The eyes of the beholder

Seeing yourself on stage. Part V in a series on the connection between speaker/performer and audience.

Part I here, part II here, part III here, part IV here.

Methods that want to make you a better public speaker, usually focus on the audience. Be they ancient handbooks for orators; or handy manuals to help you tell a story with your slides; or sweaty alpha-males who shout that you, too, can be a Great Success. They will tell you how to move the audience, how to sway them, or how to help them understand.

When I teach presentation workshops, however, what most of my students are concerned with, is themselves. How can they survive on stage, when all eyes are on them? When it comes to public speaking, the majority of people move on a spectrum from mild jitters to crushing fear.

There is a gap here, between anxiety and method. Some methods address the anxiety, by telling you to ‘just do it’: more practice means less nerves. This works for some people, to some extent. But for many people it does not. The fear does not go away. If you are unlucky, it might even become stronger every time you battle with it.

image: Claude Cahun, Que me veux-tu?, 1928. Musée d’art moderne de Paris

People who come to my workshops often think that they are alone in this fear. They express surprise when they find out that nearly everyone around them experiences it, to some degree. Even those who appear to be confident and fluent on stage.

You can spend a lifetime learning how to choke your fear with one arm, while you bend an audience with the other. If you want a live example, just observe any power-hungry politician. They might have a solid grip on their audience after years of honing their craft. But they rarely appear genuine or relaxed. The fear is always right there, beaming out of their eyes, looming over their shoulders. The fear of being misunderstood, ridiculed, rejected, cast out. The fear of not belonging.

being seen

It is very hard to control what other people see, when they see you. A poignant example is Suzanne Valadon. Valadon (1865-1938) was a painter who went her own way, in a time and place where that was much more difficult than it is here and now. This is how she saw herself in her early thirties, imposing in her seriousness:

image: Suzanne Valadon, self-portrait, 1898. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Via Wikimedia Commons

Valadon, a driven, charismatic woman, was also often depicted by others. When she was around twenty, Auguste Renoir (who painted her several times) dreamed her into a vapid heap of flesh:

image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, portrait of Suzanne Valadon, c. 1885. Private collection, image via Wikimedia Commons

By contrast, Valadon’s close friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec drew and painted a more complex picture, around the same time as the self-portrait above: a young, fierce woman, sceptical mouth, shadows under her wary eyes. She draws her head back to look at you.

image: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, portrait of Suzanne Valadon, 1895. Museo Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In the eyes of others, Valadon was not nearly as serious and imposing as in her own. Renoir appeared to not see her at all: she was just a receptacle for his fantasies. De Toulouse-Lautrec by contrast was an astute observer. He picked out a vulnerability that is less visible in Valadon’s self-portraits. His view however obscured the ambition that burned so brightly.

Valadon could not control how others saw her. But she could choose how she saw herself. And though we must not underestimate how hard that was, for her, in her place and time; and how hard it always is, for any human being; this is where the answer to our conundrum lies.

To become a better speaker or performer, we can choose to learn magic tricks to dazzle an audience, expertly guiding their their eyes away from our fear. We can also choose to see ourselves differently. More honestly, more openly, and above all more kindly. That does not mean that we lock ourselves in a room, to stare at ourselves in the mirror. In the right setting, the audience can actually help us to see ourselves in a different, kinder light. If you ask me, that is where the real magic happens. So that is what my workshops are all about.

main image: Suzanne Valadon, Ma fière a quatre ans, 1905. Pastel and gouache. Private collection, image via Wikiart.