The Power of Intensity

If you haven’t already heard of Taylor Mali you have been missing out on a prominent poet from the slam poetry movement. In this post we explore how Taylor uses the power of intensity to draw in the audience and stir up emotion. There are many performances where Taylor uses the power of intensity in his poetry, but I will focus on the poem “What Teachers Make?” in this post. Taylor has performed “What Teachers Make?” many times over the years and I’ve included other versions below so you can see how he has adapted the poem to different audiences over time. You can also see how he has perfected his tone, timing and gestures to convey the right message and exactly the feeling he wants to evoke in the audience.

The Setup

In all the versions that I came across on YouTube of “What Teachers Make”, Taylor begins in the same way. The poem starts out with a short anecdote of a mocking lawyer at a dinner party asking the question “be honest Taylor, what do you make?”. The interesting thing about his setup and consequently what makes the piece so powerful, is the fact that we can imagine ourselves in some similar situation. Whether the anecdote is actually true or not is irrelevant in the long run, since the point is to identify with the emotion of dealing with condescending lawyer mocking us. Once the audience imagines themselves being in that situation, they immediately agree with Taylor’s side as he responds to the lawyer, and literally feel the emotion he is projecting in his response. The following diatribe hits home in a tremendous way since most of us have attended public schools and know what Taylor is talking about when he speaks about study halls and grades. We involuntarily place ourselves once again in school as a student (or perhaps a teacher if that is your profession) struggling with the day to day of the education system. Throughout the poem we equally share Taylor’s disdain of the mocking lawyer.

Connecting the audience to a strong emotion, specifically intensity in this case, is a powerful way to get people to emotionally participate in the performance. It reminded me of a long while ago when I was in junior high and I played in the school band (trumpet if you are wondering). One day, the band teacher wanted us to play with more emotion. We were attempting to learn the piece Jupiter by Gustav Holst for an upcoming rehearsal and everyone was having trouble (you can just imagine the musical atrocities being committed!). The problem was the middle section of the piece which requires everyone to slow down and play a very moving and powerful part. I can now only imagine how hard it was for our teacher to hear us butcher a classic like Jupiter as we attempted to learn and memorize it. Regardless, our teacher told us to play with more intensity. He said “imagine that you are Clint Eastwood in one of his movies like Dirty Harry or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Eastwood has made a whole career out of being an intense actor, and you can almost feel that intensity when he comes on screen. Our job was, as the teacher suggested, to take that same intensity and emotion that Eastwood had, and make it come out though our instruments as our own. At the time I really didn’t understand what he meant, was I supposed to play louder or something? it didn’t seem like it was going to help any.

Stage Presence

As a second chair trumpet player who had a hard time even sitting still during band class, I struggled with this instruction. How could I be like Clint Eastwood, I mean he was awesome, he had played a bad ass cowboy and a cop with a mean streak, how in the world was I supposed to compare. What I didn’t understand was that the only thing that made Clint Eastwood cool was that he believed in what he was doing.  When he got into his role he became that character. He believed that he had the emotion and intensity and that made him become Dirty Harry or Blondie. It is sort of like the term “fake it ’till you make it”, you don’t have to be an intense person all the time, rather, you just have to believe in what you are doing to convey that emotion. The fake it till you make it acting strategy applies not only to the movies, poetry and band class but to professional presentations as well.

So you might be asking yourself, “Okay, but how exactly do you develop that intensity?”. First of all, you have to already have a healthy amount of enthusiasm for the subject matter. In this example, Taylor worked as a teacher for years before performing in slam poetry. As anyone who has worked in education knows, you have to remain passionate about the work; to put up with the long hours, low pay, challenging kids, and often irrational parents. Many teachers are there not because they like the job conditions, but rather that they want to make a difference in the lives of others. As a public speaker we have to learn to draw on our own enthusiasm, then express it on stage. This probably isn’t too hard when it comes to something you have worked on (perhaps for years) that you are sharing with a group of colleagues. Secondly, intensity has a lot to do with tone of your speaking voice. When watching the video, notice how Taylor changes his voice throughout his presentations. He uses his powerful voice to convey the importance of what it is he does as a teacher. Thirdly, it is worth noting that in each performance of the poem his gestures are almost the same. It is very likely that he spent a long time refining what worked with the audience to get the point across. Combine these few tips and you are already well on your way to finding your own intensity.

Using the method of developing intensity throughout a presentation took Taylor Mali apparently years to perfect.  But if done right and if you believe that you have intensity it can mean the difference between winning best talk at the next conference and being just another name on the list of presenters. As with other articles on this site, this is only one approach to communication and public speaking. Practicing your talk with these tools can add a lot of depth to your performance. However the one commonality that always comes up is the practice part, it’s the only way to get to Carnegie Hall.

If you want to learn more about Taylor Mali visit his website.

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