“Travelling the path of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints, is a vital means to acquiring skill.” — Twyla Tharp
For our last Madrid Toastmasters session I signed up for the role of Thought/Book/Movie of the day. I took the opportunity to work on my memory, on expanding my vocal variety, on cleaning up my pronunciation and intonation in English, and of course on improving my delivery.
One of the recurrent things to improve I get on the club’s feedback forms is that I should increase my volume, vocal variety and speed (I’ve been told sometimes a speak too slowly for extended periods of time, which is very soothing but not very engaging,) so I felt that taking some time to work on shorter speeches as supposed to full assignments to polish these issues, would be a good experiment.
In her book The Creative Habit, Learn it and keep it for Life, Twyla Tharp explains that even though copying is not a very popular idea these days when we are constantly encouraged to find our own voice, it is a great way to learn, especially if you set out to learn from the best. She defends the value she found on patterning herself after people whose work she admired. She says that she would stand right behind a great dancer of her choice in class in what she calls “copying mode,” and fall right into their footsteps. This is how their style, technique and timing would become imprinted in her muscle memory (memory is the key) giving her more tools for her own creative work.
In my case, I chose to copy Neil Degrasse Tyson, a brilliant astrophysicist and excellent public speaker. In one of his interviews he was asked to share what he though was the most astounding fact about the universe. I began by listening to the audio paying attention to the nuances of inflection and vocabulary. Then I tried shadowing the speech a couple of times. After memorizing the words I moved on memorizing his pitch, speed, and volume. I practice and got feedback from a native speaker before trying it out in the meeting last Wednesday.
Did I succeed and deliver a perfect speech copying all of his masterful nuances? Definitely not. However, I learned a lot and I saw for myself what my fellow Madrid Toastmasters had been telling me. My mentor and other people noticed the difference in the delivery and encouraged me to keep working this way, which leads me to believe I found a good tool.
Would I try this exercise again? Definitely yes, and I strongly recommend it.
THARP, Twyla and REITER, Mark. The Creative Habit, Learn it and Use it for Life. A Practical Guide. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.