How To Command an Audience: Tips From a Spoken-Word Poet
Spoken-word poet Sarah Kay gives insight into how a person can command an audience and embrace, or even invite, authenticity through mistakes.
Sarah Kay is a poet from New York City who has been performing her spoken word poetry since she was fourteen years old. She was a featured poet on HBO’s “Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry Jam” in 2006, and that year she was also the youngest poet to compete in the National Poetry Slam. Since then, Sarah has shared her poetry in venues and classrooms around the world. She is perhaps best known for her talk at the 2011 TED conference, which garnered two standing ovations and has been seen over seven million times online. Sarah holds a Masters Degree in The Art of Teaching from Brown University, and an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Grinnell College. Her first book, “B” was ranked #1 Poetry Book on Amazon. Her newest book, “No Matter the Wreckage,” is also an Amazon Bestseller in American Poetry. Other poems and articles have been published in CURA Magazine, The Writer Magazine, Thrush, Treehouse Magazine, Union Station Magazine, the Huffington Post, CNN.com, and many more. Sarah is a passionate educator who has lead professional development workshops and been a featured presenter at education conferences such as the IBO, NAIS, ECIS, and AISA.
Sarah Kay: The more comfortable I get as a performer over years and years and years of practicing and performing over and over again for lots of different audiences, the more present I am able to be in the room. So instead of losing myself in performance I actually find my exact location in a very visceral way. So I become increasingly aware of everybody in the audience and what they’re doing. I know who is falling asleep. I know who is checking their phone. I know who is picking their nose. I know who is wearing a red sweater in the front row. Because when I’m nervous I can’t do that, right. When you’re in your head and oh I’m performing and oh no I hope this goes well. It’s very difficult to be physically present with all those people because it’s too much coming at you. But when I’m in the zone and I’m excited and I’m tuned into this performance I’m able to be very much aware of who’s here which I think is helpful because it allows me to be performing specifically for this room. The way that I perform for a classroom of fifth graders is very different from the way that I perform at a dive bar or the way that I perform for a stadium of 3,000 people. And it should be. You should feel a difference in my performance if you’re in the audience for one of those shows. So I think when I’m on stage if I’m having a great show and I’m really tuned in you can tell because I’m able to be very much aware and present with the people in the room and create a show that is meant for them.
I try to look for opportunities to communicate that I am in the same room that they’re in. So if I can make a joke about something that’s happening here or if I have a reference to what city we’re in or if someone’s wearing a tee shirt that I recognize and can associate with. Anything like that is a way of communicating I am in the same space you are and we’re participating in something together which also allows some part of an audience’s brain to go oh, I really had to be here which is a nice feeling to have as an audience member. It’s a way of acknowledging that they’ve taken the time to be in this space with you and you want them to know that you’re aware of that.
Something that I think I will never get over is the fact that it is a genuine gift when people are willing to sit in an audience and give you their time and attention and breath. That’s something that they could have spent anywhere else but they chose to give it to you here. And it’s something that I’m very cognizant of when I’m on stage. And a big part of what I want to do when I’m on stage is find a way to acknowledge those people that have come and are here in this space and create an environment that acknowledges that and also rewards them for that. How can we attune ourselves to what’s happening in this room so that later everyone leaves feeling like oh I really had to be – I really had to be here for that. I’m glad I was a part of what happened tonight.
I had a teacher in college who used to say that when you’re watching a play on a stage if somebody spills a glass of water. That’s the most important thing that happened in that scene because that wasn’t fake. Nothing about water spilling is fake. You see the water and everyone in the room goes that’s water and it just spilled and that’s the only thing you can focus on because that’s the most authentic piece of what’s happening in the room right now. Or if someone, if there’s an accident and someone gets hurt. That’s the only thing you can focus on because it’s the most authentic real thing that’s happening in the room. So I think when people are delivering content and they’re focused only on themselves, their delivery, what they’ve practiced, what they’ve rehearsed, what they’ve done to the mirror and they’re not aware of the room oftentimes they’re performing in a vacuum and other people can tell. People in the audience are like this isn’t for me, this is for themselves. This is in their own brains. I think the most powerful thing people can do is to spill the glass of water, not literally but to find a moment that is real, to find a moment that is actually happening here in the room with the people here and to let them know I’m with you here, not in my own vacuum practicing to the mirror somewhere. That what’s happening here is a real moment and you can create that by acknowledging something in the room, by referencing something that happened earlier that you were all witness to.
There are a number of myths surrounding public performance that spoken-word poet and co-founder of Project Voice Sarah Kay helps to dispel. Perhaps the chief myth is that you can't both be nervous and enjoy the experience of public speaking. In reality, being nervous is an inevitable part of the experience, but understanding why the audience came to see you — they just want to have fun — can help conquer your fear. Kay has plenty of tips and tricks that will make you feel more comfortable on stage and in the process of preparing your performance or speech.
Some artists try to zone out while they’re performing. Perhaps because it is strange to be the spectacle, to know that everyone in the room has their eyes on them, ears on them, hoping they’ll be great but squinting hard to catch mistakes. It’s easier to go through a speech imagining all the audience in their underwear, just as embarrassed and ashamed. But it's not better.
Button Poetry alumni Jesse Parent and Neil Hilborn stay similarly attuned to their audience. They can tell when the audience is getting sucked in. Jesse Parent listens to the laughter in the audience, and holds off on continuing his poetry until it dies down, reacting to the whoops and cheers of the people listening.
It’s such moments that capture something deeply mesmerizing: honesty. Kay thinks those unplanned moments are when the truth comes out. When an accident happens on stage, it’s the most authentic and real thing about the whole show. That’s the moment of connection between the watcher and the speaker. It’s the speaker’s job to create an experience for every member in the audience, and while this can be incredibly hard, especially as Kay recalls performing for 3000 people, it isn’t impossible. But to do it, you can’t imagine your audience isn’t there, and can’t pretend they’re too busy being humiliated in their underwear to be paying attention. They are looking at you. Face it. Smile back.
Kay refines her performances by listening and paying attention to every person in the audience. As Jesse Parent holds up his hand to acknowledge the people in the audience, Kay remarks on the person in the red sweater and jokes on their surroundings or the news of the day to show everyone that this is a moment, not just a speech.
To create wiser adults, add empathy to the school curriculum.
- Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
- Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
- Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.
- U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
- The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
- The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.
- Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
- Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
- Where's an El Niño when you need one?
Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.
NOAA expects a busy season
According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.
Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.
What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.
This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.
Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:
- The ocean there is warmer than usual.
- There's reduced vertical wind shear.
- Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
- There have been strong West African monsoons this year.
Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:
ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.
First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.
Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.
Image source: NOAA
Batten down the hatches early
If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.
Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."
Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.
Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?
Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways.
Got any embarrassing old posts collecting dust on your profile? Facebook wants to help you delete them.
- The feature is called Manage Activity, and it's currently available through mobile and Facebook Lite.
- Manage Activity lets users sort old content by filters like date and posts involving specific people.
- Some companies now use AI-powered background checking services that scrape social media profiles for problematic content.