The Stress Doc explores psychological and technical concepts and skills gleaned from a recent, parts powerful and parts painful learning curve. These strategic tips just might help you conquer that next high stakes audition.
Jumping Into the High Stakes Audition:
"Top Ten" Strategies for Surviving and Winning
You don’t have to lead three one-day seminars in three cities over five days. You don’t have to prove your self a training expert in "Anger, Conflict Resolution & Difficult People." Nor do you have to face the challenge of an intense startup-learning curve, i.e., prove you can capture high evaluation numbers or go home. And you don’t have to be extremely motivated to want to be hired as a consultant for a nationally visible company.
But when financial pressure, publishing and marketing dreams as well as self-esteem fantasies and fears are added to audition angst…we’re talking about one potentially hyper-combustible performance mix. And there’s surely a fine line between being ablaze and being burnt out. (And believe me, I’ve gone over the edge more than once.) Yet, ironically, sometimes the latter (burnout) sets the stage for the former (a new flame):
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!
The critical question: Will my performance overall burn steady as red-hot charcoals emitting nurturing heat, interspersed with unpredictable keen crackling, while being captivatingly luminous? Will others gather round, add their own fuel or help fan dying embers, thus building and sustaining mutual, symbiotic and synergistic ebb and flow amongst performance parts and the whole?
Or being so absorbed in my passionate enlightenment, will I fervidly consume my own resources while ignoring my needs and the needs of those around me? Will I deprive myself of replenishing fuel and inexorably implode? Now the only remnant of the once fiery, all-powerful (or was it hypomanic) performer is a mere smoldering shell. His final epitaph: Bunt out at the (high) stake!
Of course, when it comes to facing that exciting, red-hot audition many back away. The flame or the fame does not mesmerize all; not all are energized by the performance challenge of breathing both fire and focus. Some are afraid of heat exhaustion; others are fearful of being shamefully scarred or burned. It is long, hard work to understand, let alone achieve, the capacities to blaze brightly and gently glow.
Conversely, if you seek the fire mostly to inflate an ego or fuel egoal-driven fantasies and are hooked on a high-risk quick fix, then akin to a flaming meteor you will quickly extinguish and likely be lost in that starry night. But if you understand that it is the path of mastery, more ideal than goal, that exceptional performance is an unending commitment, an infinite learning curve, and a lifelong quest then you are ready to "know the pain; to transform the fire to burning desire." Consider this hard-earned and humble offering: "The Stress Doc’s ‘Top Ten’ Strategies for Surviving and Winning the High Stakes Audition."
1. Want It Badly. Try not to let fears of rejection or possible disappointment keep you from allowing a performance or audition goal to be important. Sure there’s anticipation anxiety. Will I nail this speech, interview, athletic tryout, business presentation, etc.? Or will I be nailed to that high stake? But this tension, unless reaching immobilizing panic levels, will sharpen your learning curve survival skills: for example, by gaining an intense focus, being open to new ideas along with making novel and/or strategic connections between concepts and their application or delivery. And being and staying hungry motivates drive and tenacity. Two final thoughts: a) get some coaching if trapped by nerves or rigid perfectionism and b) as a speaker better to be a bit hot and bothered than cool and emotionally flat.
2. Go With Strengths, Own Weakness. For a critical audition or a first-time presentation, mostly go with what you know. Don’t try to accommodate or master a whole new system the first time out. When experiencing stress overload, we are susceptible to minimizing what we know, what we have done and what we can do.
If necessary, don’t reinvent; selectively borrow from someone else’s wheel. But resist the temptation to completely rely on their invention. Pull together a signature presentation: a performance built on your skills and trials, your capacities and idiosyncrasies, which acknowledges or compensates (not just tries to hide) inexperience or weakness. Acknowledging a gap upfront with an audience takes most of the air out of the dreaded humiliation balloon. You don’t have to obsess about being found out. Being genuine and real helps others forgive many sins and shortcomings.
Of course, if you develop and use your own program and materials, more is on the line. As I recently fantasized: "Love me, love my manual!"
3. Cultivate An Intense Focus. You can’t be a Jack or Jill of all trades if you want to approach mastering one, or if you strive for masterly performance. For right-minded preparation, you must carve out time and space; a place that allows you to ponder and play. This solitary place is both a mindset and a physical setting. Author Virginia Wolff (being discovered anew through the movie, "Hours") called it, "A Room of One’s Own." This was also a metaphor for a woman’s need for independence and self-control, both psychologically and financially.
For me it’s writing and word processing, thinking and preparing at my teahouse – no cell phone, no email, no TV, i.e., no interruptions. An intense focus combined with a safe harbor helps modulate pre-performance anxiety. Obsession is channeled more into undivided preparation rather than self-distracting rumination.
4. Jump In and Start Swimming, Change Strokes and Reach Out. No better way to know the temperature of the water or of your audience and whether there are any alligators or sharks lurking than by taking the plunge. The challenge then becomes finding a balance between maintaining your initial game plan and adapting to group feedback. One way to utilize both approaches – pre-set presentation and feedback – is early on getting the audience involved. My preferred presentational rhythm involves brief conceptual lecture, including telling a story, small group exercise followed by large group discussion. This fluid approach soon generates high energy throughout the room. It also facilitates a participant’s ability to raise questions and objections. The issues may be unique to the individual; more likely they reflect others’ concerns. Bringing out and answering tough questions enhance your credibility. And most important, you are building rapport and trust.
5. Become an Orchestra Leader. In my humble opinion, the key to successful performance not only entails being effective and dynamic. (Though these days, for many folks, success only seems to involve admiring oneself or admiring the rarefied view when on the alleged mountaintop. Hey I’m not a grump: a little narcissistic indulgence can be healthy, affirming and fun.) But the real challenge is to bring your audience along with you. So once you’ve established some legitimacy and trust, try a role shift – from solo performer to orchestra leader. Now many participants will risk engaging "The Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure." They will peek out of the (band) shell; they will begin to let you as well as their colleagues help them bring out their best music. And all parties during this role transition may experience movement out of a comfort zone. But exploration and new discovery often generates a sense of achievement and uncommon satisfaction both as an individual and team performer.
Remember, most times, successful performance doesn’t simply involve dazzling others. High performance and high marks often result by creating memorable synergy with others.
6. Ride Out Anxiety or Resistance Wave. During a presentation or audition, it’s not uncommon to slip or to hit a mental wall. Or, for whatever reason, you and your audience have lost contact; you are no longer on the same wavelength. The key is not to panic or despair. Don’t try even harder to win them back. Take a breath…then change the pace: instead of putting out, ask for input. Does the audience have any questions? More specifically, perhaps they are restlessly sitting on some concerns or objections? In other words, you don’t have to dig out of a hole by your lonesome. Use audience energy, even if it’s momentarily of a contrary nature, to reengage with participants. And showing you can handle some negatives without being defensive, or acknowledging if not agreeing with the objections, will help build trust. But there’s more. Research shows that by encouraging counterarguments, in the long run, you will likely spark some receptivity to your point of view.
7. Not Everyone Will Love You. Both during a performance and with post-performance reviews you must prepare for skeptics and critics. A performance paradox exists: you need to be tough-skinned not to become preoccupied with a scowling or indifferent expression nor feel profoundly wounded or paralyzed by a negative review. Yet, if too calloused or convinced, then you may lose the sensitivity for distinguishing wheat from chaff feedback. You might not differentiate another’s bias or projection (of the critic’s own inadequacies or insecurities) from useful learning curve information.
Also, when being badgered by an antagonist, if you have the energy, don’t attack back or get caught up in an intellectually vicious cycle because of punctured pride. Do set limits and hold your ground in a self-affirming manner. Don’t let an irritating individual let you lose sight of the greater whole and the big picture mission. For example, year’s back, a workshop participant used a mundane leadership decision to question my judgment and integrity. Despite efforts to be diplomatic, his moralistic attack was relentless, and was disturbing the audience. Finally, I stated, "The only way I can explain my behavior is by calling on Emerson: ‘Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." (I believe I left out Ralph’s opening word, "rigid.") An audience member fairly shouted, "That’s a good one," and the shoot out was over. (Actually, this disarming encounter later compelled this fellow to openly acknowledge his painful state of burnout.)
But know sometimes a tactical retreat allows for vital rejuvenation and return. To cite this newsletter’s poetic heading:
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust.
8. Take Time for the Pain. Sometimes the hardest part of a presentation, especially one in which you’ve invested energy and hours, heart and soul is pursuing immediate feedback. You may still be feeling exhausted or vulnerable. Nerves are raw; the ego is tender. Why would anyone see the performance glass as half empty when you’ve given so much?
The courageous act is being open and seeking feedback, especially criticism. Of course the pain is searing. But with time, whether quietly or openly, alone or with another, you grieve the hurt, and you will gradually accept the loss of an illusion of perfection or of fairness. As you begin to recover, now you discover unprecedented focus and an even greater determination to be tactfully outrageous. And you are pushing to break out of a habitual or "bs" (be safe) mindset. You are in a heightened motivational state called "thrustration," torn between thrusting ahead with direct action and frustration, as you haven’t yet put together the pieces of the puzzle. Have faith; new connections and possibilities will emerge. Remember, in this brain stormy incubation process, "a time for waste is not a waste of time." A fitful sleep may produce fertile dreams.
9. Deliver a Powerful Close. While you never have a second chance for a first impression, when it comes to performance, better to open up steady and solid. Grow as you go and finish with a powerful and memorable close. And if this finale can allow your audience to share the stage, if not be the center of attention, well so much the better.
So even if mid-stream you’ve had a performance lull, whether because of loss of focus or an energy dip, regroup and push for the finish line. A powerful close should not be rushed, allows for summation while highlighting key performance episodes. You want your audience to be aware of and, hopefully, to appreciate the rich learning experience had by all (excluding those chronic naysayers). And a good closing is more than icing; it helps make the cake memorable.
10. Discover "The Secret of Wisdom." A key component of high performance involves controlling – leading or shaping – the performance elements (including participants) within your purview. It also involves letting go of those problematic forces and faces that are not essential to accomplishing your mission or performance goal. Beware of being distracted or becoming overly solicitous of or dependent upon "stress carriers" on the performance path.
Words of wisdom. I immediately think of two of my favorite sayings. Jonas Salk, the great scientific pioneer, one of the discoverers of the polio vaccine, observed:
Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down, being courageous one more time than we are fearful...trusting one more time than being anxious.
And along with a sense of persistence, everyday struggle and appreciation for even small triumphs is the need for serenity: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can...and the wisdom to know where to hide the bodies." No...Just kidding. ;-) "And the wisdom to know the difference." And the older I get, the more profound "The Serenity Prayer" seems. Yet, a fundamental question remains: how the heck do you get the wisdom? Okay, folks. Here it is...The Secret of Wisdom.
Once there was a young woman who heard that an old wise woman had the secret of wisdom. The young woman was determined to track the old woman down. After traveling many months, the young woman found the old woman in a cave. She entered and addressed the old woman: "Old Wise Woman, I hear you have The Secret of Wisdom. Would you share it with me?" The old woman looked at the youth and said, "Yes, you seem sincere. The Secret of Wisdom is good judgment." "Good judgment, of course," said the youth, thanked her mentor, and started to leave. However, as she got to the entrance of the cave she paused, turned back and said, "Old Woman, I feel funny, but, if I may ask, how does one obtain good judgment?" "That’s a good question," said the sage. "One obtains good judgment through experience." "Experience, of course," said the young seeker, and proceeded to leave. But once again she stopped in her tracks, and humbly walked back to her mentor. Shrugging her shoulders, with a somewhat pained expression, the young woman implored, "Old Woman, I feel foolish, but I have to ask: How does one obtain experience?" The old woman paused, nodded her head, and then proceeded: "Now you have reached the right question. How does one obtain experience?. . .Through bad judgment!"
Errors of judgment rarely mean incompetence; they more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness. Our so-called "failures" can be channeled as guiding streams (sometimes raging rivers) of opportunity and experience that ultimately enrich – widen and deepen – the risk-taking passage...If we can just immerse ourselves in the these unpredictably rejuvenating waters.
In closing, grapple with and practice these ten high stakes strategies:
1) Want It Badly
2) Go With Strengths, Own Weakness
3) Cultivate An Intense Focus
4) Jump In and Start Swimming, Change Strokes and Reach Out
5) Become an Orchestra Leader
6) Ride Out Anxiety or Resistance Wave
7) Not Everyone Will Love You.
8) Take Time for the Pain
9) Deliver a Powerful Close
10) Discover "The Secret of Wisdom."
Not only will you survive and win but you will also…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a psychotherapist, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, and training/OD consultant for a myriad of corporations and government agencies. The Doc is a syndicated writer and the author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression. In 2003, Mark received the inaugural National Association of Social Workers-Metro-DC Chapter’s Social Work Entrepreneur Award. The Doc is also America Online’s "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City. See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR). Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com. Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource. For more info on the Doc’s speaking and training programs and products, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662.