PLAY. LAUGH. SHUT UP. – Nikky’s recent TED talk.

ImageYes – last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to give a talk at TEDx Warwick. It was a FABULOUS experience. I was totally awed by the enormous brains that spoke before me, and I felt truly inconsequential by comparison. But the nigh on 1500 strong crowd made me feel entirely welcome by spontaneously breaking into applause when I mentioned I had played Laa Laa !

The following is a version of my notes for the talk – it’s not a transcript – heaven knows what I actually said. But when the videos are available, I’ll post a link.

Thank you to everyone who made it such a great day.


Hello – I’m here to briefly share with you my 3 secrets of non-verbal communication:

  • Playing
  • Laughing
  • Knowing when to shut up.

My background is in dance and physical theatre.

After 16 years running my company, I moved into children’s television where I played LaaLaa the Teletubby for 7 years – Eh-Oh!

What I learned from Anne Wood and Andy Davenport, who created the programme, about meaningful communication with young children – was invaluable.

In the beginning we got slated for dumbing down language, but the linguist who wrote the show understood the pattern of tiny people learning the tune of language before they necessarily have the lyrics down – listen to a baby or toddler trying to express with sound, and you’ll know it to be true, they understand cadence first (You may have seen the clip of two babies on You Tube?) – DEMO – this is important learning – and that’s where the Tubby language came from.

Similarly, we understood the separation between aural and visual recognition – the viewing child would hear the oral signature song of each character ( in my case LALA LEELA – DEMO ) well in advance of seeing that character arrive – often from far away – giving the child the chance to identify first sound, then colour, then shape and finally – YES – it’s the personality they were expecting . . .  and for a child of that young age to be able to make that correct prediction is hugely empowering, and builds deep confidence in their own ability to successfully learn.

In the first place, in that job,  I found my training in non-verbal communication useful –   what always fascinated me about dance and physical theatre was the direct line of communication that it gives you.

For example, If I am on stage in front of you and physicalise tension – DEMO – the chances are you will feel a kinaesthetic response – so the experienced line of communication goes, putting it crudely,  from my brain, to my body, to your body, to your brain. . . by-passing an awful lot of filters.

We are all aware that body language makes up the vast majority of communication, and yet very few humans consciously use this awareness when communicating with each other. . . We don’t really think, “ Oh. That person tilted their head to the right just after I did, therefore we are building a rapport.”  But if you have no words, due either to young age or disability – you become highly skilled in picking up and giving off these cues.

Of course, it’s not just what you do, it’s also what you don’t do, there is enormous knowledge to be gained through stillness, in making room and resisting the desire to fill the space –  listening with your eyes as well as your ears.

After Teletubbies, I was asked to choreograph another children’s TV show, Boohbah, with the specific brief that the dances should be so infectious, that, without explicit verbal invitation, the child viewer should feel compelled to get up off the sofa and join in.

SO – I knew the movements I chose had to come directly from, or be based on, those that 4 year olds enjoyed and were interested in.

invented a workshop, where 4-6 children would be invited into the room where I was waiting,- I would wave and smile though – we would stand in front of each other, and I would wait, warmly. Inevitably one of the children would move, and I would copy that movement, no matter how small – and continue to feed back whatever movements or gestures they gave me.

Eventually they would grow in confidence, and start to challenge my commitment to the process – DEMO (finger up nose)- then this wonderful moment when as a group they realised they had power over me, and could, in effect, get me to do anything.

the_positionThere was one position that came up again and again – so reliably, that I referred to it as THE POSITION – It’s this . . . DEMO.

It came up in every – but EVERY session, and it took me a while to understand why – it’s because, to the child, they are standing on their hands, this leg here – that’s just a detail, it doesn’t count, at 4 – that’s a handstand.

So I learned something very deep about how the brains of children of that age work – just through awareness whilst playing – and all without any words, or direction from me.

I left TV to work more with REAL young children, and the first job I had in education thereafter, was in an early years setting where a high proportion of the children had English as an Additional Language.

I had to find ways of gently gaining the confidence of those children, and opening lines of communication. I used a lot of props, this is one of my favourites – DEMO (length of fluffy blobs threaded together) – and with the child at one end, and me at the other, I would take the child’s lead as to how far I could move toward them, and at one speed – allowing them to direct to procedure.

This use of a physical representation of the gap between us, giving the child power of choice of when to bridge that gap, and by what increment, built great trust.

I’d like to ask you all to help, if you would, with the next stage of building this bond. (acknowledge risk of this)

If each row centre block could hold hands for me, please don’t be scared . .. and when I say GO, I’d like everyone at this end of each row to squeeze the hand they are holding. For everyone else, when you feel the squeeze on your right hand, pass it on with your left – when it reaches the person on this end of the row, I’d like you to stand up and yell “US”


Apart from the beneficial effects of a bit of laughter and light relief, I’ll wager you all feel a greater affinity, sense of belonging and shared identity with your row than you did before that exercise.

So – next I was invited to work on a project in a special school – I don’t mind admitting that I was terrified. I felt under qualified and inexperienced, however I was given a great piece of advice, which was to remember that despite their individual challenges and needs, these were still above all, children – and whilst being mindful of their particular circumstance, to go to the child, rather than to the disability or issue.

Probably good advice in any situation – the person is the thing – not the information you’ve received about that person!

Everything I had learned about non-verbal, pre-verbal and early verbal communication came into play :

  • Full body listening
  • Feeding back
  • Allowing time
  • Handing over control
  • Using the method of communication that THEY use, whatever that might be.

I still  work extensively with children and young people, in mainstream and special needs schools – independently as a children’s writer  – inventing work for children for orchestras, galleries, zoos, anyone . . . and (very physical) Storyteller, I tell my own stories – they use rhyme, rhythm and repetition and lots of simple gesturing. I explain that the stories come – DEMO (gestural) –  Out of the air, into my brain – Out of my mouth and into your . .ears!

I also work as one fifth of changing cultures – doing just that in education, arts/cultural/business – joining together and opening up lines of communication. Our tagline is, “It all starts with a conversation”, I hope I’ve helped illustrate some of the many and varied forms that a conversation can take.

I’m still Nikky Smedley, and it’s been a pleasure sharing my 3 secrets of non-verbal communication with you – never forget to play, never forget to laugh, always know when it’s time to shut up. . .and for me – that’s now!

Thank you.

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2 Responses to PLAY. LAUGH. SHUT UP. – Nikky’s recent TED talk.

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