Swift but sensitive: storytelling in uncertain times

One thing about the uncertainty triggered by COVID-19, is that people and organisations are, in certain cases, acting faster and more inclusively than ever before.

Centrelink has implemented economic and technological changes previously considered impossible. Workplaces have jumped layers of bureaucracy to facilitate working from home. Our government is asking us to “work it out together”.

In a webinar called “Innovation in Uncertainty” I spoke about storytelling in turbulent times. The video is set to begin at my introduction, but the other speakers, including Dianna Somerville on adaptations by international hubs and Tori Kopke on running online events, have useful information to share.

Our audience were those from Australia’s regional innovation hubs, but it’s a useful conversation for people who hold communities together.

Andrew Outhwaite, who has scaled a heap of social ventures, spearheaded the event. Within 3 days Chad Renando and Dianna Somerville had helped him pull together a panel, sector survey and 200 participants. With the support of Spacecubed’s Kali Norman, the webinar has turned into a regular thing, likely morphing as the needs of this community change. The swift but sensitive event was the very embodiment of our overarching theme: right now, people who lead communities need to listen.

We need to act swiftly, without barging in blind.

Likewise with storytelling. If you are storytelling for your business, don’t push a story of optimism if people in your community are scared or anxious.

Listen first, for the stories that are already there. Tune in to the deeper narrative of the meaning we are making about our country and our place.

Then, when you have listened enough to be ready to speak: there are three things you should pay attention to, which you’ll hear when you watch the video.

Storytelling in turbulent times: the narrative of Australia’s coronavirus crisis

In December and January (i.e. less than two months ago) 12 million hectares of Australia burned. Over 1 billion animals were killed. More than half of Australians were worried for their own safety, or that of loved ones.

No one had heard of coronavirus.

Back then (i.e. not so very long ago) the world watched as Australia’s bushfire season went from a worrying early start, to major flames in the state of NSW, to out-of-control burning across most of the eastern part of the country. Our main narrative was the evidence of climate change.

There were sub-narratives of the impact of climate change on vulnerable people, the difference in perception between city-dwellers and those in regional areas, and a government’s capacity to handle crisis.

Our later stories talked of community support, tourism and mental health.

“So many people I’ve spoken to in that community talk about you and the role you played and the leadership role that you took. They think you saved lives probably by being such a strong leader in that community at that time.”

Hamish McDonald, host of Q&A to Cheryl McCarthy, on March 2 2020.

Sometimes those narratives were twisted.

“We have faced these disasters before and we have prevailed, we have overcome.”

Scott Morrison, SBS News.

Scott Morrison’s words were technically true, but there’s an ick factor. I think it’s because the story he pushes ignores other concurrent, and critical stories, such as the likelihood of present trauma destroying not just physical communities but future social cohesion.

“I think we were just saved by the wind that day. And I hate to think… what would have happened if that wind change hadn’t come and we had those 5,000 people there with us to be safe.

Cheryl McCarthy, Far South Coast Director, Surf Life Saving NSW, speaking on Q&A March 2 2020.

Stories ripple, the waves of narrative run deep

Last week I returned to clown practice with “From the neutral mask to the red nose: the journey of the poetic body and the essence of physical comedy”. World-renowned theatre educator (and, as it happens, scientist) Giovanni Fusetti delivered this 5-day training as part of a longer Australian program.

On Monday (i.e 8 days ago), Giovanni’s country, Italy, had locked down a quarter of its population due to COVID-19.

By Friday (3 days ago) the whole of Italy was shut down. Hospitals were making the terrible decision to prioritise care for those most likely to survive.

As Australia cancelled large events, almost everyone in our training (primarily performing artists and casual workers) saw their income disappear for the foreseeable future. The training group became a curious petri dish in which to see our internal processing of this unknown crisis.

Kimberley Twiner, who has been studying with Giovanni for some time and is a performer and educator in her own right, reminded us:

“It’s a privilege to be a storyteller in turbulent times”.

Kimberley Twiner – Producer, Director, Performer PO PO MO CO and Melbourne Physical Theatre School.

I wrote that down.

Being a storyteller is a privilege and a responsibility.

We all tell stories.

Storytelling is actually a complex word. The term covers everything from the tales told around a fire and mulled wine in an Edinburgh pub, to fables we narrate to children to teach moral lessons. In the 2000s, ‘storytelling’ has been inextricably linked to business and marketing. 28-year old entrepreneurs open 5-minute investor pitches with a carefully crafted story. It helps their audience (and people with the money) “get” the problem their startup “solves”.

When coronavirus, as we understand, first appeared, China closed down entire cities. We wondered (and doubted) Australia or other western countries could ever be successful. Our images were of sad faces in masks and grey building in grey cities.

In Australia you might say we are lucky. We’ve had time – to get our health care services ready, emergency legislation under consideration, and to think through the social impact of an entire nation isolated at home.

Importantly, Australia has had time to consider our collective narrative of COVID-19.

My main news sources are The Guardian and ABC; occasionally BBC and New York Times (all online). I hear different stories to those who tune into 7 News, read The Sunday Times, get their news from Facebook, or WhatsApping friends in Wuhan through a VPN. I’m a freelancer so my stories are different to friends with permanent jobs and sick leave. I live alone in a CBD apartment so my stories are not those of people I know with house, garden and family in the suburbs.

These are individual stories, but we also have collective stories.

In Australia, an early one was, “Coronavirus is a mild illness in most people”. I assume this was to reassure the population.

However, the unfortunate implication (sometimes explicitly, though I suspect unconsciously, stated) was, “It’s just older people and those with health issues who are likely to die”. (Not to mention experts like Norman Swan now say healthy people in their 30s and 40s are dying in China and Italy.)

Imagine being one of those people, affected by that story.

As we watch Italy make impossible choices about who to intubate, imagine (or perhaps you are one of the people and don’t need to imagine very much) knowing that if you get sick because this disease spreads you may not get the care you need to stay alive.

Collective stories reinforce or evoke deeper narratives.

That collective “Don’t panic” story fuels a narrative that certain individuals are unworthy, disposable.

In my contact improvisation community, we seemed to agree to consider “the right thing to do”. CI involves a lot of sweat and physical contact so it’s a high risk activity. So sure, cancelling our jams and classes before Australia enforced social distancing protected us individually. But mostly, we saw what was happening internationally and knew that restricting our activities could help give our health care system time to cope. We’d save lives.

Now we have to ask a different question: how do we stay connected as a community that has always existed in physical space? March 17 2020 is the first Tuesday in 27 years that Melbourne’s Contact Improvisation jam has not run. Until coronavirus it had run every single week – rain, hail, shine, Christmas Day, Easter, New Year’s Eve.

Imagine taking away the main source of physical exercise, social interaction, creative practice and human contact for an entire community.

One story can go so many ways. It’s our responsibility to pay attention to how we put a story into the world, and what we do after that.

I also work with vulnerable populations (in fact I’ve been one of them) so I am the colleague who grumbles if you come to the office sick. I know what one spluttering worker with “important things to do” can do to the lives of those with compromised health.

Personally, I love the coronavirus narrative of thinking about the impact for, well, everyone.

Those with full time permanent jobs may seemingly have an easier transition with the social isolation of coronavirus, working from home and spending more time with family. However, if folks who still have a livelihood in the times of COVID-19 aren’t out spending money, their local cafes and small businesses will fail, changing the social fabric of that community. It may take months of years but a diminishing economy may affect their employment.

Casual workers have had their stories told too. We realise it’s not just bad for them, but all of us: someone on low pay without sick leave is more likely to go to work, in exactly the kinds of places where germs spread.

Australia’s coronavirus narrative is composed of many stories, that help each of us make meaning.

If we shut down cities it might sound different to Wuhan. The music we play from our windows would probably feel different to the Italians, and our applause for health care workers will echo slightly differently to Spain.

It’s not that one story is correct and the others are wrong. What we should be asking is, “How do our many stories, contribute to the narrative that helps us all go, together?”

“The size of Australia’s bushfire crisis capture in five big numbers” ABC March 5 10.14am Accessed here March 15 18.04
(2) Scott Morrison urges Australians to celebrate ‘amazing country’ as fires rage SBS News, 01/01/2020 Accessed 16/3/20
Image Donatello Trisolino

What has Bouffon to do with Public Speaking?

Bouffon is the truth-telling step brother of clown. With origins in Greek satirical drama (and modern day versions in many late night comedy shows) the grotesque Bouffon exists to mock everything that humans do! By mocking big issues – war, family, politics, religion – the audience (i.e you!) ends up in an ethical dilemma: do we keep doing these terrible things or not?

This article is one of a series where I write how different forms of theatre, movement and philosophy inform great public speaking.

One rich and complex form I have written comprehensively about previously is clown. I have particularly covered the clown concept of complicite, or playing with the audience. The clown wants to be loved.

Bouffon, by contrast, is already an outcast and has no need to be cherished.

So what does this strange form teach us about getting up to speak in front of 500 people at a conference?

Bouffon: complete empathy, no compassion

I’ve just finished a week training Bouffon with Italian Artist, Natural Scientist and Pedagogue Giovanni Fusetti, and look forward to Clown in March. Giovanni will soon publish one of the only books dedicated to the art of Bouffon. In his training, Giovanni explained the differences between Clown and Bouffon: for one, “the audience laughs at the clown, but the Bouffon laughs at the audience”.

Secondly, “the Bouffon knows and feels everything (complete empathy) but doesn’t care about you (no compassion)”.

Bouffons play the serious issues of human life as a game

While Clown is human, Bouffon comes from somewhere else; they are “other worldly”. The Bouffon watches what humans do and assumes – that if we are going to go to work, fight in wars, or dig up graves – we must love it. So, a group of Bouffons (technically, a “Chorus” or “Band” of Bouffons) will play that game too. Imagine a grotesque group of bodies playing at Australian politics, the Vietnam war or addiction. It’s hilarious and ridiculous – until you realise how true it is.

Why, as speakers, do we want to be funny?

Initially I was terrified to study Bouffon. I then discovered Bouffon is less terrifying to practice than it is to watch. One moment I laughed hysterically as my colleagues played at posh women clinking champagne glasses. Within seconds their scene had transmuted into babies addicted to screens (and worse). I felt sick.

The laugh’s power in this sketch was what it set up: we, the audience, were winded by the subsequent hit of social commentary on modern addiction.

That same week, a good friend referred me to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, The Satire Paradox. It’s a great listen, pointing doggedly at comedians (specifically, satirists) who mocked the US election campaign. The point Gladwell makes is that in many cases audience laugh at satire – but nothing changes. (Listen to his contrast of of a hard-hitting Israeli satire on children raised in a particular political system.) Gladwell distinguishes clearly between satirists who ‘chase the laughs’ and performers whose laughter gives the audience a different perspective of their life that leads us to change something, or at least think about it.

Many speakers use jokes to make themselves comfortable. They don’t do it for the audience.

Speakers I work with occasionally say they want to open with a joke. I, of course, always ask, “Why? What are you hoping to achieve?” Sometimes, they tell me they think being funny is something we “should” do as speakers. We must entertain our audience, which means making people laugh.

It’s true laughter can send a social message that connects.

More often, though, the desire for the laugh comes from the speaker’s need to feel comfortable. They want the audience to like them. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this per se: if you feel more comfortable and give a better talk as a result – go for it.

You can make the audience uncomfortable without them hating you.

I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of public speaking. Once you are comfortable with the comfortable, audience-pleasing talk, I’d love you to learn from new forms to go a bit further.

Challenge the audience (appropriately!).

Challenge yourself.

Bouffon is just one form that has so much to teach about the way humans communicate and the results we expect. As example, there’s the distinction between you and the work. Giovanni explains,

“The actor may have a political or ethical issue in mocking the person in the audience, but the Bouffon doesn’t care!”

When you see a play, you know you are watching the actor play. When your children are naughty and you respond you are often playing a role: “scolding parent” is not your entire existence. When you challenge your audience, which role are you playing?

By understanding the distinct forms of theatre, movement and philosophy we can ask better questions about how we are speaking – and why.

I think it’s important to be clear about context. If you are doing Bouffon, do Bouffon. If you are clowning, do clown. If you want to play games to build a team, do that. The activities may look the same on the surface but the outcomes are different. It’s like going to a yoga asana class to prepare for meditation, and ending up in the yoga-for-a-nice-butt-class. The postures sort of look the same but the vibe ain’t quite right.

Here are four big Bouffon-inspired questions I’ve been pondering about being a great public speaker:

  1. Is your position as unique as you think?
    The Bouffon style I learned operates in a “Chorus”. Our little band of awkward-bodied Bouffons played human games as a collective i.e. we learned to play together. Distinct roles gradually emerge from the Chorus (for example, a scene of climate activists suddenly gave birth to a coal advocate).

    Interestingly, though, the new, individual role always emerged as a natural tension. For example, in the climate piece we played (and when I say play, the play comes from an ecstatic group state) the physicality of the activist naturally led to a contrasting role of coal advocate.

    A lesson here: when you speak on a controversial topic, notice how what you are representing is (potentially) a natural outcome of a previous tension, rather than seeing yourself as separate and distinct. In Bouffon everyone gets a go at playing all the roles.

2. What do you want to achieve with your laughs, and does that happen?
If you’ve been the subject or object of bullying you’ll know laughing is never just social lubricant. In Why is that so funny? John Wright describes 4 kinds of laughs in physical comedy – the surprise laugh, the bizarre laugh, the visceral laugh, and the recognized laugh. Each performs a different role. There are many more.

When you make your audience laugh, are you trying to entertain or enact change? Without considering the outcome you want, a joke that gets laughs may, at best, use up valuable time; at worst it could show you up as incompetent. Rather than throwing in a joke for the sake of it, think precisely about what your humour makes possible.

Most speakers just want to feel a bit more comfortable in themselves. Laughter can do that. But there’s power when you relax your audience completely with humour and then throw the big hit.

3. Who am I challenging and am I allowed to?
Giovanni encouraged reflection on everything: what had we just done, what worked, what didn’t work? This included being precise in naming what we are being funny at. Who are we mocking? Do we have the right to? Whose voices are not represented? When you mock the company president, whether in a major event or the Christmas awards night, why, truly are you doing so? The satirist can be dangerous. We do operate in a social and cultural system that may or may not understand what is happening.

4. Are all voices represented, including my own?
It’s safer, of course, for a white woman, for example, to mock those in the same class. It’s generally considered OK to mock those of higher status, and not OK to mock minority groups. But if we only mock those who are like us, how do we ensure the other voices are represented and heard?

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach interested in the link between how we move, how we think and what our ideas do once we put them to the world.

Image: Christian Santiago

What is the link between dance and speaking?

Dancers obviously communicate through their body. But what is the connection between dance, and how we communicate through speech?

I’ve spent five days training with Melbourne Contact Improvisation dance teachers, Emily Bowman and Joey Lehrer. Embodied practice (more on what that means later) has always been critical to my work as a speaker coach, and a specific exercise during last week’s training has helped me better articulate the impact of embodied movement on verbal communication.

The people you meet in a training course – be that dance or leadership and strategy – can be as valuable as the content. You might find professional contacts, new friends or a community of practice. Usually, you meet by making eye contact and shaking hands or saying hello.

In Contact (as we call it for short) your first “meeting” with someone may be through touch.

Pionerred in the 1970s by Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark-Smith, the Contact form uses a rolling point of contact and shared weight to guide movement. The right physics allow two or more dancers to move fluidly together, sometimes slowly; other times almost effortlessly lifting each other.

In their five-day workshop, Emily and Joey introduced an exercise I’ve never before seen in dance training: they gave each participant 3 minutes to talk about whatever they wished to the other 23 dancers. Inspired by an exercise at Freiburg Contact Festival Teachers Exchange, they called it a 6×3: 6 speakers with 3 minutes each to speak. We did one 6×3 each day after lunch.

You may have experienced a similar exercise at leadership training; often done in pairs or small groups, each person has an allotted amount of time to speak freely, without interruption. The practice invites listening, being heard and knowing your peers.

For me, participating in the 3-minute listening activity over the course of a focused week of contact improvisation I felt another layer to what this exercise can offer.

By the time they spoke, each speaker had spent several hours – or several days – dancing.

We might say they were, “embodied”.

Pause now, as you read, to notice what you think, or feel, when you hear the word “embodied”.

Perhaps you recall a taste of “being embodied” after yoga class, swimming in the sea, or playing rugby. You are aware of your body and its sensations; possibly with a quieter mind than usual.

Most Contact workshops give attention to the nuance of attention. We are aware, for example, of individual ribs rolling our torso across the floor; a slight tilt of the head leads the body into a fall and lift; we sense a shift in the balance point of a partner’s sit bones as they roll across our back.

As such, the “embodied-ness” of speakers in this 6×3 exercise was granular.

When they spoke we could see the nuance of this granular embodiment.

I don’t think we can separate embodiment from language and strategy. The three work together.

Drawing on practices like clown, I help speakers learn to read the audience and develop, in “complicité” (something of a connection, or playing with, audience and co-presenters) a vision for a future that starts now. Some speakers separate strategy, language and embodiment from one another – or miss one completely. But my work examines how holding all three allows something to be made possible, for the speaker, audience and idea. So while I focus in this article on embodiment, I am definitely not saying speaking is all about embodiment: it’s one crucial component.

When speakers begin working with me, many think about their body, but not being in their body per se.

“What do I do with my hands?” they ask.

Rather than, say, “How do I be with my hands?”

What’s interesting, is that, for the most part, when you are “in your body”, your arms usually do something quite natural and watchable.

While a ballet dancer may strive for an ideal form, in speakers (not to mention Contact Improvisation) we want individuality to shine through. Ideally, the kind of individuality that comes from channeling what is important.

Images are of Melbourne’s contact improv jam, captured by dance artist Jonathan Sinatra. In his Instagram page Jonathan shares images of dancing in the day-to-day.

Embodiment, of course, doesn’t magically happen with a quick power pose before bouncing on stage.

It’s a lifetime of work. Explored appropriately, as your embodiment practice develops, so too should your (embodied) language and strategy. [Stay tuned to this blog for more on that!]

Many people don’t even realise they are allowed to be in their body when they speak.

When each speaker in Emily and Joey’s workshop took their 3 minutes after lunch, something magical did happen.

They were all marvellous.
We saw them.
We saw what they thought through their body.

To someone who has closely watched many, many speakers, seeing 24 unique presenters all light up – and coherent, fluid and engaging – is a gift.

Many were self-confessed introverts

These 24 people weren’t beautiful to watch because we had a room of 24 extroverted performers. (Dance training can, in fact, make you quite internally focused). Many had said they were terrified. A couple had only just started Contact Improvisation.

The way you move imprints itself in your posture, your facial expressions and your tone of voice. Your movement practice affects how you perceive yourself when you are on stage, and how you perceive your listening audience.

When we hear words that come from a place of embodiment, it’s powerful. When we hold embodied language together with strategic intent we have a speaker who pulls an idea forward into the world.

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach interested in the link between how we move, how we think and what our ideas do once we put them to the world.

How to more effectively use feedback to develop your new presentation

Do you rehearse new talks in front of a test audience? Even if your guinea pigs offer no feedback whatsoever, practicing with real people can reveal a heap of things to improve. (The final version of my TEDx talk was nothing like my first live run.)

There are, of course, risks to a preview. One significant risk is that you get feedback you’re not able to deal with. This could be because you don’t have time to implement the suggestions, or because it makes you doubt everything you’re doing. After seeing two speakers recently become distressed by feedback from well-meaning friends and colleagues, I’d like to offer tips to help you use comments from a test audience strategically and effectively.

1. People like to be helpful. Sometimes too helpful.

Most people love to be asked for their opinion. So be prepared that if you ask for their opinion, they may well tell you things. Lots of things. That may or may not be relevant. It’s up to you to guide the discussion so you get what you need.

2. Know why you want feedback.

Before you present to your test audience, reflect on what you want feedback for, and how much you can handle. For example, do you want the audience to be honest if they hate your content? If the talk is in 2 hours perhaps all you want is reassurance and a hug.

3. Give your test audience some context.

As a speaker coach, I know that critiquing a ready-made talk is difficult: it’s much easier to build a good house from the foundations up, than fix a completed building if the plans are shabby. (Engineering metaphors begin!) Speakers looking for last-minute feedback will often say to me, “Rachael, give me any feedback you like. I’m really open.” You can probably imagine the problems with this! It’s a bit like if I asked you what colour I should paint my house, without telling you that I hate white walls, my lounge room gets no sunlight, and I want to feel like a rockstar after work.

4. At minimum, tell your test audience who the talk is for and what you want to achieve.

Getting specific about the feedback you want will also help avoid comments that are too vague to be useful. (“That was great, Lionel,” is encouraging but you can’t do much with it.) The first thing I do with speakers I’m coaching is a strategic inquiry into all elements that will influence its effectiveness, including audience, business trajectory and professional aspirations. They aren’t allowed to think about writing their talk before this is done. Your test audience needs some of this context. Here’s an example: “Imagine you are a group of early career IT professionals who hate public speaking. My aim is that you understand how a strategic and embodied approach to communication will give you better project results.”

5. Ignore solutions. Look for root cause. (Engineering metaphor #2!)

To help you decide which suggestions to implement, do a bit of root cause analysis. There may be more to the feedback than is first apparent. As example, one of my speakers recently tested a talk for a technical product on some colleagues. They told him he shouldn’t talk so much about himself. My speaker’s first reaction was to re-write his talk: he removed the personal story and focused solely on technical features of his product. This new version was, unsurprisingly, dry. When I encouraged him to get to the bottom of why they thought he should talk less about himself, he found that his colleagues were worried that the audience (who would be from outside the company) would want to know more technical details. With this in mind, we were able to appropriately add technical elements, without losing the benefits of storytelling.

6. When you follow a strategic approach to speaking, what at first feels like a major overhaul can often be solved with a simple tweak

When a suggestion makes you feel like you need to re-write your entire talk, ask your audience, “Why do you say that?” Remember that only you have full context for the long term impact you want your presentation to have. It’s up to you to own the process for getting the result you intend.

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. Sign up to the blog via the link on this page for insights on speaking for long term impact.

Photo credit: Fauxels

How to develop a Speaking Product and raise your industry profile

A speaking product is a repeatable presentation on a valuable topic, that you can take to conferences and events. A good speaking product will help to raise your profile as a business leader, by giving you exposure to new audiences, and positioning you as an expert.
Here are three tips to help you identify your personal speaking product:

1. Your speaking product is unique to you.

Identifying your unique speaking product takes a bit of detective work. It probably won’t be the first thing you think of, and may not even be directly related to your job description. Your speaking product is more likely to reflect the unique way you think about the world or your role. For example, as a speaker coach, when I’m asked to talk at conferences, it might seem obvious to give (say) five top tips for public speaking. But plenty of others can cover this. I need to find out what I offer that is different.

2. Dive beneath the surface to understand what you really care about.

To tune into your speaking product, reflect on your personal values and identify how they show up in your work. One of my values is that we learn to move, speak and make choices in alignment with what we believe in. I want my audience to know, not just that a good talk can be career and life-changing, but that there is a method to doing it well so their idea grows. Rather than “How to be a more confident speaker” which has limited longevity, one of my key topics is “How to use speaking products so the thing you most want to see happen in the world, does”.

3. Ask your colleagues what you do that they think is special.

Many professionals I coach for industry conferences say, “I don’t know why I was chosen. I’m not special.” They feel they are just ordinary people doing an ordinary job. If you have similar concerns, ask others what they see in you. Then dig deeper to find out what you offer that is worthwhile and valuable. Often, this will be more related to the “how” than the “what”. For example, when I coached an engineer to speak at a 1000-person conference on gender diversity, he initially didn’t think he had done anything special – so we asked his colleagues. Their words revealed just how impactful this engineer’s work had been to improving diversity in a very traditionally male sector. We were then able to articulate this so all 1000 people at the conference could learn too.


Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. She loves helping engineers, scientists and people with something important to tell the world, craft a meaningful, engaging presentation they can use again and again to help their field shine. Email rachael@rachaelwest.com.au to learn more.


**Image credit: Henderson Graphics for TEDx Bunbury 2017