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October 2014

Bill Murray on storytelling

If you are any kind of fan of Bill Murray at all, then you will enjoy this interview he did with Howard Stern last week. Murray, who is famously hard to get a hold of, does not do a lot of interviews like this, so it was a rare treat. It's not a performance. This is just two guys talking, but there are some gems in there and even a few bits relevant for presenters and speakers of all types. You can listen to the audio here, but I highlight two of the more relevant points for presenters below.

On story and storytelling

At 18:55 in the audo track above Howard asks Bill how it is that he makes people laugh? Were there any secrets for making people consistently laugh? You and I may not need to make people laugh the way a comedian must, but for us we could frame the question more something like "how do you make people feel something? How do you make them care?" As for being funny, Bill says the key is having the ability to tell stories.

Howard Stern: "Who teaches you to tell a story? Is it something you are born with?"

Bill Murray: "No, I don't think you're born with it. You have to hear stories and you have to live stories. You have to have a bunch of experiences and be able to say 'Here's something that happened to me yesterday....' And if you can make people laugh by telling them what happened to you, then you are telling the story well. So that's what I learned in improv...." But you have to live to have the stories, says Murray. You need the experiences.


The more you do it, the more relaxed you become

Howard Stern says he is amazed at how Bill Murray is able to seem so relaxed. Being relaxed and natural is something that is very engaging as a performer or communicator in general, but how do you do it even when you are nervous? How does one get loose and relaxed? Stern asks Murray if he was nervous the first time he was on Saturday Night Live (SNL). The stakes were high and the TV audience of millions was live. Surely a young Bill Murray was nervous. (Discussion begins at about 23:40 in the audio).

Bill Murray: "The more relaxed you are, the better you are. When you get on the go into like a professional state. Your state changes. You get higher."

Bill Murray says he learned how to be loose and relaxed through his early improv work at Second City and on National Lampoon Radio, performing in an off-Broadway show, etc. He had the confidence he could do it because he had done it before, albeit on a smaller stage. There is a lesson in there for us, of course. If you want to get good at being relaxed, natural, and comfortable on stage or speaking to any kind of group as part of your work, the secret is to give yourself opportunities to gain the experience over time. It will not happen overnight, but over time—including both success and failures—you can develop into a master.

Public speaking and improv should be part of our education. It should not just be for a few students in the speech class or the even fewer students in the drama department. All of us can learn from the experiences with improvisation, and with performances such as plays and music, etc. This idea of "state" is very important. Over time, with experience, you learn to put yourself into a different state when communicating before an audience. This is something that even experienced teachers do, perhaps without even thinking about it. Step by step, with experience, almost anyone can become much, much better.


Presenting a lunar eclipse

Last night we were treated to a lunar eclipse here in Nara, Japan (and elsewhere in the world, assuming you had clear skies). As it's the harvest season here with very much a feeling of Autumn in the air, the majestic orange tint of the moon seen just above the trees lining our house seemed very fitting to the season. As you know, a lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly behind the Earth and into its shadow or umbra. The orange Moon or "blood Moon" is really something to behold. But why does the Moon turn red/orange? It's a simple phenomenon and it's explained clearly and visually in this video presentation by our friends at NASA (below).

Capturing the mood
Below are a few images I snapped outside an upstairs bedroom window at home about 8:10 PM Japan time last night. No filters or editing at all, and yet that is one intensely orange Moon. Beautiful. Before science, imagine what kind of super natural explanations one could have come up with to scare the pants (or loin cloths) off of people. We use the term "awesome" too much in daily conversation, but this gorgeous Moon was a truly awesome sight.




(click images for larger size). The snaps are from my old Nikon D90. But I was too lazy to find my tripod, so I balanced the camera on the window ledge upstairs. That was steady (sort of). But pushing the shutter with my finger was still enough to get a bit of a blur, but I did not mind as I rather like the effect of the imperfection. Besides, my father in-law—an amateur astronomer—was taking much better photos with his high-tech telescopes down the street.

Fantastic shots from last night's eclipse on Flickr

Communication lessons from Frank Sinatra, 1963

The legendary Frank Sinatra (1915–1998) can teach us a thing or two about engaging an audience. I stumbled upon this 1963 Playboy interview with Sinatra recently, and it's pure gold. "When I sing, I believe," says Sinatra. "I’m honest. If you want to get an audience with you, there’s only one way. You have to reach out to them with total honesty and humility." Whether we're talking about an entertainer or about life in general, you can't be indifferent, Frank says. People do not connect with indifference. "This isn’t a grandstand play on my part; I’ve discovered—and you can see it in other entertainers—when they don’t reach out to the audience, nothing happens."

Keynote slide (click for larger view).

Playboy asks Sinatra why he thinks he has been so successful. Is it his vocal range, his styling, his phrasing? To what does he attribute his success? "I think it’s because I get an audience involved, personally involved in a song—because I’m involved myself." Audiences connect with authenticity, and the way to show your authenticity is to be willing to be vulnerable and honest with your audience.

Simple, direct, and honest
This clip below is a great example of what Sinatra was talking about in the interview. This song is from a June 20th, 1965 special called Frank Sinatra's Spectacular, featuring Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and hosted by Johnny Carson. Damn, this is good. Frank Sinatra is singing live while his friends Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. (and Frank's daughter) are ribbing him off stage. As this clip shows, audiences will have a great time if you have a great time (and are giving something to them worth sharing). I love Sinatra's cool reactions to the banter and his subtle phrasing. They do not make ’em like this anymore.