Each moment in our life can be a teaching moment, if we let it speak to us. If we stop and listen closely we can find significance, insight and inspiration in even the most mundane events. By comparing and grouping similar moments we can start to see patterns and trends. Those patterns and trends carry our stories – the narratives we construct to give meaning and purpose to our lives. By seeing more clearly how the stories we have been living resonate with our authentic core, we can begin to project our most authentic life’s story forward. Instead of waiting for the next chapter to be written for us, we can author that next chapter ourselves, and then make it happen.
Step 4: Summarising the Essence
Having grouped our shiny pearls, we can now summarise the essence of what these pearls have in common. The idea is to capture not just the facts of those moments (such as the location, actions, actors and situation) but much more the energy, emotions and significance for us, so that when we retell the summary we actually evoke the feelings we had when we first experienced the moments we summarise.
The following questions can help to construct our summaries, but we should be careful not to fall for a strictly formulaic approach: this is about personal experiences, so we should feel free to construct them in a way that feels most powerful and meaningful to us. But these questions are a useful framework to start with. Looking at the group of pearls to summarise:
- Do they have the same/similar location?
- Do they have the same/similar actions?
- Is there a way to characterise the setting?
- Is there a way to characterise the outcome(s)?
- What did they make us feel?
- What about them led to that feeling?
- What can we leave out without losing the essence of what makes those moments special?
Over the past 35 years I have had many opportunities to perform on stage, either alone or with other people for audiences ranging from a few to a few thousand. The pearls in this group that really stand out are the ones where it is just me and the audience. I am singing a song or doing a monologue but even before I would start I would have this feeling that something special was about to happen. I am standing on the stage, looking around, and feel the anticipation of the people in the audience. I am a little bit nervous, but in a good way, an energising way, that heightens my senses and sharpens my concentration. As soon as I start speaking or singing, I feel connected to the audience: I am communicating with them, not just projecting at them. I feel that I am taking the audience with me on an adventure, and exploration either of the story I’m telling or the emotions I’m singing about. When I’m talking I play with the tempo and volume of my voice, I pause at moments to look around and make eye contact, then speed up to convey enthusiasm and energy and I feel the audience coming with me, as if I have direct access to their emotions and energy.
The best of these moments end in a very natural and satisfying way, with the song or story ending with a feeling of completion and closure, as if there was no better moment to stop than this precise second, and no better way to end than with these very last words. With songs, of course, the timing is as much determined by the music as by me, although with a great pianist (which I was lucky enough to have worked with a few times) I have the freedom to play with the tempo and pauses and the music would follow. But with monologues the timing is completely in my own hands. Especially when delivering presentations, rather than fully scripted monologues, I am in control not just of the timing, but of the very story itself. Sure, usually there are slides that give a pre-ordered structure to what I am talking about, but over time I have learned to reduce those slides to a bare minimum, considerably increasing my freedom to improvise, skip and add anecdotes, examples and even whole lines of thought as I see fit. In the best of these pearls, even though I feel I’m just improvising and saying what comes to mind, there is a strong sense of coherence and rhythm, as if there is a script I’m working from, and the story comes to a natural end at exactly the right time, usually a few minutes before the hard stop most of my performances are set to, so that there is time for the audience to reflect on what I have told them and ask some questions before we have to leave the room.
It is not too hard to see that these pearls have a lot of things in common:
- The location is a stage (or something functioning as a stage, such as being in front of a group of people in a class-room, standing behind a lectern in a lecture theatre, or standing on a makeshift platform in some venue during an event. Sometimes it’s an actual theatre, though I haven’t performed in theatres that often.
- The action is me talking (or sometimes singing) solo to an audience of multiple people. It’s a staged performance, in other words I have been asked to perform and the audience has some expectation of what I will talk about or what I will be singing.
- The setting is of positive expectation: I expect the audience to be interested in what I will be presenting to them, and they expect that to be relevant, interesting, educational and entertaining. There is a clear expectation about the topic and the mode of delivery, and there is predetermined time-frame for the whole thing to play out in. I don’t expect to have to fight for the audience’s attention, or to compete with others for it: they are there because they are already interested to hear what I have to say. Of course, if I perform badly I may disappoint them and lose their interest, but they definitely start with a willingness to hear me out.
- The outcome of these pearls is a feeling of accomplishment, a happiness bordering on euphoria at times, a deep gratitude to the audience for going on this journey with me, and a sense that I matter – even in a small way – to the world and to my fellow human beings. As far as I can ascertain, the outcome for my audiences is a sense of motivation and inspiration, as sense of having learned something useful for their professional or personal development and a feeling of having spent their time in a sensible, productive way.
- What exactly leads to those feelings in myself and in my audience may be a bit hard to analyse in detail, but I think what it comes down to is that these moments give me a combination of a few different types of satisfaction, all of which are relevant to me and what I perceive as my mission in life:
- They give me a sense of accomplishment: of a difficult job done well thanks to practice and preparation;
- They give me a sense of connection: of reaching out and touching other people’s minds and hearts, even if only for the duration of the performance;
- They give me a feeling of being helpful and supportive: of bringing useful and practical information and advice to people that – should they choose to work with it – can have a positive effect on their lives;
- They give me a feeling of being appreciated and respected: of people actively seeking out my insights and advice, rather than having to chase them and beg for their attention.
- In their most abstracted form, these pearls are all examples of me communicating with groups of people, entertaining them with my stories, educating them with my information and insights, and motivating them to improve themselves with my tips and advice.
What this group of pearls seems to tell me is that being on stage is important to me. But not just being on stage: the most satisfying moments were when it was me addressing an audience directly, moving them with both my messages and my delivery. And it wasn’t only about entertaining them either: there had to be a motivational and educational part to my performance as well, to really make me feel it was all worth doing. Making sense of the world, understanding on a deeper level what is really going on and why and how things are happening, is apparently a core need in me. Being able to help other people with that understanding is a close second, as that links back to my own need to feel useful, as well as my desire to lessen the (often self-inflicted) suffering in the world.