Olympia Dukakis Whipped My Derriere

Last Friday I found myself by some miracle of fate sitting in front of Olympia Dukakis, in her living room, reciting my upcoming TEDx talk.

Yes, THE Olympia Dukakis. The one who won the Oscar for “Moonstruck” in 1989. The one who stole every scene in “Steel Magnolias.” The person I have long considered the greatest actress who ever lived.

Through my journey as a speaker and TEDx applier, I have experienced auditioning, rejection and success – but none could compare to what I learned in our brief exchange. In fact, I walked away not only with an overhauled talk and even speaking style – but I’ve learned a lot about myself personally. Here are the key lessons –in her words:

  1. “Drop the sales pitch. Tell a story.”

Here’s the truth: I think Olympia Dukakis didn’t care much for my talk. She barely let me get past the opener and kept stopping me and questioning me about what I am trying to do, why I am speaking this way, what’s up with my hands. Then she asked me point blank if I sell for a living. I said that I do. To which she replied, “well, that’s what you need to un-learn to tell this story.”

Funnily enough, Ms. Dukakis had never heard of TED before, and I think she wasn’t really all that familiar with motivational speakers, either (televangelists, maybe). Notwithstanding, she detected a sales-y tone. Hand to God – I did not pick that up in myself. You know me: I believe every word I am saying! I thought I was Gandhi, until an acting legend pointed out that I am coming across as anything but.

Here’s what I think she was trying to say: Stop manipulating the audience or seeing them as you want to. Instead, genuinely try to connect. In paying attention to the way Dukakis spoke of acting, I gleaned that in order to be a great actor, you have to be able to live truthfully within the imaginary world of the script. You have to transcend the craft and apply yourself to the embodiment. Acting, therefore, isn’t about “faking” anything — in its truest form, it’s the opposite.

To do this, I went home and examined the motivations behind my TEDx talk. Do I want people to think I am a great speaker, or do I really and truly want to share an idea worth sharing, and stories that really and truly changed MY life? I realized in so doing that I was pitching from the place that cared about how I was received. When I re- connected to my purpose – the message of the talk, which I fully believe is the biggest gift I have to bestow upon the world – the talk practically changed itself.

The lesson here is that the only way we can understand ourselves is by being brutally honest constant observers of our intentions and actions. “Don’t worry about being right….be concerned with not betraying yourself,” she said. I think I may play these words in my head over and over for as long as I live.

  1. Don’t recite. Feel. 

Ms. Dukakis pointed at me and said: “You’re reciting, not telling a story.”

She was kind, though, adding: “You are so used to thinking thoughts fast and just following them. Guess what? The body can do the same thing! Give yourself time to transition by following the body, not the thoughts.”

I got it. In reciting, I was always keenly focused on the next line. When you are focused on the next line, you neglect the emotion in the one you are reciting right now. “Live dangerously,” she said. “Don’t know what you’re going to say next or focus there because you’ll be focusing on the next emotion.” Many people will tell you to take your talks or performances minute by minute. Olympia Dukakis says, “take them second by second.” She also recommended putting your hand on your heart often and reminding yourself what is under there. It is possible I choked up when she said that (sniff).

It’s interesting that this one hit me so hard because…I KNOW this. Professionals and experts in any field do virtually all the preparation beforehand, so when it is time to perform, they can just relax, focus, and live moment to moment. My main goal moving forward will be this: ease.

  1. Welcome criticism and go outside your comfort zone.

Let’s face it: we all have defense mechanisms. They’re there for a reason — to protect us from getting hurt emotionally. But if you want to progress, learn, and grow, you have to accept that the feedback you’re getting may be right and you may be wrong – but that it is ALL valuable. I got skewered by OLYMPIA DUKAKIS – an acting God. Do you think I would be shallow enough to walk away thinking: “Nah, she doesn’t know what a TED talk is. This doesn’t apply…”?

Heck, no. Instead, I took everything she had to give me, engraved it on my heart and put it into effect immediately, to the best of my present ability.

She generously offered me a brilliant look at blind-spots I may never have uncovered. Like most people willing to give you honest feedback, she did this because she cares deeply. This was not lost on me, nor were the invaluable offerings. In addition, I learned that which I teach: want a new perspective? Get outside your field, seek BREADTH (for more on this, read: RANGE, by David Epstein. It’s fantastic). Getting out into a totally different field will teach you stuff you cannot imagine.

An important aside here is that I also deserve some credit. Why? Because I was brave enough to do this. When Olympia Dukakis offered to listen, I jumped up with zero fear and charged at the opportunity, knowing full well this may hurt a little. Most people would have hesitated. Whether it is for actors, writers, creative types, or just about anyone else, the thing holding us back from achieving what we want is an invisible force called resistance.

Resistance is what makes it difficult for us to just sit down, focus, and get stuff done. It is the reason why we procrastinate. It is the force that holds us back from achieving greatness – our own ego, in essence, tripping us up. The way to overcome resistance is to first identify that it exists, and then create habits that allow us to conquer it. Cultivate this vulnerability – embrace the chance to put yourself out there and learn something.

You never know. It might just change your life.

My favorite movie scene of all time: Olympia Dukakis and cast in “Steel Magnolias” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZx1W6cHw-g

Back home, I sat Ryan, our two kittens and the dog down on the sofa in front of me and did the TED talk differently, from scratch. While there was no comment from the animals, Ryan said that the talk was already “a million times better.” He had not been able to put his finger on what was wrong before, having heard three talk drafts for over 2 months. An Oscar-winning legend could in a few moments.

Whether your goal is to become an entrepreneur, a leader of any sort, an actor, or just a great human, I hope that these lessons will help you in your life as they have in mine.  That was pure magic.

See you next time.

– Keren

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