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Check Your Ego At the Door

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  • February 23, 2013
  • Mark Schulman

Dr. Paul Stoltz was voted one of the top 100 thinkers.  He firmly believes that the biggest trap in presenting is ego.

“The worst and biggest compliment for me was when I was a young, precocious buck. People kept telling me what a great and skilled presenter I was. Now, I think that’s a slap and an insult, because that means they’re paying attention to something in my technique of presenting. That’s getting in the way of what I’m trying to say. The message has to conquer the mode of delivery. Now, when someone says that, I’m disappointed. I really am. I’m almost morose. They thought I was putting on a show. They were more focused on my methodology of delivering than my message.”

He reminds me of Dr. Zubin Dimania, or ZDoggMD, whose performances are completely different than Paul. But ZDogg, too, has clarity on his goal: to be audience centric. He’s a board-certified internist and clinical hospitalist who now lives in downtown Las Vegas performing medical satire. He says that ego is detrimental to quality performance. It gets in the way of connecting with the audience, and that just builds antagonism.

“You can’t make the audience your enemy. ‘I feel like these guys just don’t get my jokes. They’re not getting what I’m saying. What’s wrong with these guys?’ That’s your defense mechanism. You’ve read them wrong. That isn’t the way they learn, and it’s not the way they’re geared.”

When you read the audience and empathize with it, you change lives. In his book, Give Your Speech, Change the World, Nick Morgan explains that every presentation is an opportunity to move your audience to take action. Be selfless, audience centric and allow extraordinary things to happen for both you and your audience—that’s really the most rewarding reason to do a performance anyway.

ZDogg thinks it’s a privilege, and I agree. He recalls a speech he performed for 1,300 ER doctors in San Francisco. It was 15 minutes of stand up. Afterward, several military physician assistants approached him and said, “We’re some of the least happy people because of how we’re treated, our workload and what we see. Just listening to you for 10 minutes gave us a new perspective—we all go through this sort of thing, and we have to keep our core identities. Thank you.”

And that’s what ZDogg aims for every time. Being audience centric reminds us of the very reason we’re performing or presenting or doing whatever it is that makes us anxious—providing music, information or just a really great experience. It helps us turn our energy outward. Return to your goal; the audience will direct your energy back to success.

I have noticed that there are absolute differences in what propels each of us into a higher state of confidence.  It is definitely noteworthy to mention that some of us do better with a smooth, well-planned presentation and some of us thrive on the spontaneous actions or even challenges from our audience to heighten our awareness and up our game.

Jobs expert and CEO of, Marc Cenedella likes a challenge to build his confidence.  “Interestingly for me, having grown up in a family of all boys- four boys in the family, I always found that I actually perform better if somebody’s asking me tough questions or getting into a little bit of a fight with me.  Because that kind of stiffens my spine, and I kind of get more excited about the fight than I do about worrying whether I’m doing well.”

My buddy Dave Koz notices the deepest respect for the audience in the people he respects the most. “You have to be sensitive. People who are great in real life—not just in music but in life—are sensitive to their surroundings. They can read a room. They understand. They don’t barge in and say, ‘I’m here now, and whatever is important to me is going to be.’ The great ones walk into a room. They scan it, they read it, they feel it and then they tinker with their message to deliver whatever they’re receiving. They deliver a message that can be heard.”

Cancer conqueror, Kelly G always exhibited an unbelievable abundance of generosity even in the face of her own mortality. In her darkest and sickest moments, she was always mentoring, lifting and enlightening other people who were struggling with diseases or disorders. This altruism nurtured and accelerated her biggest goal- to lead a healthy and productive life. She remembers her last day at that hospital in Portugal, following her bout with pneumonia. (Her immune system will forever be vulnerable after her multiple encounters with cancer and its treatments.) Following a discussion of her condition, the chief physician walked her back to her room.

“I knew everybody along the way. I knew the cleaning people. I knew the X-ray people. I knew the patients. I had a little Portuguese conversation with all of them about the things that they had each taught me. He just looked at me, ‘Oh my God, you know who everybody is. You know everybody’s names and everybody’s stories.’ And I said ‘Well yeah. I was here for 20 days. We all took care of each other.’”

Being altruistic not only connects you with your audience, but with your fellow performers.  Actor Jeremy Piven’s mother, Joyce (a noted director, actress and theater instructor), tells her students to focus on their fellow actors (or the audience), not on themselves.

“The anxiety subsides once you launch into the belly of the beast, once you start playing and put the focus on the other players and not yourself,” he told me. “Then you’re on to something.”

I tell my students to be the member of the band who listens, the one who’s cool, the one who’s there for everyone else. That’s the one who will go on to great things.

I now have a ritual before my performances: I close my eyes and focus my energy on inspiration, freedom, release and total sync with people. I put it out into the universe that some extraordinary, spontaneous and unexpected things will happen to enhance my performance, that everyone in the room will get the most out of the experience, and that their lives and mine will be forever enhanced as a result.

German superstar rocker, Udo Lindenberg is more well-known in German-speaking territories than the chancellor. (He’s now in his mid 60s, and his musical career is at its peak. He’s also an accomplished painter, using colored liquors for his palette.) And he’s made a career fighting xenophobia in his home country—Udo may well have influenced the razing of the Berlin Wall. His altruism led to his arrest on Red Square and an interrogation in a Moscow jail for bringing “panic and chaos” to the youths of the U.S.S.R. in the mid-1980s. He has received death threats: “This is going to be your last day. Gonna be your last ‘Hallelujah, Amen.’” He wore bulletproof jackets onstage—all because the audience is the most important thing to him.

The audience is the reason he does what he does. This man has always wanted to move and motivate people with his words, and ironically his first bit of success was a drummer for an instrumental fusion band, Passport.  But now, “I am a friend to them,” he says. “It is bridge that we build with the songs, because people know the songs since…ever. They were part of their lives, and part of their biographies. They love it, and they celebrate it. They are the friends who I have not seen yet, but know that they are. It’s a big family. It’s like having a big family meeting.”

Mixed martial artist Kendall Grove says that his successful performance ain’t about just him, but his team—like back in Vegas, where he was training at J-Sec with John Lewes and Mare Laimon.

“These people invested more than just friendship. They invested time and energy teaching me. You don’t want to let these people down. It’s an individual sport, but you got to hold it down. You got to think not just about yourself, but also about your crew, the people who helped you. When I win, they win. When I lose, they lose.”

NFL sideline reporter Laura Okmin quelled her temporary self-absorption by pinching her leg to redirect her focus.  She talks about an interview with former Miami Dolphins cornerback Michael Lehan, who was reticent of talking about his life in foster homes. In the course of her story package, Lehan visited with some foster children. An 8-year-old boy, who had been molested by his father and uncle, raised his hand: “Can you tell me why bad things happen to good kids?”

“So then, sitting down with Michael afterward and having that conversation, he’s crying. I literally sat there and pinched my leg and was just squeezing because I wanted to lose it so badly. It was so emotional, and he was having one of those moments that I wanted to help him through and couldn’t, and all I kept thinking in my head—I broke my rule, I never have an inner dialogue during an interview because then I’m not listening to what the person says—‘It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you. If I start to cry now, we can’t use my camera. And his reaction is going to change.’”

Prodigal Sunn of Wu Tang Clan has been an MC since the beginning of MCing.  I interviewed him from Los Angeles, while on brief hiatus from the Foreigner tour.

Prodigal’s first step to conquering performance anxiety? Make the stage his living room. “I make everybody feel at home—the bartender, the bouncer, the security, the sound man, whoever’s in the house. They all get love. You might even catch me in the crowd. You might catch me hangin’ out front.”

He recognizes people as people. You build up fear because you’re worried about people’s opinions; it stops you from performing at your best. “I started to feel this way recently, worrying about how I could reach out or become a brand. Just breathe. I remind myself that I’m here to be me and not my ego.”

Prodigal goes all out for his audiences, sometimes above and beyond what his band wants to do. “Wu Tang was invited to do a concert outta Miami. And some of the group didn’t wanna participate. But, me and the DJ had a connection. So, I was thinking of the importance of the brand. I went out there and did the show myself, even though the crowd wanted to see the group. I was confident enough in myself to know that I could hold it down. When I was out there, I got the respect of just being the guy who will show up. The crowd met me halfway. That takes the fear away, and that just grew me stronger.”

He could have worried about what the crowd was expecting. Instead, he focused on giving the crowd the best experience he could.

“The universe and life are here to support you if you just do your part. At the end of the day, if it wasn’t meant to be, it wouldn’t have happened, just more of the things that you learn that make you stronger. I was there, and I still was having my ears and my eyes open, so I learned a lot.

“This is Wu Tang’s 20 year anniversary, but everything is still brand new to me. I’ve learned that what the ego conceives is sometimes a trap. At the end of the day, man, love what you do. Be who you are. Thoroughly enjoy your talents and your gifts, ‘cause your spirit lays it out on you; you’re that vessel. The ego will always pretend that it’s together, even when it’s not.”


Action Step:

-Think about a past performance or presentation that made you reasonably anxious:

-Think about on whom you were focusing your attention.

-Was your attention on you (and your anxiety) or on your audience?

-Had your attention been truly focused on your audience, would you have been pre occupied with your own feelings?

-Relive that event, this time focusing your attention completely on your audience?

-How does that feel?

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