A Place For Grace

By Chris Thurber
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / halfpoint

After learning how to hold their miniature violins, the next thing 3-year old Suzuki students learn is how to perform a deep, gracious bow. Although the first notes they play will sound like a choking cat, they end their performance with dignity. Bending slowly at the waist, they intone: “One, two, three … hello, toes!” and “One, two, three … up!” Many parents new to the Suzuki method dismiss this exercise as either premature or quaint. ( Shouldn’t my child actually learn to play something before she takes a bow? ) I was one of those parents, until I understood what Shin’ichi Suzuki understood from the start: Composure is as important as composition. Everyone needs to learn poise.

When poise is learned at an early age—whether from a teacher, parent, coach, or camp counselor—the graceful results last a lifetime. When poise is not part of the program, the results can be staggeringly awkward. To wit: I recently attended a concert showcasing the talents of a handful of the most talented local adult musicians. The concert was free, open to the public, and well-attended. To welcome the audience, an administrator stood in the front of the hall.

“Um…,” she started, rather haltingly, looking out into the audience. “I … ah … I want to welcome you all here (warm smile). We’re really excited because this is the debut … of … um … well, it’s like the first time this new piano is being played. Well, not the first time it’s being played, but the first time it’s being played in concert. Even though this is not really a concert. It’s technically a recital (hand-wringing). Now, I know I’m going to screw this up, but bear with me. It’s a very long and hard-to-pronounce last name … someone help me here … this piano was donated by the Beindenschlahnder family (nervous laugh). I think that’s how to say it. Anyway, we know you’ll enjoy the show … I mean recital … so … yeah.” (A sheepish smile and another nervous laugh.)

Where do I start with a critique of this debacle? As introductions go, it was among the most unprofessional I’ve ever heard. I’m quite sure this administrator’s heart was in the right place. She wanted to welcome the audience, thank the family that had donated a new $55,000 grand piano, and express her enthusiasm for the program and its performers. What she did instead was trivialize the event, embarrass the organization, ridicule a major donor, and highlight her lack of preparation. In short, she lacked poise.

However, the concert introduction contained a basis for so many solid teaching points—so many do’s and don’ts—that can help all of us be our most polite and self-assured selves in front of others. As youth leaders, it’s our professional, educational duty to learn poise, and then teach poise to the next generation.

  • Do make eye contact with the audience. In most Western cultures, this is a sign of interest, respect, and enthusiasm.
  • Do smile, if the occasion is a joyous one. Happiness is contagious and puts others at ease. Setting a positive tone for an audience is easy to do with a smile.
  • Do stand up in front of the room, where people can see you. Introductions and announcements from the back of the room are not worth making. Period.
  • Do rehearse what you’re going to say. Write talking points on a note card if you feel you may forget something important.
  • Do learn the names of people, places, and things that will be part of what you’ll say. Mispronouncing something you had an opportunity to learn is extremely careless.
  • Don’t say “um” or “ah” or—worse yet—“like.” Speech fluency (talking without these filled pauses) is easy to learn, just by practicing in front of a friend.
  • Don’t express pessimism. Starting a presentation with, “I’m going to mess this up” or “I know this is kind of boring” or “This is my first time doing this, so bear with me” is public-speaking poison.

Note for Educators : Perhaps even worse than expressing general pessimism in an introduction is a remark I hear at trade conferences every year: “I doubt I’ll get through all of my slides.” And worst of all: “I know you can’t read this slide because the text is so small.” Use slides to show not tell . Use only the slides you can show in the time allotted. Never include a slide that is illegible. (Thank goodness the woman who introduced this concert was not asked to create a PowerPoint presentation.)

  • Do express optimism. “We have a wonderful show planned for you tonight” or “I’m excited to share this new content with you” or “You’re in for a treat” are excellent ways to engage the audience.
  • Do give the audience a cue, such as “Please give a warm welcome to our first performer” or “Thank you very much.” An audience wants to show its appreciation, so indicate when the show is to begin.

Just as we teach staff members to make eye contact, smile warmly, and extend a hand in any greeting, so we can also teach them how to be better public speakers, better performers, and better hosts. They in turn can teach campers how to be more poised. And it can happen without the feeling of being enrolled in etiquette school. Athletic competitions, theatrical performances, artistic showcases, and even prosaic announcements-turned-skits all offer opportunities to hone poise. With so many chances to enhance self-confidence, why not try something new?

Consider these opportunities to practice composure:

  • End every competitive game with a cheer for the other team. Every time. In addition to teaching youngsters to win with humility and lose with grace, camp cheers are also a great way to increase spirit, loyalty, and sportsmanship.
  • Give every leader a chance to do some public-speaking before the entire camp. (At a religiously affiliated or spiritual camp, this could be a vespers service or morning watch; at a secular camp, this could be an announcement, box score report, or rules for a game.) Coach staff members to speak in a confident tone, and loudly enough to be heard by those in the back row.
  • Organize a variety show or talent show, and require participants to audition and practice. This will ensure a baseline level of quality, and also give the staff members in charge a chance to teach poised behaviors such as smiling and bowing.
  • Role-play scenarios with happy and unhappy parents. Because every staff member will encounter both this season, it’s great to rehearse polite greetings, warm good-byes, genuine empathy, and skillful conflict-resolution.
  • Practice delivering effective feedback, both staff-to-staff and staff-to-camper. With the shared goal of learning to be cool under pressure, help staff members become comfortable (during staff-training week) with telling people to speak up, eliminating “like,” “um,” and “ah” in public speaking, and showing interest by making eye contact. If a leader fumbles the delivery, give some balanced feedback for the next time.
  • Insist that everyone use “please” and “thank you” at the table and anywhere else where appropriate. Camp should be gritty, but it doesn’t have to be gruff.
  • Apologize for mistakes by saying “excuse me” for minor gaffes. Owning behavior—including the missteps—is a key first step toward earning others’ respect.
  • Offer public gratitude (some camps call it ”recognition”) for strong contributions to the camp community. Acts of voluntary service, exemplary kindness, and even heroism deserve open praise.

As I wrote in the September/October 2012 Staff Advancement column, manners matter. Politeness makes others feel welcome and respected, which are at the core of a high-quality camp experience. In this issue, I’m writing about poise. Poise is self-confidence and equanimity (being cool under pressure). These, too, are core camp values. Poise is not instinctive, and must be learned. Sure, some campers and staff members arrive with more composure and grace than others, but that doesn’t mean that the awkward or uneasy ones should be neglected.

Shin’ichi Suzuki knew something that most youth leaders take for granted: No one is too young or too naïve or too awkward or too unskilled to start learning how to handle oneself in front of a group. At camp, everyone deserves a chance to practice poise because everyone will be in the spotlight at some time in life. How wonderful it would be to learn how to present oneself in front a group at camp , where support and opportunities abound.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of PhillipsExeterAcademy and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit CampSpirit.com.