That one small thing that ruins everything…..

Have you ever had this experience?

You go out for an evening with friends. You laugh a lot, maybe eat or drink. Lots of conversation. You have a great time. But, somewhere during the evening someone says something that bothers you, something that feels insulting or condescending.

Maybe it’s not even said. Perhaps you just thought someone gave you a funny look, or laughed sarcastically at a comment you made. It might have been the smallest of things.

On the way home, you find yourself dwelling on that one moment. It runs through your mind, getting bigger. It erases everything else. You end up feeling you had terrible time.

Or maybe you come from a meeting with colleagues where one exchange unsettled you. It sticks in your mind.

One negative reaction, one ‘bad thing’ can overshadow everything.
The negative dominates and eradicates everything but itself.

It’s a phenomenon in psychology called ‘negativity bias’ or ‘positive-negative asymmetry’. 

There are perfectly good evolutionary reasons for it.

As humans evolved ‘nasty things’ could kill. A ‘nice thing’ is…well… nice….. Lots of nice things are REALLY nice. But just one nasty thing can kill. All the nice things in the world are worth nothing in the face of that one nasty thing.

So it made a lot of sense to pay more attention to nasty things than to nice things.

Hence the asymmetry.

A snide remark (real or imagined) on a night out won’t kill you. Nor will a snarky colleague. But you might feel shamed. You might feel excluded from the group. Maybe you’ll find your confidence undermined. Those are all things you pay more attention to than lots of small things that make you feel nice (also for very good evolutionary reasons).

This really matters when we’re giving feedback. 

If you’re giving feedback to someone and you point out three things they did well and one thing they did badly (or that ‘needs improvement’), they’ll pay attention to the thing you said they did badly and scarcely heed what you said they did well. 

If you ‘sandwich’ one ‘negative’ comment between two ‘positive’ comments, they’ll treat the positive comments as you softening the blow of your negative comments. They’ll not believe the positive comments - or at least not consider them as important as the negative. 

If you give ‘constructive criticism’, they’ll think you’re calling them a failure but trying to be nice about it. 

I’m exaggerating, but not much.

Giving feedback is a crucial part of guiding someone’s learning. Our primary task, always, is to encourage someone to try again, so that through repetition they improve. Anything that discourages is counterproductive.

The first objective of all feedback should be to encourage.

My own approach is to work with unconditional positive feedback - always to point out what someone has done well and to suggest how they can grow from where they are to where we need them to be. There is no ‘but’ in that conversation.

I recognise that not everyone finds unconditional positive feedback to be the way to go. Nonetheless we can agree feedback that damages a student’s or colleagues’ desire to grow, is not fit for purpose. 

So how to ensure technical excellence, continual improvement AND encourage a love of learning and growth?

I suggest we think of there being three different categories of feedback.
Technical Feedback which is feedback measured against objective and identifiable criteria. It is never personal.

Performance Choice Feedback (or aesthetic feedback) which is subjective (you are feeding-back through your own perspectives, preferences and paradigms) but there are criteria against which the feedback can be measured.

Personal Development Feedback which is highly subjective and is essentially guesswork. It should always be given in a way that allows the receiver to reject it, for it deals with their sense of self.

Paying heed to what sort of feedback you’re giving at any moment helps ensure you can simultaneously stimulate excellence and empower the person you’re teaching to travel their path with passion and curiosity.

I hope you find my start-of-the-week thoughts useful and stimulating!
I’d love to hear any responses you have. Email me on

PS. I take on a VERY small number of people to mentor. If you think that you’d like to explore that possibility as you develop your teaching or creative practice, why not set up a Discovery Call so we can chat about your needs? I never take anyone on unless I’m pretty certain I can help, so our Discovery Call would be entirely obligation free. Fill in this form and then book a time with me.

My book ‘How To Teach Performance’ offers Artists & Teachers a step-by-step guide to designing and delivering life-changing workshops in any performance style, at any level. Find out more here.

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

It’s not clever. It’s not ‘super-efficient’. In fact, it doesn’t even exist.

woman sitting on bench doing multiple things simultaneously

Photo by Ono Kosuki from Pexels

We’re so proud of being able to multi-task! 

In fact, we’re so used to ‘multi-tasking’, we don’t even notice anymore that’s what we’re doing.

Working on one thing, checking on another, music in the background, dashing off a response to an email, seeing what that Facebook ping was all about….. On and on, mind jumping from thing to thing.

‘Look at me! Look at me!’ I’m doing three things at once. I got all of them finished. I’m versatile, adaptable! I’m all kinds of brilliant!!’

It’s not true. 
It’s a myth.
It’s delusion.

You didn’t multitask.

You did one thing, then another thing, then a third thing, then the first thing again, then a bit of the third thing, then you hopped back to the first thing before checking in on the first thing and then resuming work on the third…..

Even reading that sentence is tiring. Imagine how exhausting it is actually to operate like that. Actually probably you don’t need to imagine. This is how most of us live. This is the illusion of ‘being efficient’. 

Think of it like this: You’re trying to cook something in the kitchen. You’re trying to watch something on TV in the living room. You’re trying to attend a Zoo mmeeting in the spare room. You’re listening for the sound of your baby waking from her nap upstairs.

Each of those things takes attention. Moving between those things ALSO takes attention. A significant part of your energy is spent running from room to room, reminding yourself what you’re meant to be doing as you restart each task….. ‘How long has the veg been in the oven?’, ‘What agenda item has this meeting reached?’, ‘What’s this film about?’, ‘Was that a noise from upstairs?’…

Multi-tasking means spending all the attention necessary to do each individual task AND finding extra energy continually to switch between tasks. 

What is the ‘wasted’ energy used by switching tasks? In an article on The American Psychological Association Website, the authors write of two actions involved in switching from one task to another:

They call one stage “goal shifting” (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”).

In other words you use attention to stop doing one thing and start the next, and then you use further attention to remind yourself what the rules, intentions or demands of the new task actually are.

This is why multi-tasking is a myth. We don’t do several things at once. We do many things sequentially. Do something, then stop doing it, move to something else, remember what we are trying to achieve, start doing it, stop doing it, move on, remember what the new task is all about, do a bit of it…… 

It is a phenomenal waste of energy!

How much energy?

According to The American Psychological Association:

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.

Why do we waste so much time distracting ourselves by jumping from one thing to another, rather than completing one task before starting the next? Why do we generally prefer continual distraction? Why do many of us run a mile from actually focusing and sticking with one thing for extended periods?

Psychologist Nate Kemp PhD writes:

Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that the human mind is actually wired for this state of continuous distraction.

He draws two conclusions. 

The first is this:

… distraction is primarily a mind game. If we really want to get focused, if we really want to more skillfully manage the distractions of digital life, the path has to include developing a new habit of more effectively managing our most precious resource: our attention. 

The second is this:

We should focus less on what we’re doing and more on how we are being.

This is important. ‘Tricks’ to ‘make you present’ are — at best — short term solutions. At worst, they are fraud. 

The only true solution to distraction is to change how your mind operates — to become someone who chooses to be present. It is about personal transformation.

Kemp’s solution to distraction? ‘Shift your attention to focus on the now’

It doesn’t take a genius to see how training performers in any performance style CLEARLY offers strategies to counteract distraction (and the unhappiness and exhaustion distraction causes). We train people to pay attention. We train people to respond to the present moment. We train people to avoid distraction. We train people to know themselves and discipline their minds — to change how they ARE in the world.

Some of what we do involves training people to be better performers — some may even go on to be professional performers. However we also work with people who will never be performers and probably have no interest in trying to be! Is our work a waste of time? Absolutely not! When we train people to be focused and present for extended periods of time, to put aside distraction and the illusion of multitasking, we train them to be more fully conscious, aware, mindful and happy. We train them to be more functional. We train them to be efficient too, though that, for me, is a secondary benefit, not a primary one.

My take-away from all this? If you know how, you can train yourself and other people in the tools of focus and presence. You cannot however make someone be present. Disciplining the mind is something each one of us must do for ourselves.

So next time you fool yourself into thinking how brilliant you are for doing multiple things all at the same time, just pause and reflect. If only you had finished one thing before starting the next, you’d probably have finished them all sooner, done each task better and ended up less tired.

Ah well. 
Forgive yourself. 
You’re human.

I’ve brought together various resources from 30 years of training performers, to create ‘The Presence Package’. It combines written articles, video talks and guided daily practices to train you to be more focused for longer. It’s an invaluable resources for taming your distracted mind and developing the skills to do the same for others. You can find out more at:

If you’d like more insight into the pedagogy of teaching performance — how to do it, how to convince others that they should pay you to do it, how to help students do it better — then my large-scale Teach Performance Programme is outlined here:

My latest book ‘How To Teach Performance: A step-by-step to designing and delivering workshops’ is now on sale as an e-book or a print edition. Go to for more information.

Any thoughts? Drop me a line at


Justify Yourself!! (2 out of 3 ain’t bad…)

‘Two out of three ain’t bad’, he sang….

He was right. Two out of three is good enough.

I talk about three ways to explain and justify your work:

 – to yourself
 – to your students
 – to gatekeepers/employers.

When I say ‘justify’, I don’t mean some kind of ‘begging for acceptance’. I mean answering the basic – very reasonable – question: ‘Why?’

I mean having answers when you ask yourself:
Why do I teach?
Why am I running this exercise?
Why do I work with this sort of person and not a different sort of person?
Why should someone work with me rather than someone else?

Being able to answer your students when they ask:
Why are we doing this?
Why should I listen to you?
Why does acting/dance/Shakespeare/clowning etc. matter?
Why should I learn performance if I don’t want to be a performer?

Being able to answer employers/gatekeepers when they ask:
Why should I employ you instead of someone else with similar skills?
Why/How will getting you to teach meet my policy/educational objectives?
Why should I spend (scarce) money on performance classes?
Why does Performance matter?

They’re all perfectly good questions, however frustrating we sometimes find them. You need to have answers.

YOU need to know YOUR unique answers.

It’s tempting to each for noble, profound or really, really clever answers. Something about the human urge to self-actualisation or the ennobling effects of art.
Those answers are great.
Art IS transformative, self-actualising, an expression of the highest achievements of humanity.

Sometimes you need simple answers though.

‘I’m running this workshop because I’m getting paid’.
‘You need a creative input into your curriculum and I can provide it’
‘Doing this will make you feel more confident’

Simple answers because what we do is simple.
Complex answers because what we do is complex.

Justification means being able, confidently and easefully, to answer the questions ‘why’ and ‘how’. (Actually in ‘How To Teach Performance’ I go the full fandango, and ask you to consider WHY, HOW, WHERE, WHO and WHAT – of which ‘what’ is the final, least important question….)

On a good day you get to deliver workshops that make all ‘stakeholders’ feel great. The students feel they’ve had a rich experience, the gatekeepers have met their objectives and used their resources well, and you’ve fulfilled your vocation and earned some money!

That’s the ideal.

It’s not always possible though.

Sometimes you gotta settle for two out of three.

If the students and the gatekeepers are happy, that’s a good result. You did your job – even if you don’t feel tremendously fulfilled. You’ve served your community and there’s dignity in doing work well.

If you feel you taught excellently, and the students had a deep experience, but the gatekeeper/employer is sceptical, you can be satisfied you served your biggest function – to guide your students. Sometimes gatekeepers and employers are the hardest to explain to, because they speak a different language and have different objectives. Sometimes you must settle for knowing you and the students saw value in what you do, (though it’s best not to ignore the needs of those who hold the purse-strings and unlock the room you work in!)

Sometimes – though this is perhaps the hardest – you and the gatekeepers know why you’re there, but the students remain unconvinced. Perhaps they’re in an institution or social situation that makes them suspicious, hostile, antagonistic or disconnected. Perhaps you weren’t able to overcome their disconnection. It’s frustrating, sometimes confrontational, when that happens, but you must always remind yourself that you planted seeds. You made an offer. You opened doors. You never know when someone will come back to you and say ‘do you remember you once ran a workshop with me….. it changed everything……’

We want the sweet spot of everyone being happy.
We want three out of three.
It’s not always possible though.
So if you hit two out of three, you’re doing pretty well.

‘Two of of three ain’t bad’. (RIP Meatloaf)

Two out of three means you’ve earned a night off!

Stay safe out there!

Art Matters.

Teach Performance


‘How To Teach Performance’ uses the ‘Why and How Approach’ to dig deep into understanding and developing your skills at designing and delivering workshops. It’s a practical, step-by-step guide to developing your unique voice and method as a performance teacher in any discipline and at any level.  It’s available as a print book or for immediate download as a PDF file.

If you really want to dig into the deep-levels of teaching performance in excellent and transformative ways, ‘The Teach Performance Programme’ is a 40-video comprehensive training that explores pedagogy, the learning journey, feedback, structuring exercises, developing attention, presence, experiential learning and a LOT more. HINT – if you buy ‘How To Teach Performance’ you will receive a one-time offer to access ‘The Teach Performance Programme’ at a massively reduced price…….

If you’d like to join the Fire-Maker’s Community for free (where Artist-Teachers meet), then go to

Why is Presence Important?

You learn through experience.

In fact, the only way you learn is through experience.

Your brain — that amazing complex mess of neurons and ganglia and grey matter and synapses and hemispheres and all of that stuff — sits in the darkened box of your skull from before you are born until you die, receiving impulses and responding, receiving impulses and responding.

That’s all it does. It doesn’t ever get to go out and party in the world, it sits in the dark receiving impulses, choosing responses.

When you first come into the world, you receive all sorts of crazy impulses. To a new born baby, the world is an undifferentiated overwhelm! Your brain doesn’t know good from bad, safe from dangerous.

Survival means learning the difference pretty damn quickly, so the baby brain looks for things that give it pleasure and learns to avoid things that cause it discomfort or distress.

So begins your lifelong process of deciding between good and bad, attractive and ugly, success and failure. Through experiencing, you learn to differentiate. You also learn to anticipate.

All the experiencing, processing, deciding, responding, evaluating takes a lot of brain power. If you needed constantly to be working out exactly what is happening around you, and choosing the appropriate response, it would mean your brain had pretty much no time for anything else.

So the brain creates shortcuts.

You know the sort of thing. It sees a chair. It doesn’t think: ‘Wow, what’s that strange shaped thing with four legs? Is it a tiger? What am I meant to do? Is it about to attack me?’ Instead it thinks: ‘It’s a chair’, and it tells your legs to start bending in preparation for sitting.

See a chair, sit down.

Not — see a chair, wonder what it is, try to work it out, turn it upside down etc etc etc.

No — see a chair, sit down.

Of course, sometimes you might sit on a chair and discover that one of the legs is a little bit wobbly. As you sit and give your weight to the chair, it starts to collapse beneath you. Immediately your brain goes ‘Woah!!!!’ Immediately it sends a radically different set of instructions to your legs (and hips and face muscles and possibly your voice too, as you cry out in alarm).

Unexpected information has entered the dark space of your skull. The brain realises this is not the same-old-sitting-on-a-chair experience it anticipated. This is something new — the wobbly chair-experience. New stimuli means new responses are required!

The brain kicks into action to save you from disaster because that’s really what the brain’s function is — to save you from disaster, to keep you safe. In fact, that’s the brains only function to keep you safe (and to pass on your genes to the next generation).

However, in the absence of some sudden, immediate or unexpected detail demanding its attention, the brain just does things the way it has always done them. It anticipates how things will go based on what it has learned in the past, and repeats well-worn, habitual ways of doing things.

Anticipated impulse. Habitual response.

The brain has a low threshold for defining success. It thinks: ‘Did we survive? Are we safe?’ If the answer is yes, the brain is satisfied with a job-well-done and it turns it’s attention elsewhere — often to passing on its genes. The chair may not be the most comfortable or in the best part of the room, but the brain doesn’t care that much. As long as you’re not in danger, the brain is happy to turn its attention elsewhere, scanning for other threats.

You do not change how you respond to some event (like seeing a chair) unless you discover that a new response is necessary, or at least possible.

Sometimes you have a new response forced on you (such as with the wobbly chair leg).

Sometimes however, you can choose to change.

It is this possibility of choice that lies at the heart of personal growth and development.

You might think you need to ‘unlearn’ some things — unlearn old habits. You can’t really do that. You can’t really unlearn something you’ve learned. It’s in your head. It’s part of you. You can’t pretend something didn’t happen.

Rather than thinking of unlearning you need to think of new learning. How do you learn new things? Same way as you learn all things — you have new experiences. New learning comes from new experiences.

To change means to learn something new. To learn something new requires new experiences to learn from.

Instead of doing things habitually, you can decide to pay active attention to what is going on around you. You can choose actively to notice how an experience you are having is different to previous experiences. You can treat experiences as if they are new, and so create new reactions and responses in your brain.

New experiences, new lessons.

This is the heart of effective and healthy learning — the creation of new experiences from which you can learn. Sometimes that means doing new things, sometimes doing familiar things in new ways or with new attitudes.

Another way of saying that is that the heart of personal and professional development, is enhancing a capacity to create for yourself healthy learning experiences. In doing that you can ‘overwrite’ (or evolve) less healthy learning experiences you have accumulated in the past. You can replace unhealthy or perhaps obsolete ways of acting, thinking and responding, with healthier, more effective and more up-to-date ways of acting, thinking and responding. You can create lessons and behaviours based in the present — based on who you are now and who you aspire to be, not on who you were once told you had to be, or who you were moulded to become decades ago.

If you want to have experiences in the present, to create new learning and so to change, then you have to be in the present.

That is why the heart of all effective learning is presence. The experience you learn from will happen in the present.

If you want to learn, you must be present too.

What is Presence?

What does this word mean — ‘presence’?

There’s a whole industry – I’m part of it – that trains people in ‘presence’. There are numerous books written about it — some even called ‘Presence’! I’m writing my own book on the Eight Principles of Presence which I will finish and get published this year sometime.

But what do we actually mean when we use the word ‘presence’? I mean, surely if all these people, like me, are offering to train people to become more present, claiming that ‘being present’ and ‘having presence’ is going somehow to enhance the quality of your life and improve your capacity to achieve your dreams and objectives, surely we ought to be able to define ‘presence’?

Well, it’s not that easy.

Some of the most important and fundamental things in life, are not exactly easy to define. My earlier career as a teacher, director and performer, focused on ‘ensemble’. In fact, my first book, published in 2013, was called ‘Encountering Ensemble’. Can I define ensemble? Well — it’s a sort of invisible connectedness between people. You cannot really quite define it — though I and all the other writers in ‘Encountering Ensemble’ tried as hard as we could. Ensemble is something we all recognise when it is there, but none of us can quite put into words.

Love? The entire culture of the world, across national, religious and all other boundaries, is obsessed with love. What is love? Does he/she/it love me?…. Love is a many splendoured thing….Love is all you need…..

You can talk about love from a anthropological point of view. You can talk about it from an evolutionary/biological point of view. You can talk about it from an emotional point of view. Or a spiritual point of view. All perspectives add something to our understanding, but none are complete. Suddenly that little four-letter word ‘love’ becomes very confusing and unknowably complex.

Yet it remains simple. Most of us have experienced love.

The same is true of presence. Like the connectedness of ensemble or the feeling of love, presence is a fundamental human experience.

There are many ways of talking about presence. One book I read recently by four academics concerned with change management in institutions, defines presence as a sort of a spiritual immersion in the interconnectedness of the ecosystem. Excellent. It’s a great book. Amy Cuddy, who wrote a really excellent book on presence, approaches it from a social-psychology point of view. Her’s is a fantastic book. Patsy Rosenberg, who, like me, comes from the world of performance, again takes a different approach.

All are useful.

The definition of ‘presence’ is not simple — but one thing that’s really clear to me from my work on ensemble, and is obvious to anyone who thinks about ‘love’, is that it is not ‘a thing’. Presence is not a lump of something you can put on the table, point at and say ‘that’s presence’ – just like you cannot do that with ‘ensemble’ or ‘love’.

We should consider all these ‘indefinable’ things not as physical objects but as ways of being — qualities of attention.

So we start to get closer to my definition of presence.

Presence is about being present.
Too simple? Maybe — but also undeniable.
If you want to have presence, you must be present. Presence is the quality of being that emerges from open, responsive, attentive awareness of the present moment.

Techniques of presence — the principles and activities I teach and mentor people in — have two fundamental purposes. The first is to enable us (or remind us) to be open to each moment. The second is to encourage us to notice and reject distraction.

Distraction, is the enemy of presence.
Distractions need to be resisted.

If we are distracted, thinking about something other than what is actually happening, we are not present. If we are not present, we cannot have presence. If we are not present in the moment, we do not get to react to the moment AS IT IS. Instead we react to our opinions about the moment we’re in, or to our assumptions, or our fears.

Presence might seem like a mysterious state that we achieve. It isn’t. Presence is our natural state. You’re present now. You’re always present. Presence is reality.

It’s not that we have to ‘become present’.
Our work is to stop NOT being present.
What stops us being present?

Our work is to notice and eradicate our tendency to get distracted. Once we are not distracted, we become present.

Training ‘presence’ is not principally about learning ‘how to do things’. Training presence is primarily a process of stopping doing things. It’s not about ‘becoming present’. It’s about ‘stopping being distracted’.

Easier said than done. Of course. But this is the journey.

Presence is our natural state. Enhancing presence is a process of opening to — and developing the confidence fearlessly to respond to — the natural reality of our moment by moment existence.

We live in presence.

About Me

Hi, I’m John. I’ve been working all over the world for more than 30 years as a Teacher, Director, Performer and Writer. I’ve published 3 books and travelled far too many miles. My focus these days is supporting other Artists to become truly excellent, life-transforming teachers

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