When I was a little girl, I went through a phase of wanting to be a musician. A concert musician. The specific instrument(s) varied, sometimes weekly, as I constantly expanded my repertoire and experimented with keyboards and woodwinds, picks and bows. I loved the idea of making beautiful music through some combination of my hands and wood, string, metal, and empty space.
Later, I wanted to be an actress. I memorized scenes and soliloquys, practiced them in front of the mirror, taped myself on a portable cassette recorder (with wood-grain veneer covering the speaker) that I kept in a special area of the basement that I'd marked out for my private rehearsals. At band camp one summer,* one of my roommates said I was being ridiculous: no one actually grows up to be an actor. Some people do, I pointed out with what I thought was undeniable logic, given that such things as movies and plays and TV shows existed and were populated largely by grownups. She shook her head, and declared she was going to be a dentist or an accountant. Those were real jobs, for real people. Not silly girl fantasies, like acting. I was wounded--I was not a silly girl! Sniff. After that incident, to ensure I would be taken seriously, I studied scenes only from Very Serious Plays. My Interlochen audition tape included Hamlet's soliloquy, because what could be more serious than Shakespeare? I was for real. I wanted it. I wanted to be good at it.
I loved performing. The tingly feeling before going onstage, the exhilaration of applause. Even the stories of forgotten lines or mistaken lights or doors that didn't open. I loved sitting down before a sheaf of symbols I magically knew how to decode, and trying to do justice to the notes of Mahler or Saint-Saens. I loved pretending to be someone else for a while, embody a character penned by someone with a brilliant eye for human drama. Performing was a part of my life from my first clarinet solo in fourth grade to a Duerrenmatt play (in German) in college.
Then, somehow, I stopped. I ended up as a translator, working long hours from home in front of a computer. Oh, there was the occasional interpreting gig, although those were mainly for small groups sitting around a table, or walking through a factory. Once I was the awards ceremony interpreter for the World Skeet Shooting Championships, and that was televised, but it was hardly a starring role. And once I was asked to give a presentation about the United States for an "international speaker series" that my doctor organized as some sort of community service event. Dario did the audiovisuals, and I explained that I'd never actually seen a car chase or a gun in person. (I suppose, looking back, that was my first lecture.) For the most part, though, I worked in complete solitude, far from anything that could remotely be construed as an audience.
Until I started teaching.**
Performing is one of my favorite components of teaching. I love lecturing. I spend a lot of time trying to develop engaging visuals, mapping out the story of what I need students to take away, figuring out where and how I need to lighten the tone or change things up to keep their attention. I carefully plan discussion questions that will require them to actively process the material instead of passively absorbing or, more likely, zoning out. (Obviously some do, no matter how hard I try. It's the nature of the human beast, particularly the species homo undergraduus.) For me, lecturing is stimulating because I get to choose the material, decide how to present it, give the delivery myself--and bring the audience into the experience as much as possible. It's the dream job of a, er, control enthusiast who tries hard not to be. Despite all the advance work that goes into it, keeping the audience involved means the lecture has to happen in the moment. I can't just recite a bunch of stuff from memory and go home. I have to be on. It's electrifying, at least for me. I have an adrenaline rush for at least an hour after a good lecture. (And oh, it's so easy to feel when it's good... and when it's not.)
Tomorrow, my students are giving a public performance of their group projects. Aside from any flaws in the projects themselves (some more pronounced than others), most of the students are terrified at having to stand up in front of an auditorium full of people, and explain their work. Some of them have tried to develop scripts, and memorize them. What I've tried to explain, with varying degrees of success, is that having a script is actually a hindrance to success when it comes to this type of performance. If you know the general points you need to make, practice making them (without writing down the exact words), and trust that the rest of your team is there to step in for you if you have an attack of nerves or forget something important, you're much better off than someone clutching her index cards for dear life. The thrill of performing is all about being in the moment, letting the visuals and audience response inform your words, being confident that you know your work better than anyone, allowing your pride and enthusiasm to flow out and connect you to everyone else in the room. That's how you turn your presentation into something special, no matter what you're talking about.
Some people grow up to be actors. Lots more people don't--but it doesn't mean that they can't still grow up to perform in public. Or try to help others perform well. I hope that at least some of my students have absorbed the lesson, and get to feel that power of public speaking for themselves.***
*Which was not at all as interesting as that phrase now sounds in the popular lexicon. Although I did once develop a massive crush on a male flutist with wavy dark blond hair and green eyes. The fact that I remember this factoid from... 1977? '78? is a little disconcerting.
**If you're thinking I skipped over a major part of my career history, the fact is that the real breakthrough in this area came about when I started organizing and teaching seminars and workshops for clients. My colleagues used to joke that I was a professor manqué. Guess they were smarter than I gave them credit for.
***There are ironies in this post, which I'll explain later this month. But every word I've written here is 100% true.