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Speaking with Presence

Mindfulness can be an important 'thing' for anyone seeking to improve their speaking skills. Many physical and emotional benefits can come out this practice. My experience has also been that it can help to gather my thoughts during speech, to reduce vocal fillers and to increase my ability to think on my feet. It is through this refocusing of attention that I believe true 'stage presence' can be learned. Perhaps counter-intuitive as it may be, thinking less can help you to think (and speak) more clearly and with more power.

So then, what is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn, a prominent author, speaker and researcher on the subject provides a useful definition of mindfulness as, "Awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." It's a kind of focused awareness that lies beyond our usual patterns of thought. Taking a few deep breaths to 'clear your head', stopping to 'smell the roses' or feeling the sunshine on your skin can be considered as everyday examples of various acts of mindfulness. It is, essentially, being present.

How can being present, or mindfulness, help individuals to speak more effectively? First, I think that the physical and mental benefits are useful in speech. Daniel Siegel is another mindfulness advocate and co-director of UCLA mindful awareness research center. He says that, “Mindfulness creates documented improvements in the immune function, and inner sense of well-being, and increasing our capacity for rewarding interpersonal relationships.” I see these as kind of 'trickle down' benefits that find their way into everyday speech. 

But I've also noticed that most great speakers have this sense of presence about them. They are so good that they don't have to think about it, they just are good. They are aware of their use of space, the utterance of every word and the tone in which they deliver the words. These are direct effects of mindfulness as seen in speech. Public speaking isn't theoretical, it's an act which requires lots of self-awareness. 

Eckhart Tolle, popular author of Power of Now and A New Earth describes, "You can't think about presence, and the mind can't understand it. Understanding presence is being present." It's a fairly abstract and subtle thing to discuss; so perhaps some practical tips and methods are in order.

Kabat-Zinn puts mindfulness exercises into two categories, "There are two complementary ways to (engage in ongoing practice): formally and informally. Formally means engaging in making some time every day to practice. Informally means letting the practice spill over into every aspect of your waking life in an uncontrived and natural way." So then, let's discuss some useful mindfulness techniques. I'll just list a few ideas here to begin with:

1.) Body scanning techniques or progressive muscle relaxation exercises involve simply noticing the sensations in your body which then tends to relax all of the muscles. I recommend using any mp3's, written instructions or videos that guide you through a 5-30 minute body scan.

2.) Breathing exercises are similar in principle. You sit and become aware of your breathing. This tends to instill a greater sense of calm. Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk instructs, "The first exercise is very simple. As you breathe in, you say to yourself, "breathing in, I know that I am breathing in." And as you breathe out, say, "breathing out, I know that I'm breathing out." He also informs readers that, "Our breathing is the link between our body and our mind…If you generate peacefulness in your breathing, that peacefulness permeates your body and your state of mind." A mindful breath may be the simplest and most powerful way to increase your sense of presence.

3.) Other speech related exercises can be as simple and informal as noticing fillers words, being aware of your body posture and listening to others with your full attention. Another powerful and simple act of presence is the use deliberate pauses when you speak. Or as Eckhart Tolle advises, “To listen to the silence, wherever you are, is an easy and direct way of becoming present.” Sometimes what goes unsaid is just as powerful as what is said!

I'd really encourage anyone to seek out more resources on the subject. This is especially relevant to public speakers. On one level mindfulness and these exercises can help to make you more relaxed before a speech. But I've also found that these activities fundamentally improve a person's ability to speak with true presence. 

I have listed some websites that have various meditation and relaxation exercises on the resources page of this site. I've listened to many of these mp3's and most of them are great and very useful! Let's heed the reminder of Thich Nhat Hanh:

"Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it."