March 14, 2012

“Neutral” is Anything But

As anyone knows who’s driven a standard car, neutral is the still center of the whirling cosmos of the gear shift—the place from which you transfer from first to third, from fourth to second, depending on the changing landscape of your fellow drivers, the posted speed limit, and the terrain you’re negotiating.

In the world of public speaking standing in neutral provides the same function. It’s the centered place from which you can easily move in any direction, depending on your needs, the needs of your audience, or the confines of the space you’re in.

What does standing in neutral look like? And, more importantly, why does it matter?

When you’re standing in neutral, you’re standing with your weight evenly in both feet and with your hands hanging by your sides.

Sounds simple, right?

Whether it does or doesn’t, please read on. But before you do– if you’re reading this while sitting down– get up and stand in neutral. Keep standing. Don’t fidget. Don’t shift your weight into one foot or the other. Don’t cross your arms in front of your chest or behind your back. Don’t put them in front of your groin. Leave your hands hanging loosely by your sides.

I’m guessing it’s harder than it sounded.

In fact, standing in neutral is a practice for most people. Crossing our arms in front of our chests, or interlacing our fingers in front of our groins, is programmed into us on a cellular level. It’s an instinctive gesture to protect our genitalia.

Now before you scoff– either because you don’t believe me or because the use of the world genitalia bummed you out—consider that Richard Saul Wurman, the inventor of TED, not only forbade podiums for TED talks, but also prefers glass tables, for this reason: because people are left more exposed, and so, vulnerable to each other. (For more, check out this recent NY Mag piece: http://nymag.com/news/features/ted-conferences-2012-3/)

It’s precisely for this reason that an ability to stand in neutral is powerful. Because it ‘reads’ for an audience on a visceral level as “He’s so in command of himself that he doesn’t need that protection.”

So, as noted, neutral is anything but—in fact, it is powerful. If you can practice standing this way for just a few minutes a day, it will slowly become a habit that will leave you feeling in command of yourself on any occasion.

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