Victoria Labalme (Ep. 34)
BY Future of StoryTelling — March 25, 2021

Hall of fame speaker and performance coach Victoria Labalme shares lessons learned over a wide-ranging career in the performing arts and discusses her new book, "Risk Forward."



Available wherever you listen to your podcasts:


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Additional Links:

      • Order your copy of Risk Forward

      • Watch Victoria's TED talk

      • Visit Victoria’s website



      Episode Transcript

      Charlie Melcher:

      Hi. I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of The Future of StoryTelling. I'd like to welcome you to the FoST podcast. My guest this week is multi-talented performing artist, keynote speaker, and strategic performance coach Victoria Labalme. In her multi-hyphenate creative career, Victoria has worn every hat from writer to actor, from film producer to comedian and beyond. Perhaps her greatest strength, however, is helping people discover their own talents.

      As a highly sought-after performance coach, Victoria has advised everyone from Fortune 100 CEOs to New York Times bestselling authors and Hollywood celebrities on how to discover and showcase their unique talents and perform at the highest level. Victoria's new book, Risk Forward, outlines her philosophy on leaning into uncertainty and embracing risk in order to go beyond what's been done before. Having read the book myself, I can say with full certainty that the wisdom Victoria shares is indispensable to any storyteller looking to find their voice and their own creative path. I'm excited and delighted to welcome Victoria Labalme to The Future of StoryTelling podcast.

      Victoria Labalme, welcome to The Future of StoryTelling podcast.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Charlie, it's so fun to be here.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I think we have to come clean right upfront.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Okay.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      You and I know each other way back. We've known each other since we were kids.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      It's true.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Well, I want to say congratulations. The book you've just written, Risk Forward: Embracing the Unknown and Unlocking your Hidden Genius, is brilliant.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Oh, gosh. Thank you.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Here's a book about advice, a plan, steps you can take to help with indecision or struggling. But what I really felt on another level is that I was reading your autobiography. I felt like it was so personal, and that the lessons that you were sharing had come the hard way. Tell us a little bit about your path and how that journey has led to this book.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      For me, and when you and I knew each other as we were young and growing up, I didn't know exactly where things would lead. But I started in the performing arts, in comedy, and acting, and writing, and doing my own one-woman show, studied mime. I was all over the place. People kept saying, "What are you going to do with this?" But little by little, things unfolded, and I had an opportunity to help speakers. They said, "Could you show us what you do on stage with storytelling, with engaging an audience? Could you show us how to use our bodies in a physically expressive way?"

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      One thing led to the next, working with speakers, then with executives, then with companies and teams all around the world. That's part of the message of the book. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, mostly because I gave myself a hard time. The book is really meant to relieve that pressure that people put on themselves to know, to be clear, to have a plan, and instead let things evolve a little more organically.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I love the fact that you were one of these people who was a curious learner. Again, you were exploring so many different creative paths. You just mentioned mime, acting. I think you did some improv, music, film, production, working in all of these different storytelling medium and soaking it all up. But at the same time, you were sort of suffering because you weren't focused on one, or you didn't seem to be just achieving in one area as many of us feel the pressure to do. What gave you the insight or the confidence, or what were the learnings along the way that helped you to realize that that was all part of your path, your journey?

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      It was really some extraordinary mentors. I credit a lot of wonderful people in my life. One of the stories to your question was this wonderful photographer, someone you probably know about from your past, Charlie, named Eliot Porter. He was a great color photographer. I had gone to him in my 20s. I had the opportunity to meet him and I was debating between X path and Y path. He looked at me, and he was in his 80s at the time, and he said, "Just because you're good at something doesn't mean you have to do it." It was such a relief. That's one of the quotes in the book that actually came from outside of me, but most of them are from my own creation. Yet, that was a huge shift in my perception of my path, really, and of the story of my life.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Tell me about some of your other mentors. I know you quote Marcel Marceau in the book.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Yes. He was an extraordinary mentor because not only was he a brilliant mime, he was a beautiful artist. He has a whole painting career, lithographs and these stunning color, full-page, beautiful imagery. He was also a great historian. He knew about other cultures. He taught us not just about the art of mime, but about humanity, the nobility of the spirit and how to really be an incredible artist in all kinds of ways.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      But there was one term, which is actually the term from which the book's title is born. When he was teaching us, he would always say, "risque avance," which is, "Risk in advance." That was a type of movement where you had your weight forward. I came to think of that as a philosophy for life. I trademarked it, risk forward, how we can move forward with our heart open.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      One of those big lessons of your book is this idea that there's richness in the unknowing, right? As opposed to what we normally feel, which is that we're panicked by not knowing. That's such the common experience for anyone who's creative. I don't care what medium you're working in. If you're trying to create something, there is that moment of facing that metaphoric blank page and terror, or maybe you even started, but now you're just lost with where this story is going to go, where this project is going to go.

      One of the things that is just so powerful in your book or in your theory or thesis, is that's a great source of richness, right? Don't feel like you have to get out of that right of way. Don't feel like you're failing because you're not clear or that you didn't start with a sense of where you're going to end, but rather kind of embrace it and learn from it and appreciate it. Am I getting that right, first of all?

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Yeah, exactly that. Because, we're trained, really indoctrinated in our culture to consider that when we're in a phase of not knowing, it's bad. You're kind of subpar. Oh, you're indecisive. Oh, you don't know where you're going. It's something people try to hide. There's shame around it, or they try to get out of it as quickly as possible. I think there's so much benefit there, because if we have the tenacity and really the courage and the strength to stay in that, not unnecessarily long, not to wallow in it, but to have really the inner stamina to deal with it, what we can then look for will be a better solution.

      Certainly, there are times when a deadline is a necessary element, but often in the creative process it's not, and in the creative process of our lives. So to be able to hold out and not go for the formula…

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I mean, and in the world that we live in today, this seems like such an important set of skills, not just for the creative process, but for navigating a world that's constantly changing. I mean, if we thought we knew where we were headed, if we thought we had a plan, something's going to show up and screw up that plan. We need to be able to move through that fog of uncertainty or that confusion and be comfortable with it. I do love the message that it's to be sensitive to the things that get you excited, right, to be aware of what you're drawn to and to give yourself permission to follow those things.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Yeah, yeah. It takes courage, because you get a lot of questions from people. Like I said earlier, "What are you doing that for? Where's that going to go? How's it going to make money? What's the plan?" Years ago, being married to someone who was involved with The Muppets, I had been lucky enough to be around some of the original Muppet performers. I thought, "We should film this."

      I mean, I didn't know. I'd never made a documentary film. I didn't grow up watching The Muppets, but we followed that curiosity, that wisp and it led to something extraordinary, which ended up being a documentary film called Muppet Guys Talking, which ended up at South by Southwest. The press was all over it.

      Who would have thought though? It was just an idea. It was just something I thought was worthwhile and curious. I feel so often in life parents dissuade their kids. Why are you going to do that? And that the curiosities can be unusual. They might be hard to identify a path forward for, but I think we need to honor that and let them flourish and unfold.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      This idea that you can move forward without knowing the end is not something that we traditionally think of as being okay when you're creating a piece of work, right? Let's say you're writing a script for a movie or you're writing a book. I mean, the first lesson everyone tells you is, "Well, you've got to know what the end is. You've got to know where you're going. You've got to figure that out before you can get too far down the path." Do you feel that it's okay and how do you recommend people go down a creative adventure without knowing where they're headed?

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      The opening line of the book is, "Some people in life know exactly what they want to achieve. This is a book for the rest of us." On the note of not knowing where you're going, I think this is really about how to handle those moments in between, because I say clarity comes and goes, right? It's like the weather, really. Sometimes we have it. I'm not saying clarity is never good, but we get those moments, and it's project dependent. I mean, if you have a due date for something, that's a certain scenario. Then you've got to move it along. Sometimes the creative process accelerates organically when there's a deadline. There's something about that deadline that brings us and snaps us into shape often.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      What I would say is really more just if you have the window of time, whether that's for minutes or months, whatever the project scale is, to really explore a little more before you find that path forward and commit, you'll know when it's right. It's when it's a little off and there's a section I call the Iceberg of Indecision, and to honor that. When you're in that, "I don't know," that's worth paying attention to. Our culture tells us power through, go forward, pull up your bootstraps and pull yourself up and move. I think that mentality can be damaging to the creative process.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Is that also, that period, part of what you referred to as a circle of confusion?

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Yeah.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Tell us what that term is and where it comes from?

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Years ago when I was first starting to study filmmaking, I took a course. As we were learning about lenses and cameras, the teacher said, "Well, the lens is trying to find focus. It's in that phase where the circles are blurry." We've all seen that. He said, "It's called a circle of confusion." I just love that, because it doesn't mean that it's a bad thing. It's on the way to focus that you go through a period of confusion until you find form.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      You do a lot of coaching with executives. I noticed how many bestselling authors you've helped to give a talk, to be on stage, to get up there in front of a group of people and communicate their ideas. What are some of the insights if you're trying to help somebody find their voice?

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      I think risking forward is the basis of giving voice, because you have to step forward and share your ideas if you're going to move people. It has to come from within and it has to be something you truly believe. Oftentimes, I think speeches and presentations are manufactured from the outside in. I see that even in book writing or if people research the market and say, "What do people want to hear," instead of saying, "What do I want to say that I feel would be important and valuable and well-received?" They think I'm going to start talking about gestures and eye contact. I say, "That's the last part." Gestures and eye contact and voice vocal intonation, that's like sprinkles on a cake. That's the finale. I say if the cake is lopsided, there's no amount of icing and sprinkles that are going to fix it.

      The structure, there are five parts to rock the room. The first is through-line. That's the driving force. Why are you even giving this presentation? Whether it's to your team or to an arena, on a webinar, not just, oh, I have a 40-minute slot or I've been asked what they seem to like – truly, from a more noble intent, what is your driving force? It starts with that. Then it goes through content, structure, prep, and delivery.

      I always teach content, structure, and prep are like the three legs of a stool, because you can have great content and structure, but if your delivery is funky, it's going to fall apart. You can have great delivery and be charismatic and great structure, but if you have nothing to say, content. So you need content, structure, and delivery are key, those three to a great anything. Then prep is throughout. These are all really important, because if we can't, first off, come from within and really say something that we truly believe matters, everything will fall apart.


      Charlie Melcher:

      I also really appreciated your lesson in the book about helping or discovering those things that are passions of yours and letting them be part of the way you tell your stories, whether that's Legos or flower arranging or whatever it is that you, understanding that your own interests and passions are part of what will make your cake have its specific flavor and character.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Yeah, absolutely. There's a story, not in the book, which I'll share here about that. I work with Microsoft, Starbucks, PayPal, the executive teams there. I was working with a president at Microsoft years ago, named Bob Mu. His name was Bob Muglia, but they called him Bob Mu, M-U, in the industry. He and I were chit-chatting, the way you begin. We would meet by Zoom or video, Skype at that time. He had this big presentation to 8,000 people in an arena event. We were preparing it together. He'd just come back from Machu Picchu. He was talking about, "Oh, my gosh. My daughter was there. She's 16. She was upset because she couldn't get cell phone service. I couldn't believe it. Oh, my gosh, really."

      Anyway, then he said, "Sorry, Victoria. Let's get to the coaching session." I said, "No, no, Bob. That story, that is fantastic. Let's share that at this event. It's such a great example of how far we've come in technology, the expectations of teens." Something that was this outside story from his personal passion of traveling and family, we wove it in. It humanized him. It got a big laugh. It put things in perspective. That's an example of just taking a personal story that we often think, "Oh, this doesn't belong," and finding an application to our expertise.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      We recently had on the podcast Vince Kadlubek, who's the co-founder of Meow Wolf. He was talking about this idea that the world is built around predictability because it's safe. The world is kind of constructed for predictability and safety, but it builds out, it basically programs out the unexpected and the opportunity for real creativity and imagination and the opportunity to create things anew.

      And so, I do feel it’s… In an odd way I was seeing this connection between your work and their work, because your message is also about being able to, rather than take that safe step or know that the world is on a straight line with a railing and security and good lighting, instead you're helping people feel comfortable about navigating through all sorts of unknowns or all sorts of possibilities and to embrace it and to celebrate it and to realize that that's how they'll find their original genius.

      How else can we encourage people to break out of those boxes, to find their own voice and do things that are original? Because I guess in the end of the day, that's what this is really about, right? It's about being original and creative.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      There's really not one thing, as you well know better than anyone. That's the intention of the book. It's a series of principles from the arts. You can pick any one of these up, whatever feels right. It could be following what interests you and that curiosity. There are a few other questions I ask in the book all designed to be prompts, because I don't feel like I have the formula. I don't have the answer. I just have suggestions and guidelines, right? There is no formula. You, the reader, you're the formula.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      One thing you do do very nicely is that you do give permission and encouragement. That's a huge part of it, right? Just to feel safe to take that step, even though there's somebody in accounting and there's somebody in management or planning or operations who's saying don't do it.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Something that brings to mind a comment that a few people have made like, "Oh, do you need to be in a certain position or job to be able to risk forward or a certain economic sort of security place?" I feel like that's it's not a requirement, because you can do it in a small way. A risk forward can be what I call a micro risk. It could just be you going through your Netflix channel picking out a different type of movie you're going to watch, because somehow it peaks your curiosity and your interest.

      It could be any of that. It could be really taking on an enormous initiative that's takes resources and time from your organization, but it could also be something small that you have an idea to do, to try out some project privately even. I'm just going to work on this little novel without telling anyone. I'm just going to study a little music online without telling anyone. That's what we're talking about. Often those small things can lead to much, much, much, much bigger ventures.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I was very struck by another quote in the book, this one wasn't from you. It was from Arianna Huffington. It's, "Don't limit yourself to your imagination, because the world will bring you more than you can possibly imagine." It was an important reminder. I think sometimes creative people feel that they need to be the source of their creativity, that it sort of has to be born from within. That if I sit here long enough, I'll have that stroke of genius and I'll come up with it. This was just a great reminder that we need to, or we should allow ourselves to find inspiration in so many sources, this idea that we can find the inspiration and sources from so many other places in the world.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Like you, working in the arts but also in entrepreneurship and business—these three worlds I work between, entrepreneurship, arts, and executive land—I find that people so often talk about the importance of imagination, which is no doubt essential, but, like you said, we feel like we have to come up with it and that we don't feel up to the task. Part of what the book is also covering in risking forward is that it unfolds as we go, right? We get clearer, more ideas come as we move forward. So the world brings us things, we come up with things, we get inspired by things, as you said, and the most successful people will tell you that what they ended up creating was beyond what they thought.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      One of the things that I appreciate about your life's lesson and of the book is that Rome wasn't built in a day. That you don't have to have this timeframe of immediate, things that might feel like they're not being fulfilled for some long period of time. Talk a little bit about timeframe and the urgency to get things done or to allow them to have space.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Yeah. We tend to pack a lot into our lives. It's like parents who jam their kids with activity after activity after activity. It's the violin lesson. It's the soccer lesson. It's the learning Mandarin. What happens is there's no breathing space. There's no processing time. For each of us with a creative project, to remove things from our schedule whenever possible. It could be, honestly, like I see people with magazine subscriptions and they're piled up. It creates this burden. I'm like, "Don't have that subscription. You did that to yourself. Don't have the extra two homes if it's stressing you out. Don't have the extra clothes in your closet." The belongings and the subscriptions and the commitments and the committees, that stuff. The more we can leave space for that creativity to develop, because then we don't have time. We don't have the time.

      The book, as you know, Charlie, from looking at it, there's a lot of white space in the book. There are pages where there's nothing. There's just what we call a walking character, a little figure with some dots. There are pages that only have a few words on them. That's one of the comments I've gotten from so many early readers is, "Oh, my gosh. I could think. I could let it process. You could hear something and let it sink in."

      When I work with companies and teams on their events doing the Rock the Room coaching, one of the things that they'll do, a big mistake is they'll plan the entire day. They're like, "Okay. We're going to start at 7:00 with a breakfast. Then we're going to have an 8:00 introduction by the CEO. Then he's going to go to 8:30. Then we'll have the keynote speaker from 8:30 to 10:00. That we'll take a 10-minute break." I'm like, "Over-scheduled."

      Part of the time question is really, how can we give ourselves time so that we can organically let the project unfold? Then back to the deadline, it's really specific to what you're facing. It's even more intense because of social media and because people tend to curate their lives to project only the success so then we sort of see what we're doing. We think we're screwing up. So we're set up to feel bad about ourselves. This book basically says, "You're doing great. Keep going."

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      And listen to your internal voice more than all those external pressures or what you think you're supposed to be.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Exactly.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I'm curious to know what you think of as your legacy. The book kind of ends with a little discussion about legacy.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      I'm not sure what it's going to be. This is an odd analogy and an odd way to answer your question, but it's a pertinent one. Which is that years ago, I was walking across the West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan and there were a bunch of cars there parked waiting for the light to change. Being a performer, I thought, "Oh, I'll do a little dance. I'll do something funny to entertain the people." Right? I sort of shimmied across the street and did a little jig. I got a few smiles. Then I thought, "Oh, wouldn't it be fun to like do this in a more serious way and film it?" A friend said, "Well, if you're going to do it, why don't you pretend that you're a businesswoman so that people don't know that you're actually joking around?" If I'm dressed in my workout clothes, it's clear.

      We went to Park Avenue and I put on high heels and a suit. We had a hidden camera. I filmed this not knowing where it was going to lead. We turned it into a film. It became the closing part of my keynote. I would spend all this time mastering the messaging of my keynote and all these points. Then for the last two minutes, I would show this film called the Park Avenue Shuffle. At the end, that often would get more comments than anything else. People talk about the freedom, the expression, the playfulness, how they held themselves and how they wanted to do.

      It was such a lesson. Some of the things that we create will touch people in ways we can never imagine. We have intentions, but I think we have to keep just doing what we love, what lights us up and see where it leads. I hope that many of the different things I've done will live on long after I'm gone.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I was touched to tears at the end of the book. I had the pleasure of knowing your mother and your honoring of her so beautifully at the end was a great, I guess, acknowledgement of her legacy, and also a good example. Because it speaks to her understanding of what was motivating her life and her ability to pass some of that onto you and also just a beautiful message for all of us at the end of the book. We don't have to be perfect. It's not always about being perfect and to do what we can with what we have.

      But I just, again, being somebody whose mother passed away and who has a very soft spot when it comes to conversations about moms, I just thought it was a beautiful way for you to end it. Most people start their book by attributing the book to somebody, dedicating the book to somebody. I thought it was a beautiful touch for you in a way to sort of make that dedication part of the conclusion in a way.

      Victoria, thank you so much for being on the podcast with me. It's been a real pleasure to get just time to talk with an old friend and to leave me feeling so proud of the amazing work that you've done and the way that you have made a difference in the world. Thank you for everything you do.

       

      Victoria Labalme:

      Well, I'm crying here. So thank you. Thank you very much. I'm very touched.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      If you enjoyed this conversation with Victoria half as much as I did, I strongly encourage you to buy her new book, Risk Forward. You can get it by visiting this episode's page on The Future of StoryTelling website at fost.org or by following the link in the episode's description or ordering it online.

      I'd like to thank Victoria for joining me and a special thanks to our talented friends at Charts & Leisure. If you haven't already, please be sure to subscribe to our show. If you're an Apple subscriber, please consider giving us a good rating on Apple Podcasts. Every single one helps. I hope you'll join us again in a couple of weeks for another deep dive into the world of storytelling. Until then, please be safe, stay strong, and story on.