The pre-show rituals of singers can sometimes provide useful tips for aspiring speakers, I believe. There are many good examples but maybe the best was Elvis Presley and his “1000-yard walk”. When singing at a large venue such as an arena, he would insist that his trailer was parked exactly 1000 yards from the stage.
Why he did that, and how his idea could be adapted, are questions worth studying by performers of any kind; especially those performers who have to give of their best at a predetermined time and place, despite the stress that that certain knowledge brings.
The types of performers I have in mind include three very high-profile groups: sportspeople, actors and musicians.
I was speaking last week at Bristol Speakers’ Club; I’d chosen as my subject the ways that we speakers can learn from other performers. This was a continuation of a theme I’d first flagged up at my speech to the Rotary Club of Bristol Bridge in September.
Performance anxiety: even felt by performers who chose that life
It’s a known fact that many people fear public speaking. It is often done by people who don’t enjoy it but have to do it anyway – part of their job, father of the bride, etc, etc. Those reluctant speakers might logically assume that all those other types of performers are doing what they do by choice, therefore will not be affected by nerves. That is very far from the truth; one hears many stories of famous actors and musicians throwing up in the wings before a performance.
Sportspeople: a topic for another day
Athletes – in fact sportspeople in general – are in focus in this year of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics; however, I pointed out to the audience that typing in the phrase “sports psychology” into Google produces 126 million results in 0.21 seconds (it’s true; I’ve just checked!). Slots at the Speakers’ Club are of only six minutes, so I told my fellow-members I would leave sports for another time; or probably a different forum.
Singers: Noel Coward was right
So I focused on musicians and looked at what they did to relax and get in the right mood before a show. I chose popular singers first, (a) because they are so high-profile we know the most about every detail of their lives; and (b) because Noel Coward was right when he said: “Extraordinary, how potent cheap music is.”
Some of the examples I quoted involved alcohol, but not Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. No booze for him: in his dressing-room he drinks mugs of tea while ironing his stage clothes. “It gets me in the mood”, he says.
Elvis’s 1000-yard walk: the reason why
I said that Elvis Presley gave us perhaps the greatest idea. I imagine that the atmosphere just before one of his shows was pretty hectic, with all the folderol that goes with an audience of thousands ready to hear a world-famous performer; one who has a large entourage. So what was the purpose of the 1000-yard walk?
My guess: he did it so that the last few minutes before performing were a chance to get his head “in the zone”. No interactions, no conversation. Just a solitary walk of just over half a mile.
(Solitary? OK, he was probably surrounded by a phalanx of security men; but I’m sure they were under instructions not to talk to him.)
“Walk around the block”
How to adapt his technique for those of us who don’t have a trailer and a large entourage? My advice was as follows: You don’t have a trailer? No problem. Go for a walk around the block.
We humans can’t last long without water or air. Arrive early, ensure things are set up as you need, ensure you’ve got water available for when you speak (preferably from a glass but a plastic bottle is better than nothing), then go for a walk around the block.
If you still have time, go round the block again.
And if you don’t like Elvis, or his wonderful 1000-yard walk idea, my suggestion was to choose a musician, actor or sportsperson you do admire; find out what rituals they use to relax and control nerves, and copy that.
And finally: I’m sure that your hero or heroine would be pleased if they ever found out, because “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”