Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tuning yourself mindfully: What meditation can do for public speakers

Jon Kabat-Zinn has a suggestion for meetings: Open the meeting with a few minutes of...nothing. No sound, no talking, no action, just mindfulness. The idea is to use those moments to bring the meeting participants into focus, if they were not focused before arriving, and to create a break with what came before and what will come after.

Kabat-Zinn, author of many books and recordings about mindfulness meditation, including Wherever You Go, There You Are, is an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts medical school. He shared the idea of a silent start to meetings in a 2007 lecture at Google.

Using a musical metaphor, he notes that, before a symphony plays for the audience, its members first tune their instruments, on their own and then against one another. So it should be before meetings, says Kabat-Zinn. In his recording of Guided Mindfulness Meditation Series 3, he quotes Buddha as saying that mindfulness is like tuning a stringed instrument: "Too loose, and there's no true sound. Too tight, and the string can break."

You can follow this link to start the lecture at the 46-minute mark, where Kabat-Zinn begins talking about meetings, or watch the full video of Kabat-Zinn's lecture at Google here, and below--it's an hour and 12 minutes, and includes a meditation. You also can listen to a longer program and interview about mindfulness with him on On Being.

Mindfulness meditation can do much more for speakers than just open a meeting. I recommend developing a meditation practice if you're a speaker who is:
  • Nervous before speaking or flooded with anxiety after speaking: Meditation, or present-moment awareness, works on keeping you focused on what's happening right now, rather than catastrophizing about what's about to happen or what happened in the past. Kabat-Zinn's research suggests that if you meditate every day for 8 weeks, you'll have a real practice established--and with that tool in your toolkit, you should be better able to keep yourself focused on your now rather than the past or the future. The deep relaxation you can get in even three minutes of meditation is a real boon to the speaker about to go on stage.
  • Anxious about answering questions: The Google lecture and the On Being interview are wonderful long-form demonstrations of how someone who meditates can excel at a non-anxious stance when receiving audience questions. Kabat-Zinn gives each questioner full attention. You can see he is not thinking ahead to what he's going to say, and that makes for a much better exchange. He reinforces with enthusiasm and when he needs to disagree, it's not a stressful moment for him or the audience. That kind of balance and focus is something every speaker should develop for the Q&A portion of talks.
  • Needing to find a quiet moment in a noisy, busy backstage environment: In his Guided Mindfulness Meditation 3 recording linked above, Kabat-Zinn includes a meditation that has you focus on the sounds that come to your ears. This is one of my favorites for noisy environments (and anyone who's been in a green room can tell you they are not quiet places). Introverts who need an escape but can't leave the room will find this useful, too.
  • Likely to view speaking as an out-of-body experience: Many speakers describe their speaking experience this way, and it's a bad sign. You need to be focused and aware when you speak, as so many variables are in play. Meditation will help you learn how to hold it all in awarenesss, without stress--or blocking things out.
If you want to start a meditation practice, get Kabat-Zinn's classic book, Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. It also includes one of the best explanations of fight-or-flight syndrome, that panicky feeling you get when you walk out on stage or face some other threat, real or imagined. The book walks you through what meditation is, how to do it effectively, and the research that shows why it works. 

Mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn

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