I’ll never forget one of the best directors I ever worked with. He not only believed in me as an actor, but he also believed in my ability to experiment with the role I was given. His shows were legendary, but his success was by design, and not by coincidence.
He was methodical in how he directed his shows. He would block a scene, and direct his actors in a careful and defined manner. As actors, we would learn our lines and we would learn exactly where we needed to be on stage. Once he was satisfied that we had mastered his initial directions, he would turn us loose a bit to explore the way we were delivering our lines, and even to question the particular blocking we had been assigned.
He believed in the actor’s ability to understand his or her character, and he believed that actors might want to make certain adjustments… up to a point. Therein lay the genius of this director. You see, he knew the following:
- He knew that the initial changes we would make would be based on a deeper understanding of the character we were playing.
- He knew that the harder we worked to perfect our performance, the more risk we would run of becoming bored with it.
- He knew that once we became bored with a performance, we would be susceptible to confusing that sense of boredom with inadequacy.
- He knew that his actors might become bored with the performance, but no audience, seeing it for the first time, would ever be.
As a result, this director had a rule, and that rule had to be strictly followed. Actors were allowed to experiment with a role until they were two weeks away from the first performance. Once we reached that two week mark, we were given the instructions to “lock it down.” Quite simply, that meant that, under no circumstances, were any further changes permitted. I’ll bet that sounds kind of harsh to you, but it was one of the secrets to his success as a director, and a major reason why the performances were so powerful.
Repetition is a best friend to any performer, but repetition can also play tricks on the mind. Like a sinister, unwelcome friend, it can whine, plead, and beg for its unsuspecting victim to listen to its voice of unreason. “If you just add a little here, and change a little there, you can make it even better!” And therein lies the biggest mistake an actor can make when he or she is preparing for a show. It is also the biggest mistake that anyone who presents information can make when preparing for a delivery. Never confuse what may feel stale to you – based on the repetition of that part or presentation, with what appears to others as polish.
One can waste huge amounts of time constantly trying new things in a presentation, because what is really needed is the perfecting of the same moves over and over until it becomes almost muscle memory. This, in turn, frees the mind to perform truly in the moment. Is there a greater gift for someone who has to perform under pressure than the freedom to perform in the moment?
When I consult with any presenter, or when I am working on any presentation I’m going to deliver, I follow the same lessons I learned as an actor. I enjoy the process of creating a presentation, and experimenting with all kinds of nifty little moves. I add and subtract, I tinker here and adjust there, but seven days before a delivery – I lock it down. There are no exceptions to this rule, and no matter how appealing any new shiny object of change may appear, it has no effect on me. That’s because no matter how tempting that change may appear, I want the confidence and the polish of the delivery I experience by locking it down.
When you lock down a presentation and when you give yourself at least a week of no changes, you are giving yourself the chance to polish your words, polish your audiovisuals, polish your timing, and perhaps most importantly, increase your confidence. You might want to continue to daydream about your delivery, but now your daydreams are not littered with the confusion of thinking about adding a little here, or changing a little there.
There’s a time for experimentation, and there’s a time to commit to working on what you have. The next time you have to do anything that requires a performance level of preparation, work your tail off to give yourself the best chance for success, and lock it down one week before that “go time.” I can promise you, the results will be astonishing.