Being Better than Not-Bad

Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.
-Lord Chesterfield

One of the assignments for students in my FIZ courses is making a one-minute spontaneous speech about something that is important to them as individuals. I refer to this as the “passionate presentation” and I know I’m far from the only teacher who assigns this sort of task.

Watching and listening to these speeches can be inspiring or it can be boring. Usually it’s somewhere in the middle although I’m always hoping for inspiring and think that’s within the realm of possibility for everyone. But it takes effort.

And with a passionate presentation, it also takes some passion. It’s pretty depressing to me when I hear students say they can’t think about anything they’re passionate about. I’m sorry to say that I hear that a lot, frequently from people who are of an age (20s and early 30s) that I think of as having an abundance of passion. Shouldn’t we all have many things for which we have passion, from the lofty to the profane, the rare to the common?

A big part of the problem is that these students are worried about feeling passionate about something somehow “wrong.” I say this because when I tell them they have to make a speech about something that’s important to them, I often hear, “Like what?”

I am tempted to respond that I have no idea what might be important to them and that’s the point of my asking. Then I remember that I’m the teacher, the one we are brought up to look to for approval. The students are just trying to avoid doing the assignment incorrectly and so I try to suggest the speech can be about just about anything: justice, tennis, cookies, love, shoes, family, soup…

Even so, that’s often not enough to reassure the speakers that I really want to hear what’s on their minds, that I have no secret list of good and bad topics. Some of the students don’t get past trying to win my approval and avoid getting it “wrong,” despite my encouragements that the best way to win my approval is not to try and the way of getting it right is to worry less about getting it wrong.

Then there’s peer pressure. No one wants to get up and talk about something that might make her look like a dork in front of colleagues.

Society’s to blame, I suppose.

So the first potentially big obstacle in making the passionate presentation is in its conception. “Do I have a passion and, if so, is it acceptable and appropriate?”

The next big possible roadblock is in the execution of the speech. No one wants to suck at it, to make mistakes and do it wrong. This is especially true for students who have taken professional-presentation courses in which bad speaking habits are addressed and ripped out by the roots. Again, people don’t want to get it wrong and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. I would be the first to admit that bad presentation technique can be a major detraction from a good message.

What stuns me though is how few of the speakers I see really seem to want to do well. Most of them are looking, first, to survive the travail of making the speech and, second, to avoid making mistakes and incurring demerits. This makes for boring or, at best, uninspiring speeches.

Or, as I recently told a student, “There was absolutely nothing wrong with your speech. There just wasn’t enough right.” In other words, the speaker hadn’t done poorly because he did anything wrong; he did poorly because he didn’t do it well.

It reminds me a bit of figure skating in the Olympics. I don’t know if they still do this but I recall as a kid seeing the skaters do compulsory exercises in addition to their big routines. So you’d see skaters doing perfect figure-eights for the judges before going out and defying the laws of physics. It was absurd, like watching a great chef be graded on making toast, and it was boring, unlike the main performance routines.

Now I understand that figure skaters need to learn to do figure-eights before they can do the really fancy stuff and I understand that most of us can benefit from learning good presentational techniques and how to avoid bad ones.

That said, if a speaker has his arms dead at his sides when he’s speaking, he may avoid doing something wrong with them but he’s also avoiding doing anything right with them. It looks robotic and it’s stultifying.

If your hands flap like they’re possessed by demons when you speak, try to learn how to control them by being deliberate in your movements and getting your hands to aid the message. Don’t kill your hands by keeping them perfectly still. Watch people in everyday conversation and you will notice their hands move naturally to help deliver messages.

The best artists generally learn the way things are supposed to be done and then go on and do things their own way, perhaps breaking the “rules” and deliberately doing certain things “wrong.” Picasso springs to mind, Thelonious Monk too.

There is security in avoiding mistakes. Mistakes are knowable and quantifiable. Doing well is mysterious, infinite, and unquantifiable. So, yeah, that’s kind of scary but the security of being satisfied with avoiding mistakes is terribly limiting. You may never fall but you’ll just as certainly never fly.

Seeing as this is a website devoted to theatrical improvisation, I should at least mention the relevance of all this to doing improv. Quite simply and just as above, you cannot do good improv if your main goal is avoiding mistakes.

Indeed one could argue that there could be no mistakes in improv because there is no preordained plan or outcome from which to diverge. I would say that there can be mistakes in technique but that artistic choices followed and executed boldly and unapologetically are the path to improvising well.

Playing not to lose is no way to win. So get out there and don’t just do it not-wrong; do it well!

-Greg Hohn, Director