Under pressure...

Diane Spencer on 'bringing her A-game'

‘Some telly people want to see you, so bring your A game.’

‘M-my what?’ I stammer down the phone.

Suddenly with the pressure to perform in front of influential people with their thumbs on the ‘make-or-break opportunity’ button, my brain drops the ball, my mouth trips over its shoelaces and common sense loses an eye. Go team.

My brain is filled with the tiniest little details, I trawl through my gig history: every time a joke went slightly better than usual, what flick of the wrist, or tone of voice was it that pushed something from good to gooder to gooderer? And then all at once I’m thinking about everything and nothing.

I want to make sure I do all my best bits, but then suddenly I can’t remember any of them. Some Buddhists would envy this state of everything and nothingness, but I hate it. It’s like standing at the edge of a dark abyss wearing a really heavy rucksack that my Mum’s packed.

Neuroscientist and social science writer Jonah Lehrer provided some solace in his brilliant book The Decisive Moment, specifically in Chapter 5, called Choking on Thought. The lgist is that paying attention to the little details can sometimes stifle the brain.

Lehrer writes about Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studying the phenomenon of ‘choking’. He discovered that a beginner golfer will benefit from studying the mechanics of the putt, then after years of practice, the professional will automatically compute what to do. If the professional takes a step ‘backwards’ and focuses on the little movements, as a beginner needs to, due to the amount of experience built up over time and therefore sheer amount of tiny things to think about, the brain overloads and the professional slices into the pond. Lehrer noted that professional golfers did better when focusing on a ‘holistic cue word’ which encapsulated what they wanted to do, like ‘smooth’ or in Tiger’s case, ‘hole’.

Lehrer effectively states that a professional has no need to pay conscious attention to all the little details. The mental exertion of learning all of the theories certainly pays off for the beginner, who must learn some technique through repetition and conscious thought, but (in translating this to stand-up) as the performer writes more jokes, performs more gigs, takes more risks these mechanics become ingrained and automatic – the more you gig, the better you get.

Walking onstage with a clear concept in your mind, such as ‘relaxed’, or ‘refreshing’ will do far more for most comedians who feel under pressure thank trying to remember the tiny details that tweak every joke, which eventually causes your nerves to garrote your mind.

‘My A game? Right.. thanks for letting me know, I’ll do my best, but I still might die, you know that, right?’

Opportunities will come and go, all you can do is prepare. Worse case scenario, I die onstage: the comedy god might decide I owe him a gig and let me die in front of telly people, but on the up side, thanks to Lehrer’s technique – at least I’ll have the word ‘delightful’ resounding in my brain, as I fall into that silent, mental abyss.

Published: 17 Feb 2011

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