What's worth talking about

This past week I was away from home to give a couple of workshops and a talk. I had all the usual angst, the self-doubt and fear. It got me noticing my own process and I found myself reflecting on Public speaking for musicians — what’s really worth talking about as a musician.

I was in Boone, North Carolina visiting the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University for a residency — working with terrific students and faculty and meeting with the university’s career center staff. And I was there to give a Commencement address, too.

Boone is an amazing part of the country: the school is in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the views with the morning mist rolling over the mountain was terrific. I had a great time and the entire School of Music — the students, faculty, and staff — all reflect a wonderful collaborative positive energy.

But I’ll tell you, working on the requested 8 minute commencement speech — that was a real public speaking for musicians challenge. A week before I still had way too much material and my negative self-talk was plaguing me.

Check your inner dialogue

My self-talk was berating me with messages like, “You’ve got nothing usable here, this is garbage” and “You’re going to bore the pants off the audience” and “This is a strung together rehash of everyday ideas—nothing new here at all.”

This of course is my Resistance (AKA Part X) talking, trying to get me to play smaller, not take on challenges, and to avoid risks that would help me stretch my skills. In terms of preparing talks, my Resistance tries to scare me into not being forthcoming, not “speaking my truth” and not daring to try out new material in workshops and presentations.

Maybe you have also struggled with Resistance. Here’s the lessons I learned from my latest challenge with public speaking for musicians:

1. Get your basic ideas on paper.

To sort out my thoughts and to get any project going, the first thing I find I need to do is to “vomit ideas on the page.” I haven’t found a better way to narrow down the possibilities of a talk or an article than to simply get the potential topic ideas on paper.

Maybe it takes longer than it should, but if I don’t tease out the possibilities, I find that I’m entertaining alternative topics and playing the “would-a, could-a, should-a” game with myself instead of fulling committing to a focus.

So I simply make a list. And then I notice which of these topics seem to have the most heat — which seem the most resonant.

Sometimes, when I’m lucky, the organization where I’m presenting the workshop or talk will ask for the title early on. I often have nothing prepared a month before but I have to give them something so it forces me to pick a lane. So I get committed, ready or not.

In the case of Appalachian State, the title I gave the school was “What you bring to the table.” This turned out to be the topic I needed and wanted to cover, although I wasn’t sure about it when I sent it in. Leaning into our intuition has some real advantages.

2. Force yourself to state your main points.

As if choosing the topic isn’t hard enough, next I ask myself, “What is it you really want to say here?”

I try to keep it to no more than three main points and then use these to build the main idea of the presentation to a satisfying conclusion.

And I look to use a story to illustrate the idea. The stories I use are either from my own checkered past or about one of my clients — without using her or his real name.

Now of course, I doubt myself all along the way. The negative self-talk is often saying “This is garbage. You don’t have 3 real points here, you have at most half a point.”

But I keep going. Why?

Because I start to get curious about the creative challenge that comes with public speaking for musicians. In the most recent case, I was engrossed in offering something that graduating students, parents, faculty, and staff, might all connect with.

I wanted to find some truths about how life works and what gets in the way of us living into our real potential. It got me reflecting on my own journey as well as those of my clients.

3. Start drafting by talking out your main points.

What’s helped me is to record myself “talking out loud” my thoughts using my notes as guide. This is all still in what Anne LaMott refers to as the “Shitty first draft” stage. It’s a way to distract myself from worry about sentences, phrases, and grammar. Instead, I focus on the essential content: on saying it straight and direct.

Yes, it’s painful to record myself (who likes to see and hear one’s own speaking?) but doing this quickly tells me when I’ve got material I want to use and what I can get rid of.

And here’s a surprising way I’ve found to tell me when I have something that really needs to be said.

I look for one of two reactions. Either the material makes me nervous — I’m afraid of using it — or it actually gets me a little choked up. Either way, that’s how I know it’s worth using. If it feels risky in some way, then I know it’s outside my comfort zone and is helping me stretch and grow.

So if I’ve prepared a talk or written an article and none of it makes me nervous or gets me a little “verklempt,” then I know I’m not digging into the good stuff yet and I need to dare going further.

4. Work your drafts over chunk by chunk.

After I’ve got the main material, then it’s a matter of refining. This is where I just take one chunk at a time, reading out loud and revising. Constantly asking myself, “What’s a more direct and honest way to say this?”

With the Commencement address, I had 8 minutes, and I had too much material, so I had to be ruthless to get it down to my main points and to see if the story I was using to illustrate was actually doing the job.

Not sure it was wholly successful, but considering where I was a week before, it felt like a miracle.

Here’s the talk — I do think it applies to musicians no matter where we are in our careers. It’s on What you bring to the table: how to have a more mission-driven life and career. And it covers the most typical career slump I see musicians suffering from — and how to overcome it.

The address starts at 1:39:35 and really is 8 minutes.

Do you have a question about overcoming Resistance?  Hit me up in our FREE Musicians Making It Facebook group.

Looking forward,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well

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