How To Be A Star

About a year ago, my husband was sitting quietly reading the newspapers one weekend when he suddenly exclaimed, ‘Good Lord, my cousin has written a book!’ Now, you should know that he comes from a very large family – he has about 27 cousins in all – and there’s quite a tradition for enterprise and unusual occupations. We often hear through the grapevine that cousin x has headed off to Uzbekistan to do volunteer work, or cousin y is taking a year out to form a chamber group. I don’t think I have ever met this particular cousin face to face, but was aware she trained actors at a drama school in London, and now, according to my husband, was writing a book about stage fright.

In fact, Caroline Goyder’s book The Star Qualities is about transferring the skills of acting into everyday situations where a performance of some kind might be necessary. In the same way that fiction has a great deal of insight on the nature of reality, so actors are obliged to delve deeply into the nature of identity, and this book uses their advice and tricks of the trade to bolster the confidence of ordinary folk who find themselves required to step into the limelight. Some chapters discuss demanding social situations, such as parties, interviews and public speaking, whilst others speak to more nebulous but equally taxing concerns, like the desire to stand out from the crowd, to become more empathetic with others, or to bounce back from rejection. The book is studded throughout with interviews with famous actors – Kate Winslet, Ewan McGregor, Minnie Driver (who is particularly good, I thought), Helen Mirren and Sarah Jessica Parker among others. What’s particularly charming is the way these ‘celebrities’ come across as down to earth, humane, compassionate types. They are quick to share the worst parts of their experience, no strangers to distress, anxiety, shyness and vulnerability, and more than ready to admit that overcoming awkwardness means time spent on the gentle art of incorporating difficult experiences of life into our souls, rather than rejecting them out of hand.

On the surface this appears as a light, frothy sort of book, but in fact it has admirable depth. There was a great deal of good advice that I ended up noting for future reference. For instance, if you want to really listen properly to someone, make sure to rest the tip of your tongue at the base of your mouth. Apparently, when we’re busy thinking out our next conversational sally our tongues make tiny ‘talking’ movements – a sign of internal distraction. I’m also fascinated now by checking out whether people are behaving as if they are high status or low status. High status types exude leader-of-the-pack power, low status compliant types exude humility. It’s the difference between ‘Keep away, I bite’ and ‘Keep away, I’m not worth biting’. Become aware of the power dynamics in the situations that surround you, Caroline suggests, if you want to be effective. Also extremely interesting was the information that ‘every time you experience your fear, and the memory that triggered it, you open the ‘file’ exactly as you last stored it. How you feel about the memory depends on whether you modified it the last time you looked at it.’ If you want to lessen your fear when heading into situations that scare you, you have to return to your previous memories and insert a little flexibility, soften them up, tone them down.

There were great lines from the actors, too. Salma Hayek, discussing how to make your dreams come true suggested it was very important to distinguish between the dreams you held for yourself, and those assumed (however unconsciously) to please or appease others. ‘If you enjoy the process, it’s your dream. If you are enduring the process, just desperate for the result, it’s someone else’s dream.’ And I particularly liked Glenda Jackson’s advice for tackling the difficult moment of walking into a party. To get you to breathe in the right place, and therefore access your calm, she said that a friend from the Royal Ballet told her ‘Display your diamonds, display your diamonds.’ Imagine you have a gorgeous necklace on and you want to show it off. I do hope the male readers of this blog are enjoying this tip also; gentlemen, you may wish to think medals rather than medallions.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on public speaking as it was an experience I was familiar with and made me feel that the advice in the book is spot on. I remember vividly the first lecture I ever gave at the university. I’d been scheduled for a slot in Easter term, shortly before the exams began, and was speaking on Colette, a little-studied author back then. You may imagine that I went through all the usual terrors in anticipation – I don’t think that any public speaker ever finds a way to outwit them entirely. But when I finally walked up to the podium, I realized there were only seven people in the audience. Seven people! I wondered what on earth I had been so worried about. And then I felt overwhelming gratitude for the students who had put aside their revision to attend a lecture on an author they would be unlikely to prepare in time for the exam. When I was a student I rarely attended lectures because most were a waste of time. I was determined that anyone who came to mine should have an experience worth the trouble they’d taken. I must have done something right because the following week, when I gave my second lecture, there were more students than before. Over the years I’ve spoken to packed halls and to small groups, but I’ve always wanted every person to have a good time, and been grateful for their presence. And the point of  lecturing to them was to talk about some fabulous author whose work I really wanted them to enjoy; the more I forgot myself in the desire to communicate, the better it all went. Caroline’s chapter in her book says much the same thing – prepare well, think about your audience, see them as your friends, get out of your own line of vision. I can agree that it makes all the difference.

So my feeling overall by the end of the book was that it had some seriously valuable advice, presented in such a way as to make it possible for anyone to improve their social interactions. The inclusion of acting stars was fun and entertaining, but actually, I felt that Caroline’s firm, guiding voice and her pertinent research were the real stars of the show. In some ways, I would have been more intrigued to read about her coaching of struggling actors, politicians and broadcasters, as on some levels their stories would have been rather fascinating. But that would have made it a very different kind of book. If you have any interest in self-help, or indeed in acting, then I would warmly recommend this. It has a lot to say in an entertaining and highly accessible manner.


15 thoughts on “How To Be A Star

  1. I love your description of your first lecture. What a wonderful attitude. It reminds me of Hayden Carruth, the most impressive poet I’ve had the opportunity to meet, because of his humility and the shining he exuded. He said it doesn’t matter if you speak to three people or three hundred; the honour is yours. Thanks for the information about tongue position! I’m going to attend to that.

  2. I love the idea of “displaying your diamonds.” My ballet teacher told me to imagine I was being held up by one hair at the top of my head. I never forgot the advice. As a practical matter, either piece of advice is very good for those of us of “a certain age” who no longer like our necks! It does wonders for that.

  3. What a great recommendation! I enjoyed reading the review of this book very much (and am glad to see you are still blogging – word around our blogosphere was you might stop and we all freaked out) – I go backand forth with anxiety regarding public speaking depending on the person/place/event, so this book might be very helpful for me!

  4. That’s lovely advice about the diamonds and I will try and show off the medals next time I am addressing the entire military base at the Officer Commanding’s communication period. What an interesting and helpful-sounding book. I would also have been interested in how she coached the strugglers. Always interesting to read about the well-known actors too.

  5. That sounds like a marvelous book. I love the tip about the diamonds. I might have to take up cross-dressing just so I can really get that right.

  6. Any teacher worth their salt knows that there has to be something of the performer in what they do. The issue is often just how much it takes out of them. Some of us are natural performers and some are not. I have a friend who works with Myers-Briggs personality testing. He is often called on to give lectures about it which he does extremely well. But, because he has a very Introverted (in MB terms) personality he has to dig into resources that leave him totally drained. We all know to leave him alone after a workshop for at least a couple of hours and a couple of beers until he has replenished what it has taken from him.

  7. Will be thinking about the tongue thing. There is some solid advice there for writers also:”prepare well, think about your audience, see them as your friends, get out of your own line of vision…” Love your description of your Colette lecture. Thanks for this!

  8. Bluestocking – I have one of those towering piles too! 🙂

    Lilian – it takes a lot of effort to turn up and actively listen! So yes, it is an honour to be the recipient of that. Thank you for your kind words, and I love the tip about the tongue. So tantalising!

    Grad – oh oh! I had that advice from a ballet teacher, too! Being held up by your hair and displaying your diamonds should cover all aspects of posture, no? You’re so right about necks – can you botox a neck? Gosh, I hope not. 🙂

    Courtney – I feel for you if you have to do a lot of public speaking. It is always a challenge and a tiring one, too. I’m still blogging! I need to have a rethink of what I’m doing to perk me up again. Blogging’s very dynamic, I think, and I love that it is so flexible, ultimately.

    Pete – it IS interesting on all sorts of levels. I thought what a very good book it would be for a young person – a twenty-something, just heading out into life, although there is something there for everyone. Medals would go down a treat in your military establishments! Love it. 🙂

    David – lol! Pictures, please, and a detailed account on your blog. 😉

    Ann – I have every sympathy with your friend, and how sensitive of you all to give him some space afterwards! The book does talk about the extra difficulty of being an introvert required to do extrovert activities. I always found I was a natural performer AND it was utterly exhausting. I really admire people who shy away from the performance aspect, but manage to do it anyway – that takes a lot of courage!

    ds – I always really enjoyed writing lectures. It was the closest I came to blogging, before I ever knew blogging existed, that urge to communicate something complex in an intelligible way (and an hour is just too long to listen, like my blog posts are just too long for comfort!).

    Jodie – oh and don’t you find the more random, the better? That tongue thing is utterly seductive. I must practice it myself! 🙂

  9. This is one self-help book that definitely sounds worthwhile, especially since I realized that just reading the words “public speaking” made my heart beat a little faster. It’s been a long time since I had to do any public speaking, and quit obviously, I have not changed my memory from nightmarish school experiences, despite having had some quite successful work experiences with it.

  10. I didn’t realize you’ve done so much public speaking, and I think your advice and Goyder’s makes a whole lot of sense. What interests me is the way public speaking can be such a different experience depending on context. Some people say they would be terrified to teach because of the public speaking aspect, and I say I’m not scared of teaching — it doesn’t feel like public speaking to me — but I’d be terrified to give a speech to my colleagues or to an audience of non-students. It’s all about power dynamics, and in the classroom I’m in charge. Thinking about giving the audience a good time sounds like great advice — the worst thing in a lecture is to be bored!

  11. So much good advice! I am not surprised Litlove that you are so good at performance. I’m not bad at it if I can keep my nerves in check and that all depends on whether I am able to call up the actor me. If I am stuck with personal me it goes badly. I dread parties so I will keep the diamonds advice in mind for future reference!

  12. Pingback: Best Books of 2009 « Tales from the Reading Room

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