and, by focusing on them, the performer becomes one with the audience’s experience. The performer stops living for and enjoying the line and instead lives for, and enjoys, the audience. It is the audience’s reactions, not the delivery, that make the show a success. Through the audience, the bored performer sees the performance as new.

In learning environments, the material, not the instructor, is the show. Great facilitators do not overshadow their learning points. Those points, and the success of the connections those points make with the trainees, determine the success of a learning event. Trainers, teachers, and presenters who have tired of the material can take a tip from performers, focus on the reaction of the audience to that material and, as a result, see the learning anew.

Tip Two: Explore the Alternatives

Performers never stop enhancing the performance. Actors are told when to enter, how to stand, where to look, what to say, and which emotion to portray while saying what they have been told to say. These are confining parameters. And yet great actors—through subtle variations in the inflection, movement, or look—vary their performance greatly.

Trainers, teachers, and presenters are more fortunate than actors. They are not as closely directed. There is no set character to portray, no word-for-word script to follow, and no one directing the instructor to stand on an “X.” Trainers, teachers, and presenters who become bored with their material should embrace this freedom and deliver the material in different ways. Use a different vocal inflection. Add humor. Run an activity with a different twist. If an actor, with all the specific direction, can stave off boredom an instructor, with a greater degree of freedom, can too.

Tip Three: Refine your Delivery

Performers constantly hone their craft. Comedians rarely settle for what worked the night before. They insistently try to wring every possible laugh out of a line. Once that line works to its maximum potential, they search for a second line to augment the first. Once that line works, they search for a third, and then a fourth. The process of refinement never stops.

This level of honing should apply to training, classrooms, and speeches. The same old same old becomes tedious, tiring, boring. To the learners, the robotic delivery that results demonstrates a lack of enthusiasm for the material itself. Just as a comedian would, continually seek ways to refine your delivery. Look for another place to stand, a more flowing hand gesture, a different grouping of words and a clearer way to conduct the discussion. Through this continued search for refinement, boredom can be conquered.

Tip Four: Focus on Emotion

Performers get emotional. Classical musicians play the same notes, exactly, flawlessly, in performance after performance. It might seem like they have no room for creativity, but they have wide latitude. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of the notes, the musician focuses on the emotion within the notes. The notes have long since been absorbed into the brain’s procedural memory, allowing the performer to feel rather than think. The music then becomes emotional rather than mechanical. Focusing on this emotion also wards off boredom.

Instructors present the same material so often that their mouths find the content without conscious awareness (much as our car find their ways to work.) This procedural memory skill seems to create boredom, but it is a source of liberation. Once the procedural has taken over, you can concentrate on the emotional message behind the words.

Tip Five: Own the Material

Performers believe in their material. You can spot a bored actor in a second. The performer goes through the motions required by the script but clearly doesn’t own the words he or she speaks. The critics call it “walking the part” and the audience senses that the performer is not believable in that role. Great actors, in contrast, tunnel inside the character so thoroughly that the actor becomes secondary to the character. At that moment, the actor is not on stage, the character is.

Trainers, educators, and speakers regurgitating required talking points over and over can also become bored. When instructors are required to deliver messages, they don’t agree with or support, it becomes even more difficult.

Learners can spot the instructor who is “walking the part.” Sometimes they observe a subtle, vacant look. Other times, they hear a public disavowal of the material. We owe our audience more. As learning professionals, we have an obligation to become one with the material, to believe it, and deliver it in a spontaneous, fresh, and original manner each and every time.

Tip Six: Reconnect your Purpose 

Performers work for the art, not for the pay. Being a performer is not a job: it’s a calling. Performers do it because they believe their talent is the reason for their existence.

Few instructors could make the claim that they train for the pay. There are certainly more lucrative ways to succeed in business. Each of us became an instructor because of a purpose. Perhaps it was helping people; sharing information; personal growth. Whatever the case, a reason existed at some point in time.

During my tenure at the Disney University (writing training programs for Walt Disney World), I would occasionally find myself bogged down in the details of an instructional design. Fortunately, the office was right behind the Magic Kingdom. When I found myself disconnected, I’d sit on the patio. Within a few minutes, the sound of the steam train’s whistle would call to me. It was my re-connector. It reminded me of the guests a few steps away who were having the time of their life and that my purpose was to deliver magical instructional designs to those delivering the Disney magic to guests.

Instructors who have become disconnected should seek out the reason they wanted to teach in the first place. That reason is the fuel to an enthusiastic delivery.

Tip Seven: Make a Move 

Performers who cannot reconnect quit. A key difference between performers and the rest of the world is the performers’ attitude towards long-term employment. Most of the world views a job as a multi-year commitment. Performers think in terms of “gigs” that come and go. It’s not that performers object to being permanently employed. Professional artists fear something worse: losing their creative edge. And when they can no longer connect with their purpose in any one job, they make a move.

Likewise, learning professionals who are bored should make a move. Try presenting a different subject. Learn a new skill. Change careers. Bored instructors do both themselves and their learners a disservice.

So, celebrate the good times and P-E-R-F-O-R-M. You owe it to yourself. You certainly owe it to your “audience.” Follow these seven steps and, quoting that old Kool and the Gang song, your “good times will last throughout the year.”

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