Sunday, 23 January 2011

Smooth criminals: the power of performance presence

What makes this clip so astounding to watch? 

Is it the quality of filming? The drama and passion the musicians display? Or is it the demonstration of absolute excellence; human performance at its finest and most captivating?

I think we’re all attracted by excellence. We’re inspired by it and motivated to achieve our own best. And have you ever noticed that people onstage seem disproportionately good-looking? Imagine watching a local band gigging at a nearby live music venue, or the pianist playing familiar tunes at a classic city piano bar. As the audience, we’re drawn to the performers; mesmerised by their presence and confident that they’re above average in every way. Then whilst they chat to you after the show you notice their flaws. You realise they’re quite normal looking and seem far less exotic and exciting than when they were wowing the crowd onstage. 

It’s also true for speakers, presenters and sports stars. It might even work for a handful of politicians.

Perhaps the ‘halo effect’ is at work. We overemphasise performers’ positive qualities because of the recognition that they’re on stage at all; that the rest of the room likes and finds them attractive, so we should too. Perhaps it’s because we recognise their talent. And everyone loves to see top talent in action. In 1954, Leon Festinger wrote about social comparison theory, and the fact that we look to others to evaluate how successful we are. When we see greatness, we want to improve our own competence levels to be great.

So how can we all display a bit of stage magic every day? Whether we’re meeting clients or friends, pitching new business or selling an idea, the ability to enthral our audience is sure to reap benefits:

    Whatever you do, do it brilliantly. Build up your skills at work so you’re at the top of your game. And if you’ve got a hobby or outside interest, put the effort into making yourself great.

    Seek feedback along the way, so you know it’s not just in your own opinion that you’re good. Then find ways to show people your excellence. You’ve put all that time in; now reveal to the world how skilled you are. An online presence through Twitter and blogs is a great way to build up a following.

    At work you might not get too many opportunities to hop on stage and start playing an instrument. So we need to find other ways of getting people to like and value us. One is building up our skills. The second is by bubbling over with excitement, energy and valuable comments so that your audience is hooked on every word.

    How to get there? Easy. Be interested and interesting. Read up on your subject so you’ve always got an interesting fact or current bit of insight to drop into the conversation. And ask a continuous string of perceptive questions to show the people you’re with that you care about what they have to say.
And just in case you’re still not sure what I mean, no one can forget Susan Boyle’s infamous audition on Britain’s Got Talent. No matter what the journey’s been since, she wowed her audience for all the right reasons; her talent.  

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

What's up?

Literally, how often do you look up when you’re walking down the street? Do you notice the sky, roofs, signs, birds? For that matter, when you’re up high, do you look down?

Today, standing on the station platform where I stand every day waiting for a train with millions of other people, I turned around. I stepped back from the crowds and looked over the barriers to the world going by below the station (I'm lucky to get an overground train, so it's in the open air).

What did I notice? London buses have a huge white sign with their registration number printed on their roofs. Well, who knew?! Are they trying to communicate with aliens in space? Are they making sure people in tall buildings can see the bus registration? Or are they simply monitoring bus movement by connecting to satellite picturing or ensuring they’re visible to police helicopters in case of accidents? I’m guessing the latter.

Why they’re there = not the point. 

The point = we spend so long absorbed in our day to day routines that we miss the magic in the world. We miss the beauty that’s hiding quietly around every corner; we miss the fantastically decorative architecture on the roofs of buildings; and we’re probably missing hilarious incidents of breaking behaviour that would bring a wide-eyed smile to our day.

I encourage you over the next day, week and month to look around you. Particularly when it’s such grey and miserable weather outside, like it is this week. Find some interest in your environment. Force yourself to notice something that you never usually see. Even if you’re taking the same route, see it for the first time. And if you’re really brave, why not try an alternative route?

Obviously there's a wealth of psychological research showing the benefits of stepping out of your comfort zone. But I won't bore you with it. I want you to experience it yourself. Try it out, and report back.

And for all those writers out there, you'll find brilliant story potential all over the world, every single minute. That I can promise. We just need to be on the watch to notice them.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

City stillness: can we get rid of all the people?

Back on the commute today. Back with the millions of other people. With the football fans battling to cross the streets, while the everyday pedestrians look on despairingly. Luckily, I’ve got a newly updated iPod, finally filled with my own, somewhat diverse and at times questionable taste in music. So I could keep myself happily distracted.

But I couldn’t help but notice the dramatic difference to the experience of commuting that I had last week. When there was no one around. When most sensible people were still tucked away snugly in their family homes in front of a roaring fire. In fact, leaving the house to go to work last week (29-31st December) felt a lot like the opening scene of ‘28 days later’. Silence. Stillness.

The most beautiful thing about the lack of people was that everyone was so unbelievably polite and gracious. Strangers in the street were being so kind. Letting me on the bus before them. Literally stepping back to let me pass. For anyone that doesn’t live in London and commute with the rest of us, let me tell you that this is literally ground-breaking behaviour. I’ve never seen such human courtesy abounding in this city.

So why? What caused such a change?

I believe it’s to do with group psychology. French social psychologist Gustave le Bon wrote about this effect in 1895. He describes crowds as mobs in which individuals lose their personal consciences. When there are so few people around, you have to take full accountability for your behaviour. You can no longer hide behind the masses. It’s almost as if we reverted in those very quiet mornings of last week to the typical culture and charms of a country village. You look people in the eye, notice what they’re wearing. And because you’ve taken note of them as a fellow human, you treat them with more respect.

Many people have looked into the group mindset; see a strong summary of the psychology in this area here. Personally I studied this very closely during my MSc in war & Psychiatry. My research dissertation was entitled ‘The psychology of groups underlying and motivating terrorist behaviour.’ I explored how the power of the ‘group’ can overwhelm individual mindsets to such a great extent that it can lead people into terrorist groups and cult-like behaviour.

But on a smaller scale? In the city of London every day? Surely we’re not all terrorists because we squeeze ourselves onto trains like sardines, pushing anyone aside who dares to get in our way, or ignore weaker passengers because we’re late and need to get to work on time too?

Imagine a group of innocent protestors or a crowd of passionate football supporters. They start the day pleasantly, singing, shouting, in an excited and vibrant mood. If things take a turn for the worse, and the group mindset takes over from the individual, you can quite quickly end up with a dangerous and violent mob of angry hooligans. The switch might only take a few minutes. And it’s much, much more difficult to deal with.

Are the individuals in that crowd the same? Absolutely. If you met them alone, would they be scary or violent? Probably not. It’s the mass that takes control; the individuals are left behind. If you interviewed each person afterwards, most would regret the violence and explain that they didn’t want anything bad to happen.

So, how can we avoid it?

On the individual scale: take responsibility for who you are and what you do. Look people in the eye. Remind yourself that you’re human and so are they. They’re faced with similar situations. They have families, bosses and stresses too. Show them the respect you’d like them to pay you. And if you’re really stuck, picture yourself in a country village, where honeysuckle creeps over houses, the postman knows your children’s names and street parties are the talk of the summer.

On the group scale: now this is more complex. I’ll keep reflecting on this one. It might be that we can change culture through subliminal messages, like these blog posts, like further research, like films and books about the topic. But that doesn’t feel very practical does it? What about slogans and messages on tubes and in football grounds or other stadiums encouraging people to look at others in the crowd as individuals? E.g. “Find out one thing about the person behind/ in front of you?” When we make connections with others we remind ourselves that we’re individuals in the mass. Humans again.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Thank Christmas, it's over.

Christmas came (yes!) and went (no!). But what’s the impact? What’s it left behind? A whirlwind of destruction and family feuds? Or a warm glow of happiness and gifts? Most of us at least share the feeling of a full belly and desire to detox (whether we do it or not = different matter entirely).

Everyone’s Christmas is unique but there are some general trends you can observe. We hear stories of chaos; weather creating travel mayhem, people stranded in airports all over the country and predictions of festive doom. On the day itself there are stories of drunken uncles starting arguments about politics, great aunts shouting inappropriate insults in every direction and someone passing out in the corner by 5pm.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. Because everywhere you turn these days there are ranting, witty comics spieling about the festive fallout. I’m not going to add to this mire of missives. I want to find out what the Turkey is going on this time of year.

Some interesting facts:
  1. According to a survey by BBC Radio 5 Live, while 69% of the people interviewed were happy to spend Christmas with family, 22% said they expected a family argument to kick off. 
  2. Although 89% of children in another study said they were excited about Christmas (that’s high), one in six said they felt sad, nervous or left out at Christmas (that’s also high; way too high)
  3. In 2009, Women’s Aid reported a 28% increase in enquiries made to the helpline following the Christmas period. In figures, that amounts to around 14,000 calls received in January ‘09.

Why do we expect arguments? Why do children feel scared and alone? And why are people hitting January feeling so scared that they need to call Women’s Aid for protection?

There’s definitely a darker side to the holiday season. And I think there are some simple observations that could help to explain. The first is that for the small period of time that people get together for Christmas it’s like being part of a reality TV show; life is compacted into one house where all these people who usually spend a few moments together here and there, suddenly have to spend 48 hours solidly making merry. Not many people wake up every day ready to make merry all the time. So that gives immediate basis for conflict.

It’s also an intense social situation which we rarely face in the day to day. We’re expected to make conversation ALL the time, we have to do things that we hate doing and look happy about it (like the annual family walk), and absolutely nothing (in the UK at least) is open so you are unable to connect with other human beings to dilute the pressure.* Recipe for disaster I’m sure.

*Not quite true; the saving grace for many is the local pub which does stay open. And many of them even offer free drinks during the lunch hours. That’s proper Christmas spirit! I approve.

Anyway, as with any extreme situation, humans tend to react as they do when they’ve had alcohol: enhancing the natural state of things. If the family situation is already one of pleasant relations and nothing unusual happens, it’s likely to be a close, happy gathering of celebration and love. If on the other hand, tensions already exist (pretty much any family with children) it’s unfortunately a catalyst for the final straw to break the illustrious camel. Tensions that have been bubbling under the surface for months or years are quickly uncapped and let loose over the choice of wine or pudding.

Here are some simple tips to get it right next year:

  • Plan early.
    There’s nothing worse than worrying and wondering about what’ll happen. Decide where you most want to spend Christmas and then make it real. Call people, book your travel and always, always have a local back-up in case the weather scuppers your plan.  
  • More give, less take.
    Research suggests that helping others makes us feel better about ourselves. If you can spare a few pounds, donate it to charity. Or spend an afternoon volunteering (e.g. for the Samaritans).
  • Agree what’s important. And forget what’s not.
    For some of us, Christmas dinner is the main event; for others, it’s the brisk country walk; for the kids, it’s obviously presents. Focus on things your family/friends care most about, and drop the rest. And if you don’t know how people feel (most of us don’t even know ourselves until we really think about it) then start asking questions. You never know what’ll come up.

For the record, I’m a Christmas lover. In fact, I’m probably one of its biggest fans. I count down the days from November 1st, revelling in the pretty lights, colourful decorations and sumptuous tastes and scents. I mean honestly, what better way to enjoy a city scene than by adding twinkling lights? What better way to spend a wintry evening than by wrapping up warm, supping a hot mug of mulled wine or gliding gracefully around an ice rink whilst taking in a great London skyline?

But I know that millions of people don’t share this sentiment. I’d like to change that.

Image from