When I help speakers or leaders with their presentation skills, I don’t typically focus on techniques such as voice inflection, hand gestures or eye contact. While these can play an important role in a great presentation, I believe that our greatest asset is who we are, not necessarily what we do.
When it comes to how we influence others, we are the best that we have to offer. In fact, with all the time we’ve spent with ourselves, we know us better than anybody. And it is the uniqueness of our us-ness that we must exploit to make us more valuable to others. To do that, we must acknowledge the many influences that made us the us that we are.
Recently, I attended an event honoring my former professor LaVahn Hoh who is retiring this year. He was a drama professor at the University of Virginia for 46 years and was one of only three of my former professors who was still teaching when we moved back to the area last year. Someone once said, “Old professors never die, they just lose their faculties.” Well, LaVahn has not lost his faculties, we’re just losing him as a member of the faculty.
As I listened to the speakers at this event describe why LaVahn had an impact on their lives, it occurred to me that so much of who we are comes from our life experiences and the influence of others on us. One man had taken LaVahn’s class on set design. He is now an architect. Another man had become involved in a national theater association. Now, he is vice president of that same association and is also a university drama professor. I took LaVahn’s class on the History of Circus in America and I’ve been a “clown” my entire adult life. Just to be clear, I’ve never been a real clown — I’ve just been called a bozo many times.
My college journey took me through an eclectic collection of classes. My declared major was psychology. Yet, I was also in the Pre-Med Program which ironically did not count as a major even though it required more classes than my major. Go figure. Finally, I completed the coursework for a minor in drama. My father’s ongoing joke was, “my son is pre-med with a drama minor. I guess if he doesn’t get into medical school, he can be on M*A*S*H.”
So, as a result of my double major and single minor, I had very few electives (those classes we all took in college that were more fun and much easier than those indecipherable required classes such as Cell Physiology 501). One elective I took was LaVahn’s circus class and the other was a sociology internship program. Both classes had a significant influence on me — possibly greater than the classes in my major, even though Organic Chemistry did influence me to never again take anything remotely similar to Organic Chemistry.
Here’s a little background on these two influential classes:
LaVahn Hoh is a nationally-known authority on circus and his elective was one of the most fascinating classes I ever took. His lectures traced the history of circus from the small theatrical traveling shows that originated in Europe to the three-ring animal-filled extravaganzas in the United States. We learned how circus influenced Vaudeville which ultimately led to what we know as stand-up comedy today. We heard from Ringling Brothers’ performers as guest lecturers and we saw a rare video clip of W.C. Fields as a Vaudeville performer and clown. Fields was known as an expert “balancer” which is an art form that has long since been replaced on television by the far less impressive singing competitions and reality shows.
The other memorable class I took was through the Undergraduate Internship Program led by Paul Kingston. This class allowed us to work in an organization related to our majors. I chose inpatient psychiatry as my internship and based on my performance in this class, Paul suggested that I might be better suited for a profession in social work than my chosen path of medicine. Coincidentally, my overall grade point average also suggested that I was better suited for something other than medicine. In fact, I could have gotten an A+ in being a C student.
Both of these professors had a significant impact on who I am and what I do. In other words, they played a role in creating the me that I now use to influence others.
Through the circus class, I realized that while clowning and comedy may seem like less-than-noble professions, as compared to medicine, funny people bring great joy to others. Humor is a significant part of what I do today.
The internship experience exposed me to the fascinating power of the mind and I witnessed the masterful work of therapists as they helped people cope with serious mental health challenges. My subsequent training in social work has led to a greater understanding of how we see the world and how we manage our lives. This, too, is a major focus of my presentations.
LaVahn Hoh and Paul Kingston had a great impact on shaping the ultimate me that I am today. And most of us can look back and see wonderful people just like them who affected our lives. To do life well and to truly take advantage of our uniqueness, we must appreciate, acknowledge and incorporate those influences.
By embracing these experiences, we become the best we that we can be. And it is our unique us-ness that has the greatest chance to make a valuable impact on others.
Well said! I am already starting to reflect!