Articles written by Gary Michael

On Becoming More Who We Are:
Authenticity as Presence and Responsibility

Making Important Points:
Ways to Gain Emphasis

Freedom From, To, and, You

The Art That Enhances Art

Authenticity as Presence and Responsibility

     We usually take "authentic" to mean congruence of thought and deed, or acting in accord with one's professed values. It's a valid definition; it just doesn't go far enough. Authenticity is more than the absence of hypocrisy.

     I think that to be authentic as a speaker means, above all, to be fully present, for one's audience and oneself. We have a number of ways to do that.

1.      Treat audiences as ends, not means. Audiences are not occasions for us to demonstrate our speaking ability and knowledge. They don't assemble to validate us in our profession, flatter our vanity, or provide us with a livelihood. They present themselves to us for their own edification and delight. We have as our high calling the solemn obligation to meet that need. That's what it means to serve. When we approach them with an agenda of our own, whether merely to manipulate their moods or, more ambitiously, to change their lives (how messianic!), we make a demand of them. Any such demand, even if only implicit, makes of the audience a means.

2.      Customizing is certainly an obvious way to honor the uniqueness of each group and be fully present. I love how different speakers find different ways to customize. Joel Weldon, for example, researches his clients' victories and challenges so he can tailor his programs directly to those matters, reinforcing the victories, suggesting ways to meet the challenges. Naomi Rhode likes to have at least one new story for every audience. She has taken a page from the play book of Dizzy Dean, the superb St. Louis Cardinal pitcher, who used to give different, often conflicting stories to every reporter who interviewed him Since television wasn't around in Dizzy's days, it took a while before someone confronted him with his inconsistencies. "They ain't exactly lies," said Dizzy. "I just
try to give everbody somethin' original." To emulate Dizzy we needn't dissimulate (Naomi certainly doesn't), just find a new pearl for every group.

     I like to customize both by getting to gigs early and learning the names of as many people as possible (often 25 or more) so I can call them by name in the course of the program. Another device I've found fun is to use fine art painting, my special skill, as a metaphor for the demands of the audience's industry. While doing a painting demonstration -- talk about an action rich visual aid! -- I relate the standards of excellence in art to those in, say, speaking. If you have a special skill, especially one you can perform on the platform, think about ways to weave it into, maybe even make it central, to a talk.

3.      Presence implies attention. When we serve we listen. We listen to the planner or sponsor who conveys to us the audience's purpose. We listen also to the audience -- with our eyes -- as we speak. That further attunes us to them and clues us to needs that arise, anything from clarification of an idea to an unplanned break. To be fully present we sometimes surrender control, as befits a servant.

4.      Another way to be fully present is to show up with all that we are and ready to be nowhere else, to borrow a phrase from Max Dixon. Only when we put our total focus on our task and those for whom we perform it do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We are more than power suits, super smiles, terrific techniques and colossal content. We're also our souls -- all those longings, terrors, aspirations, passions, and awakenings -- that contribute to our quintessential selves. When we strive to appear invincible in our command of skills and material, we shirk from the truth.
I don't suggest that we confess things that will embarrass our audience for the sake of personal catharsis. Rather let's bring to our work the dragons we battle as well as the resources that, now and again, permit us to prevail. Let's allow ourselves to be who we are, including fallible, vulnerable, and transient. As Ian Percy counsels, "Never fear to share your unfinished self." The "I" who speaks is not a fixed thing, but a work in progress that unfolds even as it speaks.

5.      Authenticity also means taking responsibility for who and what we are -- and accepting ourselves as we are. That's why we are bidden to rely on our own experience for our stories. For one reason, a critical part of what we share with audiences is ourself. For another, to draw from our own experience is an act of self-acceptance. Furthermore, when we sift through our personal histories for precious anecdotes we obey a fundamental human dictum: Know thyself.

     We also exercise responsibility when we assume custody of our own introduction. An unprepped second party may under or overstate the case for listening to us, confuse fact until it's fiction, or accurately articulate the irrelevant. Part of our job is see that the audience gets introduced to the "us" we really are. That still leaves room for a creative introducer to have some fun, as he or she well deserves.

6.      Our most necessary act of responsibility is to forgive ourselves for having the identity we have, not some other, real or imagined, we may covet. Just as full presence demands that we sometimes forgive an audience for being less attentive, enthusiastic, or appreciative than we would like, responsibility requires that we accept ourselves as we are. I'd love to have the voice of James Earl Jones, the twinkly eyes of Michael Jordan, and that sock-your-knocks-off smile Sophia Loren beams at us. Alas, all of us just got what we got. And that's good enough if we go all out with it. The debate about the relative importance of technique vs. authenticity is a red herring. To be fully present and serve with all our heart, mind and soul means using the best technique we can muster. After all, it too is part of us. Only when we mistake it for all of us do we lose touch with our authentic self, that unique, flawed, glorious, always evolving entity our audience wants to hang out with. All speakers, even the very best in the business, have limits to their skill, knowledge and energy. All of us, however, have an unlimited capacity for authenticity, the alpha and omega of effective communication.

[Back to top]

Open Letter to Aspiring Speakers

     We've all heard the clichés. Speak about what you've earned the right to speak about (as though we earned rights the way we earn degrees). Speak about that which people will pay to hear. Speak about your passion, unless it's one of those forbidden passions.

     While all these maxims provide good general advice, none makes it much easier for an aspiring speaker to pick the "right" topic. So in one's quest for legitimacy, the temptation arises to speak about something you see others speaking about. At least it did me -- and to the detriment of the development of my unique identity as a speaker.

     When I began coming to Colorado Speakers Association meetings in 1993, two things struck me: l) the achievements of the regulars -- their books, bookings, and sense of belonging within the industry; and 2) the fact that none showed signs of some larger than life, off the chart charisma that would dazzle audiences even in the absence of good material. From this I deduced that given the right content, I too could succeed. My craft was adequate if I could but concoct the content.

     So I looked at the list of standard topics and chose the only one about which I regarded myself as having a modicum of expertise: public speaking, a.k.a. presentation skills. Then I put together a talk, got a gig, and -- BINGO -- became a legitimate speaker. The only difficulties were: l) I didn't know as much about public speaking as I thought; and 2) In my eagerness to fit in, I ignored the richest veins in my background, a superb education in the humanities and twenty years of practicing fine art.

     It took me until almost three years ago to emerge from my communication consultant cocoon and start speaking about other ways of connecting with people besides presentation skills and first impression techniques. In one of those sudden revelatory moments, a thought pierced my cranial encrustation: "Gary, do you really think teamwork and networking are any more important to people than art and authenticity? You got intimidated. Throw off the shackles you've put on yourself and become more who you are."

     Does this mean I regret having become a public speaking guy? Not at all. In doing so I learned a whole lot more than I would have about the craft that nourishes us all. I just wish I'd permitted myself to give voice to other parts of my knowledge and experience sooner. When I presented "You Gotta Have HeART", a painting demonstration that illustrated one way you can customize, at the dessert session of our Sept '97 meeting, it was my coming out party. My advice then is this: Let no preconception limit your choice of topic. You legitimize any subject simply by choosing it. And: Talk about what you want to know more about. Nothing accelerates learning like having to stand up and deliver.

[Back to top]

Communication as Power

     Communication is a kind of power. Of the different kinds of power -- invested, expert, ownership -- the most durable and rewarding is that we have as role models. For as role models, we have moral authority. And it is as communicators that we become role models.

Here are 2 tips for making communication an instrument of moral authority.

1.      Respect the autonomy of other people's minds and consciences by maintaining rigorous standards of accuracy. No matter how noble our purpose, if we withhold or distort relevant data that may be injurious to the cause we espouse, we cease to be role models and become mere manipulators. By allowing those we address to come to their own informed, reasoned decisions, we maintain our moral authority.

2.      People have different communication styles. Some are direct and succinct: Bottom Liners. Some like to explore all facets of an idea or problem, usually at length. They spare no ancillary item of a story. I call them Detail Freaks. Others use language primarily as a way to cement relationships, to make people feel good about themselves. Communication, for them, exists not for the sake of truth or thought but to make us all better friends. Their moniker is Massager.

     By listening we can recognize the communication style of those we converse with and make the modifications in our own that will create rapport, the pre-condition of effective communication. Assuming that everyone has the same style as ours leads to both miscommunication and tension. For years I thought that anyone who had a problem with someone as direct as I, must be stupid. But I was the stupid one for assuming that directness was the lone hallmark of good communication, and that anyone with a modicum of intelligence cherished candor and brevity.

[Back to top]

Share from Your Head So Others Can Share from Their Hearts:
The Gentle Art of Coaching

"Man's main task in life is to give birth to himself." Eric Fromm

     Helping people get the best out of themselves is profoundly rewarding work. I love a standing ovation as much as you. Yet a phone call from an individual client to report that our mutual efforts got him or her a standing ovation leaves me with an even warmer feeling. When that happens, I'm happy for the client-- and the audience I served without even having seen them.

     As it is rewarding, coaching is demanding. When you present, you are responsible only for yourself. Yes, you owe your audience the best effort you're capable of. What they do with what you give is, however, their affair. When you coach, I believe you accept responsibility for your client. If the person doesn't leave your care doing significantly better than when he or she entered it, you haven't earned your fee.

     Because every client is different, coaching is always customized. You can't rely on your sure-fire stories, deft mood changes, or dynamite audience exercises to carry the day. You have before you a single person who expects to improve dramatically--and quickly--by virtue of your expertise. That's pressure.

     My modus operandi is to find out what the task at hand is. (I always hope there is one. An assignment just to "make me a better speaker," in the absence of a proposed presentation, is a real stressor.) A campaign speech calls for a different strategy than an acceptance speech, an after-dinner talk a different approach than a lecture on how to draft revocable living trusts. I also want to know what personal quality the client most wants to exhibit--strength, erudition, sympathy, courage, caring, etc.-- and how he or she wants the audience to think or feel. Is the most important part of the plan to evoke emotion, impart information, or keep 'em laughing? Now we're ready to work. Technique is key to a speaker's success. Sincerity by itself won't suffice. Effectiveness requires form, both in the organization of material and its delivery. I leave to personal coaches and counselors the job of transforming people's lives by tweaking their psyches. My job is less messianic: to raise people's awareness level, so they can make informed choices for themselves. The last thing I want is for them to become clones of anyone, especially me. That's why I don't say, "Do it this way." Instead, we talk about the roles of various words, phrases, and sentences. We weigh the relative weight of ideas and discuss devices for giving them the emphasis the client decides they deserve.

     I suggest, even demonstrate, options. The client then chooses. It's critical that your delivery reflect your personality. That happens only if you think about what you're saying when you're saying it. If you're thinking about how anyone else, including your coach, would say it, you've lost touch with yourself and undermined your authenticity. A coach who adds polish at the expense of sincerity serves his client ill.

     The only exception I make to this "non-directive" guideline is when the material clearly calls for a pause. When I explain why, the client invariably agrees. Even a high profile coach I know who claims to disdain technique, tells people when to pause. Pauses are such a vital part of any talk--and so under utilized even by experienced speakers--I think a coach would be remiss not to point out important opportunities for them.

     An officer of the Colorado AIDS Project came to me for help with an award acceptance speech. He had a list of people, mostly co-workers, to thank. He also included his parents, who were coming from another state to see the ceremony. We both thought his parents deserved special thanks, so instead of tacking them onto the end of the list, we put in a pause, followed by, "And now I want to acknowledge two people who have supported my efforts for a very long time, and came all the way from Iowa to be with us tonight. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome my mother and father."

     I cried each time he practiced the lines, and again when he called to tell me how well they went over.

     A speaker's job is to serve his or her audience with all his or her heart, mind, and spirit. A coach's job is to help speakers so serve. It's what I call "passion management": finding the right tools, for a particular person, at a particular time, to communicate his or her passion. No coach can manufacture passion, only show how to loose it over an audience. The job requires patience, empathy, and acute concentration. A good coach is more than a craftsman. He or she leads a search for ways a person can give wings to words, and, in so doing, become more him or herself.

     Reprinted from SemiNews and Views, a publication of the Seminar/Workshop Leaders Page of the National Speakers Association

[Back to top]

Add Fun to Your Presentations With Audience Activities

     To make any presentation more interesting, educational and fun, involve your audience. Mark Twain said, "No sinner was ever saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon." He meant that twenty minutes is the attention span of most people. Shifting gears often makes it easier for your audience to stay tuned. To change pace involve the audience by giving them something to do. Games and exercises keep people interested. Activities also generate information, reinforce learning, improve retention, promote discussion, and help people to bond. Some of my favorites are:

     Introduce a partner after only a thirty second interview without reference to job, marital status, age, number of children, or leisure activity. The idea is to present your personal impression of your partner in a convincing way, to share your feeling about the person. I like to use the exercise near or at the end of a program, after participants have already gotten to know each other. Questions that elicit information that helps to formulate the introduction are: What do you most love? Most fear? If you could be any animal, what would you choose? Any car? Any dessert?
There's no need to tell the audience what any of those choices are. It's more fun to infer what you like from the response and improvise on it. For example, if your partner, Glenda, says she'd like to be a dolphin, you might say: Glenda is a very social person with a love of play. She likes people and feels comfortable in different environments, especially those in which she can be active. She is very loyal to her family and also welcomes contact with strangers that reciprocate her friendliness.

     What you say is less important than how you say it. The intro isn't supposed to be a complete psychological profile, just a passionate presentation of something you believe to be true about your partner. I find it works better if, after explaining it, I give a demonstration.

     Tell a partner something good that happened to you in the last week. Or tell about a challenge you're facing, why it's a challenge, and how your strategy for dealing with it. The exercise takes very little time. I find the game useful to show people how they can start or keep a conversation going after the customary exchange of names.

     As with any two partners game, you get l00% participation. There's no place to hide.

     This game encourages people to open up with each other. I've found it especially effective with singles groups. It takes a while to play, even with a small audience, but the energy it generates and the laughs it produces are well worth it.

     Find a partner and take five minutes to discover the 3 most interesting things you have in common. Sun signs, job similarities (unless the jobs are very unusual), and recreational activities are not interesting. Go for things very few people would have in common, like an exotic, out of the way place you've both been or the fact that as kids you both raised snakes. When the partners have gotten their three things (two things for groups of three people), I have them announce their commonalities and write them on a flip chart. Then the whole group votes on the winners, to whom I give prizes. In one group the winners were two women who found they'd both been pregnant in Beaumont, TX. In another, it was a man and woman who had both wet their pants in fourth grade classes.

     An important benefit of the game is that it is an object lesson in active listening. With prizes at stake, people really pay attention to what their partner is saying, lean forward and ask questions. That, I tell them, is the best way to listen to anyone -- fully focused on what he or she is saying.

     This is the single best way I know to energize an audience in which more people don't already know each other than do. If the audience has been sitting for a while, listening to announcements or another speaker, I find an excuse to use it. Give people 90 seconds to stand up and introduce themselves to six others they haven't already met. The time limit means they have to keep moving, looking for new introducees. In one group, a man climbed on his chair to get a better view of who was around him. People started coming to him. It added to the semi-chaotic, manic energy in the room. When you call time at the end of ninety seconds, you'll see that everyone in the room is smiling.

     If you want to glean some educational value from the exercise, ask the audience which of them noticed the eye color of the people they introduced themselves to. Remembered how many of the names. Had a tactile memory of the grips. Were aware of the firmness of their own grip. This can be an introduction of things to do when you meet people: Look them in the eye, focus on their names, maintain a firm but not hurtful grip for a few seconds, stand up straight, SMILE.

     The best way to learn something is to teach it. We easily forget what we hear and read; we remember what we do. Give partners or members of small groups (four people max) an opportunity instruct each other in specific points you've made. For example, in a seminar on selling, you've stressed the importance of Initiative, Imagination, and Information. Let each person in a group of three take one of these ideas, define it and give at least 2 examples of how it can be implemented. It's fine that they may simply repeat what you've given them. In doing so they are internalizing your message. Some will expand on what you presented, think of other examples, maybe even call upon the other group members to come up with fresh applications of your principles. And that's just what you want -- audience involvement.

     If your audience is seated in rows, ask them to stand and face the same direction, toward one side of the room or the other. When you say Begin, each person gives the person in front of him a two-minute back & shoulder massage. After two minutes, people reverse direction & rub someone else. The exercise works fine with partners, though a line rub is a bit less threatening to the touch wary. This is far more fun than a stretch break. I recommend using it only after you've had some less kinesthetic exercise that has served to acquaint people with their neighbors. Be sure to announce that no one is required to participate, so the touch phobic in your midst won't feel pressured to do something outside their comfort zone.

     An excellent activity for early arrivers while you wait for last minute arrivers is to have small groups decide three or four things they'd like to get from the program. It not only gives folks an activity, it gets them thinking about the program content. It also works well at the end of an extended program, seminar or class. In that case, you ask the groups to list the three most important things they learned and their reasons for choosing these over others. This helps to reinforce ideas. As with any exercise, de-brief when you finish. Ask for the results, maybe even write them on a flip chart.

     Different people have different moral frames of reference. While we all agree that values like integrity, loyalty and honesty are good ones, we often find such values in conflict in a specific situation. Then we are forced to make difficult decisions about what is "right." Understanding how others analyze an ethically ambiguous situation is important to our appreciation of them as human beings. Any program on leadership, communication, team building, or other inter-personal content can benefit from an exercise that gives participants a chance to share firmly held beliefs and how they apply them to a specific ethical problem.

     Describe a dilemma. Here's an example I used to use in college philosophy classes. Dick and Jane have been married for sixteen years and have two children. He provides well for his family but has become increasingly involved in his work, so much in fact that he has long ignored his wife's emotional and physical needs. She has called this to his attention repeatedly but to no avail. Of these three alternatives for Jane -- divorce, affair, grin and bear it -- which is the least bad and why?

     Divide into groups of four for discussion. Give them twenty to thirty minutes. One group member is the secretary and takes notes. Another is the reporter who will share the group's "conclusion" with the larger group. Someone else is the captain and encourages all members to participate. The fourth person is the analyst. He or she asks questions of the others to clarify their reasoning. The reasons are more important than the conclusion. Part of the group report can be about what additional information might have led to a different conclusion.

     No matter how many classes I've given this problem to, one thing never changes. People disagree. Even people who chose the same "solution" did so for different reasons. And many said that the exercise gave them a better understanding of themselves and others.

     This is not a game as such, just a way for a group to have fun figuring out who will be first to do whatever the assigned activity is. Just announce that the first person will be any of the following:

  • Who was born closest (or farthest) from where you now are, or
  • Whose birthday is closest to today, or
  • Who has the biggest feet, or
  • Who has the longest hair, or
  • Who is the oldest (or youngest), or
  • Who is the anything else you can think of.

Game Tips

     Give people who arrive early a meaningful activity. Not only does it engage their attention, it rewards them for having come on time. That's far preferable to making the prompt people wait for the latecomers. An easy activity is to list what they think are the top five or ten anything. For example: the world's five highest mountains (Everest, K2, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu); the five longest rivers (Nile, Amazon, Yangtze, Mississippi, Yenisey); five largest oceans (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, Arabian Sea). If you can find a category that bears some relation to the content of your presentation, so much the better. A good place to look for the information is Russell Ash's THE TOP 10 OF EVERYTHING.

     With any small group activity you can anticipate that not all groups will finish at the same time. To meet this difficulty ask that the group leader signal you when his or her group has completed the task. Walk over and give an additional task, preferably one that in some way extends the initial assignment. Or you can have people give themselves a new challenge. This will save you running around the room asking who's finished and who not.

     After most games, I like to debrief the audience. People are eager to share their thoughts and feelings the activity brought up. Thus, the debriefing extends the activity. It also allows people who didn't quite complete the assignment in the allotted time a chance to finish their thoughts and reunite the audience. Best of all, it lets everyone hear some stupendous statements. After an eye contact exercise, a gentleman volunteered, " I had more trouble sustaining five seconds of eye contact with people I've long known than those I'd just met. That made me realize that I don't often look at my wife when I talk to her. So when I get home I'm going to give her five seconds." The room burst into applause.

[Back to top]

Making Important Points:
Ways to Gain Emphasis

     The inexperienced speaker tends to give emphasis to a word or words in one way only: by raising his or her vocal volume. That works, but it's only one way to give a word or phrase emphasis. The fact is that any change of volume or pitch grabs the audience's auditory attention and creates an emphasis. For maximum impact, a good speaker finds different ways to emphasize things. That lends variety to the talk and makes it much more fun to plan.

     For example, instead of getting louder you can speak softer. Consider this sentence, which might find use in a talk in favor of giving federal judges leeway in sentencing: "What Americans want from federal sentencing procedures -- and all facets of their government -- is reason, fairness, and flexibility." Because flexibility is the point most at issue in this argument, it gets the honored position of last word in the sentence. To give it further emphasis, the speaker might increase his volume slightly on "reason," a little more on "fairness," and even more on "flexibility." Equally effective, or maybe even more so, would be to increase the volume on the first two qualities, then lower the volume for the third.

     Since "flexibility" has five syllables, you could utter the word as though it were a slinky toy, raising the pitch slightly for "flex," a little more for "i," even more for "bi," then let it drop on the last two syllables. That makes the word sound like what it describes. Speaking the word more slowly, dragging it out a bit, gives it even more emphasis. Any word spoken more slowly than others gains emphasis from the change.

     Another way to gain emphasis is to reduce the pace. The sudden slow-down adds intensity. So does a pause just before you speak a word. Consider this sentence: "Our Founding Fathers made very clear that all of us have certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Where the emphasis falls is up to the speaker. If his main point is that the rights under discussion originated not with some obscure professor of political science but with our Founding Fathers, then those are the words he'll highlight. If it is the irrevocability of the rights he wants to stress, then "inalienable" gets the emphasis. If one or more of the rights is his focus, then he underlines them.

     Now ask yourself this: For each of those alternatives, how would you choose to make the emphasis? Would you raise or lower your voice, slow down and stretch the word or words out, pause before the key word or words, or some combination? I find this kind of self-questioning one of the most fun parts of planning a presentation. It both forces me to think about the relative importance of points in the talk and gives me a chance to direct my own performance. It's also a way of demonstrating care for the audience through attention to detail. A really good speaker does everything he can to make his message lively, interesting, and entertaining.

     Pitch, pace, and volume jumps -- up or down -- also serve to signal a change of thought. You can use your voice to clue your audience to a new idea by any vocal alteration. Well-timed variation keeps your listeners both alert and in step with your thought process. Believe it or not, it keeps you more alert too, just as shifts of gear on a hilly, curvy country road make driving more fun. Speak the way you'd drive that kind of terrain and your listeners will thrill to the ride.

[Back to top]

Fantastic First Business Impression

     To make a fantastic first impression in a business context abide by the same fundamental principle that governs the success of any first impression: make people feel important. Whether we're at a lunch meeting, job interview, sales call, or conference, we make others feel important by being fully present.

     It begins with the handshake. We send lots of subtle messages in the simple act of shaking hands. Engage the other person's hand so that your thumb notch contacts his or hers. Anything less can convey a sense of not wanting to touch, even distaste. Have a firm but not overbearing grip. A wimpy grip runs the same risk as incomplete contact. Too much macho and you may hurt someone, never a good way to begin. Use the same squeeze for men and women but let up a little for older folks whose arthritis may make them more vulnerable to discomfort.

     To communicate that you know the other person controls the transaction -- as someone you want to buy from or hire you always does -- incline your palm upward slightly. Don't overdo it or you'll appear obsequious.

     Maintain contact for at least 2 seconds. Too fleeting a shake comes across like a jab rather than presence. A two handed shake conveys greater intimacy. It works well with touchy-feely types like me but may put off the less kinesthetic among us. Unless you've observed your target in advance and deem him or her a lover of the tactile, best to let it wait for a later encounter.

     Note the person's eye color. That creates eye contact in a very natural, non-threatening way. Maintain the eye contact even after you've disengaged hands. One of the most common mistakes we make is to look toward other targets before we've established real rapport with the person in front of us. It has an effect like that of a receiver running with the ball before he's caught it.

     Smile throughout the introduction. We want to look as though we're not just "pleased" but damn happy to meet the person. Our body language as well as our facial expression is a tool for communicating our elation. Important as dress and grooming are, energy is even more so. An instant way to energize yourself and enhance your smile is to hold a positive thought. For example, "You have bright eyes" or "I hope you enjoy the meeting."

     Repeat a person's name as soon as you hear it. "Ron, I'm very pleased to meet you." Remembering a person's name goes a long way toward making him feel important. Of the many techniques for name recall, repetition is best and easiest. So use it again when you conclude the conversation. "Let's talk more later, Ron."

     Find something on which you can give a sincere compliment. Behavior is best. "You have terrific posture, Ann. Were you born with it or did you work to develop it?" Apparel will suffice. "What an interesting pin. Does it have a story behind it?" By tacking on a question, you give the person a chance to talk. Most people like telling stories about themselves. Make it easy for them. In telling their stories people reveal more about themselves -- interests, fears, aspirations.

     Knowing something of these will help you create rapport down the road. Stories also show people's communication style. Do they use conversation primarily as a way to convey essential information, or to explore ideas in detail, or to bond with other people by saying only nice things? Knowing which and adapting your style to it will create instant rapport.

     Have a way of describing your work that goes beyond the usual labels like doctor, baker, candlestick maker. Develop a brief description of your activity and the way people benefit from it. For example, an artist might say, "I use pigment to produce images that bring more color into people's work and living space." A plumber could say, "I keep pipes clear so that people can live in cities in sanitary conditions." This kind of response to the ineluctable question of vocation both shows you to be a person of imagination and gives the person talking to you an easy opening for more questions. Best of all, it steers people away from stereotyping you.

     If you know whom you'll be meeting, do some homework. Arrive informed. Armed with information about the company you hope to join, you can relate your unique skills to the specific needs of the prospective employer. Likewise, salespersons can show how their product or service will meet existing and future needs of the potential customer.

     Ask questions. "What's the biggest change your business faces?" "Of what is your company most proud?" "What's the most satisfying thing about your job?" "The most challenging?" It's better to pursue one topic with follow-up questions than to skip around. You want to appear interested in what you asked about rather than just throwing out questions for the sake of conversation.

     When you respond to a question with a general statement, add an example. It will add credibility to your remark and make it -- and you -- more memorable.

     Eschew no-brainer words and phrases like "you know" and "basically." People who preface their every factual statement with one or the other sound like idiots -- probably even to each other. To express disagreement start with "and" rather than "but." "But" is a rapport killer; it nullifies what the other person just said.

     Above all, practice active listening. Keep your eyes on the speaker's. Nod, smile, show that you're interested. Occasionally bounce back what you just heard. "So you find that...." An active listener makes the speaker feel important, appreciated. Then you, the listener, bask in reflected glory.

[Back to top]

Freedom From, To, and You

     Freedom. We all wish for it, even when we're unsure where it will lead us. It's a fundamental value, one we connect to the very idea of being human. Yet we use the word in different ways. Sometimes we equate freedom with absence of restraint. A judge tells a person the jury has just acquitted, you're free to go. Other times freedom connotes capacity to attain a desired outcome. Having reached a level of financial security, you're free to buy your dream house.

     When we speak of the freedom afforded us by virtue of our being single, I think it behooves us to get clear on what kind of freedom we're talking about and whether it entails any ambiguity.
Examples of the freedom some singles claim to enjoy: Being able to eat what and where you want. Not having to pick your clothes up or wash dishes more often than you see fit. Date around. Have unlimited alone time.

     These are enviable freedoms IF they enrich your life more than the companionship of a mate who would, of necessity, limit them. It really comes down to what you want your life to be about, who the person is you're trying to become. If lack of restraint--call it liberty--provides you with greater self-expression and leaves you feeling freer to become what you want to be, the single life is a boon.

     On the other hand, if you're convinced that your development, let alone happiness, as a person depends on experiencing the deepest love possible between two people, you'd do better to surrender some liberty in its pursuit. Freedom for you lies in realizing a way of life centered on intimate partnership and exploring your potential as a mate.

     I mean no bias in this. Intimacy, despite the good press it gets, isn't for everybody. Some people just aren't cut out for commitment (God, I hate that overused word). Learning, often through painful trial and error, if we are or not is one of the burdens of our humanity. Accepting our truth and choosing directions compatible with it allows us to live more authentically. And that, I think, is the profoundest meaning of freedom: to become who you truly are.
[Back to top]


     Pity the critic. No one in the art world is more maligned -- not shady dealers, not creators of schlock or sentimental art, not even deadbeat gallery owners. A critic draws more ire from more people, generates greater condemnation than even the likes of Jesse Helms. And for no more than expressing his views. For a critic is, in the simplest sense, someone whose opinions appear in print.

     Criticism didn't always suffer a bad reputation. It was held in high esteem until a brazen Frenchman had the audacity to satirize the bold and colorful paintings of a group of his countrymen who came to be known as impressionists. Little did this intrepid writer realize that Impressionism would come to enjoy the same sacrosanct status in the history of art as the Renaissance Old Masters. Criticism has been suspect ever since. Because one of their number grievously misgauged the merits, influence and eventual acclaim of a new way of painting, all critics suffered discredit.

     Today its legions of detractors regard criticism as an activity of, by and for snobs -- and uninformed snobs at that. Characteristic is the reaction of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) when someone asked him to comment on certain critical assessments of his poetry. "I don't pay no attention to no kind of critics about nothing. If they knew as much as they claim to about what they're criticizing, they ought to be doing that instead of just standing on the sidelines using their mouth." In other words, criticism is something done by non-creative people at the expense of creative people. A critic is but a mentally impoverished parasite preying on that most noble of breeds, "The Artist."

     Rubbish. Criticism is not the enemy of art but its handmaiden. Good criticism is far more valuable -- and creative! -- than the mediocrity which often masquerades as art.

     The greatest misfortune of criticism is that it is misnamed. The word itself, if not prefaced by "constructive," connotes faultfinding. It would be less misunderstood were it to be renamed interpretation, which is what, in fact, it is -- the application of intelligence to art in an effort to understand it better. Criticism is a quest for meaning, and it exists in not one but several forms.

     We can specify at least three kinds of criticism: historical, theoretical and practical. The first concerns itself with the chronology and classification of artists and movements, of ideas and their development into that nebulous yet quite tangible aspect of art we call "style." Some people consider art history a separate discipline, but a historian is an interpreter as well as a chronologer.

     Theoretical criticism has much in common with esthetics, that branch of philosophy which seeks to define the nature and function of art. It deals with generalizations about art, the categories into which various art falls, and the ideas which inform it. A lecture or essay that described the identifying characteristics of Romanticism would be an exercise in theoretical criticism.

     Practical criticism analyzes specific works of art. The analysis may entail a highly technical description of the artist's method or the writer's reaction to the painting. But it always concerns itself with individual pieces of art.

     Obviously these three kinds of criticism have points in common and overlap. The historian deals with theories as well as artists. The theoretical critic must ground his generalizations on specific works of art, as when John Canaday credited the popularity of contemporary western art to "an ecstatic love affair...between the affluent purchaser with mediocre taste and the skilled painter of mediocre conceptions." And the practical critic who is ignorant of art history, much less art theory, will have only the most subjective basis for his comments. (That strikes me as precisely the case with many of the writers who cover art for daily newspapers. Their impoverished opinions aren't based on any thought out and consistently applied standards of excellence.)

     In each kind of criticism we find an evaluative aspect, an implicit or explicit statement of standards. The historian exercises value judgments in the very selection of his material. Part of the theoretical critic's work is to define standards of excellence, if not for all time at least within the context of his discussion. And if practical criticism fails to convey the writer's sense of the meaning and power of the work he talks about, or his lack of such sense, it's probably not worth reading.

     Evaluation is thus an integral part of criticism and is hardly a reason for condemning it. Evaluations of a sort are made just by asserting a like or a dislike of something. When one goes so far as to affix a label of "good" or "bad" he wades in critical waters. By giving reasons for his judgments he performs a critical function. And if, heaven forbid, his views are published, he may be blessed with the appellation "critic," complete with stigma.

     Like an artist, a critic must have a refined eye. Where the artist works with color, shape and line, the critic uses words. Criticism appeals to the analytical mind, the person who wants to know what things mean and how they relate. Like good painting, good criticism is a mode of correct thinking, an attempt to propagate excellence. The ideas it produces are conducive to artistic creation. At its best, criticism is an informed vision which deals with art in a way that awakens in us a fuller, more intimate sense of how and why art exists and helps us to see more clearly.

[Back to top]