Don’t Be Nervous, It’s Not About You

I do a lot of public speaking and am generally pretty comfortable doing it. The place I get most nervous is up on stage. In a classroom or hall full of 50-100 people, no problem. On stage, in a theatre, and my nervous energy starts to rev up.

It doesn’t approach anywhere near paralysis, but it is there.

At the last theatre I worked at, I got pretty accustomed to the space and the general energy of the people. But now that I am standing up in a new space, I gotta start all over again.

I took a little guidance from a post Seth Godin made about public speaking on Monday to prepare for my appearance before the performance we had Tuesday night.

In his post, “Speaking in public: two errors that lead to fear,” he says:

1. You believe that you are being actively judged

2. You believe that the subject of the talk is you

When you stand up to give a speech, there’s a temptation to believe that the audience is actually interested in you.

This just isn’t true. (Or if it is, it doesn’t benefit you to think that it is).

You are not being judged, the value of what you are bringing to the audience is being judged. The topic of the talk isn’t you, the topic of the talk is the audience, and specifically, how they can use your experience and knowledge to achieve their objectives.


If you dive into your (irrelevant to the listener) personal hurdles, if you try to justify what you’ve done, if you find yourself aswirl in a whirlpool of the resistance, all you’re providing is a little schadenfreude as a form of entertainment.

On the other hand, if you realize that you have a chance to be generous in this moment, to teach and to lead, you can leave the self-doubt behind and speak a truth that the audience needs to hear. When you bring that to people who need it, your fear pales in comparison.

Not the simple advice found in, “imagine everybody in their underwear,” but probably more useful to you in the process of preparing for your moment in the spotlight so you don’t start getting worked up in advance.

Incidentally, this is the same advice usually given about marketing and advertising–It isn’t about you, it is about your audience and what is valuable to them. So you shouldn’t be spending a lot time listing accomplishments trying to justify your organization, but rather make the focus about your audience and how they benefit.

Wishing You Were A Famous Actor, Tenured Professor Or A Drug Kingpin

This weekend I was reading an piece on Slate that likened new Ph.Ds seeking tenured positions in higher ed to drug dealers hoping to become drug kingpins.

“If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and at such dreadful working conditions instead of seeking employment at McDonald’s. Yet, gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members. The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business: low-level drug sellers forgo current income for (uncertain) future wealth. Rank-and-file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing,” wrote Alexandre Afonso, a lecturer in political economy at King’s College London.

“The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small (unless you mark student papers very harshly), one can observe similar dynamics,” he writes. “Academia is only a somewhat extreme example of this trend, but it affects labor markets virtually everywhere… Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent on the existence of a supply of ‘outsiders’ ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail.”

Since I work in higher education, I thought this theory was interesting and entertaining and then moved on. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized this pretty much describes the same situation faced by people who want to be actors (as well a orchestra musicians, I imagine). I don’t know why it didn’t strike me earlier, I have been reading Scott Walters’ thoughts on the subject of too many acting students being graduated for the available jobs for years.

Just like the rank and file drug dealers and doctoral program graduates, thousands of actors graduate a training program at some level hoping to become a big star, or at least steadily employed at a livable wage, each year.

The problem is, the only opportunities are on the periphery as either a low level drug dealer or adjunct, while the available spots at the core as a kingpin or tenured professor are increasingly few. (Though I will confess that other than increased pressure from law enforcement and internecine conflicts, I am not sure what is limiting the number of kingpin slots.)

It may be much worse for actors because it appears there are fewer and fewer paid opportunities even on the periphery for them to pick up, much less achieve a reasonable career and income. (Though it is difficult to gauge because the surveys aren’t able to comprehensively measure all paid opportunities.)

But I have long known about all these factors that conspire against practicing artists and that students are undeterred and pursue the career path anyway. My realization that the comparison of Phds to drug dealers was apt for actors was pretty much just that– a realization that arts people don’t really diverge too far from the norm in their aspirations.

Not that desiring to be a drug kingpin is normal, but the act of aspiring to achieve a severely limited status is widely shared by all humans and not specific to artists.

This may seem like common sense, but when you hear students urged to pursue practical majors in Business and STEM fields, you might get the impression that aspiring to the unobtainable is embraced by only the margins of society. As the Slate article notes, the similar conditions exist across all areas of the labor market. It may only be pursued to greater extremes by the margins, but the impulse is deep seated in us all.

Thanks For The Virtual Relationship

I started my current job in May, however I came to interview for the position right before Thanksgiving last year. As you might imagine, I count that date as an important milestone. Given the proximity of this “anniversary” to Thanksgiving, there were a number of cards and loaves of pumpkin bread being distributed to those who welcomed and assisted me in the transition to my new job.

I probably missed a number of people in the process. One person I whose participation in my job search I did want to recognize is Drew McManus. I use the term “participation” because while Drew did directly contribute to my getting this job, he also more indirectly helped with a little experiment I was running.

So this entry is actually less about saying how wonderful Drew is (though he is), as reflecting on what it is we actually value about employees and coworkers.

I actually started my job search a few years back and I asked Drew if I could use him as a reference. At the time, we had never met in person. And as of right now, our only in person meeting was a couple hours for dinner during a lay over I had in Chicago when I was returning from a job interview.

I wanted to see if it was actually possible to get a job based on the recommendation of someone whom you had never met or worked with directly. I listed Drew about third or fourth on my reference list behind people who had actually supervised my work directly on a daily basis.

While it is true to say that we never really met, we have communicated quite often over the years via email and a number of times on the phone, soliciting each other’s advice and discussing the arts environment. We would coordinate on cross-blog projects. I would frequently alert Drew to problems with the website hosting the blog and there were a few times I expressed criticism of some of the changes he was proposing.

So in many respects, our relationship was similar to that of many workplaces where coworkers assist and comment on each other’s work and labor to advance the interests of the company, in this case the Inside the Arts page.

The Adaptistration blog has passed its decade mark and Butts in the Seats will reach that point in February. In some respects, Drew is more familiar with the quality of my work and thoughts on arts administration than my previous four work supervisors. Since I am faithful about scheduling blog posts to cover my absences during vacations, he knows a bit about my work ethic.

Yet we work in a field that emphasizes in-person interactions with our customer base. We want people experiencing the arts in close physical proximity with the performer or actual piece of visual art.

There is a 10 year section of my life’s work that does not exist physically. There are people who have published fewer pages of incoherent ramblings than I have who are recognized poets and authors (or gotten tenure). I can’t quite say for sure if those 10 years of effort even helped me get this job or not.

Do you really want to hire someone who values interactions and creative content that are generated virtually for a job that is so much about the physical experience?

I think most everyone would agree this is pretty much indicative of the new normal and has been for awhile. Even the novelty of this story has waned from what it might have been four or five years back. I have interacted with Drew and others so frequently and so regularly it is difficult to remember or even believe that we have only met physically for two hours.

To some degree, the situation was almost akin to the blind auditions orchestras hold. My value was being discussed based largely on the quality of my work for the benefit of the project and not colored by office politics, personal affiliations or the size of the tip I leave when we go to lunch.

The common joke is that you never really know if the person on the other end of the computer is who they represent themselves to be, but this is also the stuff upon which relationships and trust are, and will be developed.

Even though Drew was last on my list, he received a surprising number of calls and apparently carried on fairly decent length conversations. And I actually got called out for some in-person interviews afterward. I don’t know whether his conversations helped my case, but they clearly didn’t hurt.

One thing I take from this is that while the opportunity to view performances online can undermine the value of live attendance in people’s minds, this experience has shown me that it is possible to develop a seemingly deep relationship with them as well. All the information you put out there on your website and all the interactions you have on social media can make people feel as if they have visited your performance space and experienced an event there, even if they haven’t.

I won’t argue that it isn’t a shallow, illusory relationship which may crumble quickly upon contact with the real life situation. But I think half the barriers to participation audiences encounter are mental and anything that removes or diminishes those perceptions and makes people feel as if they have the ease of a longstanding relationship with you is helpful.

Though again, the image that you put out there has to match the reality fairly closely. You can’t promote yourself as Disney if the reality is the Jersey Boardwalk after a hurricane.

Process Knows Its Limits

A post on Drucker Exchange, When Process Is a Prison, got me thinking about ticket office operations. I am sure the content of the entry could be applied to a hundred things that happen every day in arts organizations, but that is what bubbled to the top in my mind.

“Procedures can only work where judgment is no longer required, that is, in the repetitive situation for whose handling the judgment has already been supplied and tested,” Drucker wrote in The Practice of Management. “In fact, it is the test of a good procedure that it quickly identifies the situations that, even in the most routine of processes, do not fit the pattern but require special handling and decision based on judgment.”

I pretty much started the trajectory of my arts management career in the box office a couple decades ago. Since then the rules governing exchanges, returns and other transactions have seemed to move from matters of policy and procedure to matters of judgement. These days having a ticket office manager you can trust to make good judgments on behalf of the organization is as, if not more, important than their technical ability to troubleshoot the computer system you are using to sell your tickets.

Granted, box office operations are probably technically more a matter of policy than procedure, but Drucker’s general sentiment applies.

The ticket office has always been viewed as the first place of contact with customers where good manners and efficient processing of orders is prized. But now customer service interactions are almost more important than the product being sold, given customer expectations and their ability to almost instantly report their disappointment to 1000 of their closest friends.

Consistently providing good service doesn’t necessarily mean treating everyone equally because everyone views their situation as special and may expect you to have some degree of awareness of those circumstances. This is why customer relationship management (CRM) software is viewed as so important by businesses at large (though you wouldn’t know it when you call your cable or cell phone provider). Many arts organizations don’t have the resources to support sophisticated CRM software so human judgment and good note keeping becomes all the more important for them.

Perhaps my perception of the change is based on the fact that I have gradually moved into a position of generating the policy rather than enforcing it and I am a big softy. But I suspect there are many others who will confirm that things have changed from the 70s and 80s when it was “No Refunds, No Exchanges, No Exceptions” for non-subscribers. Now it is more akin to “No Refunds, No Exchanges, Except for the Exceptions.”

As Drucker is quoted, the best procedure recognizes those times that are exceptions to the procedure. I think that some times changing environment requires you to recognize that it is no longer useful to maintain set policies and procedures in favor of general guidelines and good judgment.