Acting is believing—and the same applies to giving a terrific business presentation.
Want audiences to believe in what you're saying? To see you as credible? Want to be a confident and charismatic speaker? (To make what you say unforgettable, download my essential cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience.")
To accomplish these things, you'd do well to learn some secrets of actors. One thing I learned in my stage career is that as an actor, you really don't need to do anything. You simply need to believe. If you do, everything you say and show your audience will be good and true. Here are 5 key skills from the actor's repertoire that you can use to make that happen.
But before you put these essential skills into play, you need to start out in a way that engages and interests audiences immediately. You'll learn how in my easy-to-use e-book, "How to Start a Speech."
1. Being in the Moment. The art of being fully present in the moment—sometimes calledmindfulness—is a core skill of both acting and dynamic speeches and presentations. (Here's one of my previous blogs that's all about mindfulness in public speaking.) Something special should occur when you present. Your listeners should be changed, and it should be a win-win situation for all concerned.
Speakers and presenters who are "half there" for the audience don't reach anyone. Think of the presentations you've attended where influence doesn't reach beyond the presenter's feet. Now compare that to speakers who genuinely connect with their audience. Actors bring a total commitment to who they are and what they are there to do. Why should it be different in your presentations? Believe in your message, and commit yourself 100% to reaching listeners. Forget about how you're doing, for that will take care of itself.
2. Understanding Body Language. You'd really like to show stage presence when you speak, wouldn't you? Well, you should . . . in fact, you must! Stage presence has two elements: (1) True presence in the moment (see above), and (2) Effective body language.
For instance, do you know how to use space effectively when you speak? Have you even thought about it? Yes, body language means hand movements. But it also encompasses facial expressions, proximity to listeners, stance and posture, relationship to objects (such as lecterns and PowerPoint screens), fluidity of movement, selectivity of movement (versus the "clutter" of too many gestures), and one other component: use of space.
As an acting student at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, I regularly attended performances of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theater. One of the most exciting actors I can recall was Ian McKellen, before his fame as Gandolf and in other movie roles.
There was an actor who knew how to use space! He didn't walk—he strode. He wouldn't make a gesture—he'd bring the text alive with it! When you speak to audiences, use space freely in your own way. Doing so will give you the stage presence you need to truly sell what you're offering listeners. (To use body language effectively, download my free cheat sheet, "5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language.")
3. Using Vocal Expressiveness. One of the lapses of our American educational system is an over-emphasis on reading and writing, and the neglect of oral communication skills. How little classroom time in school or college, for example, did you receive on speaking skills, listening skills, or negotiation skills? Yet how much of your professional day now is spent talking to people, listening to them, influencing them and being influenced by them?
No tool in your communication arsenal equals your voice for flexibility, subtlety, and power. Your need for vocal expressiveness goes very deep. To influence people's actions, you must connect with them emotionally. That means externalizing your emotions, since there is no other way for listeners to understand what you feel about what you're saying. If there's one thing actors train for their entire careers, it's externalizing in this way what their characters are thinking and feeling.
Your goal is to engender in audience members your own feelings about your topic and message. Do that, and you'll go a long way toward leading them to the response you're looking for. Why else are you speaking? So use every means possible—attending lectures, listening to audio books, or working with a speech coach—to develop a fully expressive voice. Your audiences are depending upon it.
4. Controlling Pace and Rhythm. The speaker who controls pace and rhythm demonstrates control over the speaking situation. Think of this skill as analogous to the actor's use of a prop: Inexperienced actors let the prop use them, but knowledgeable actors employ the prop to demonstrate some aspect of character. How does that person smoke a cigarette? Eat a meal when discussing something important to the plot? Apply her make-up? Similarly, nervous speakers are controlled by the presentation, while powerful presenters use the speaking situation to their advantage.
The way you control timing in your speeches determines how your audience receives information. For instance, do you pause at these important times: when you've just said something your audience should retain; as you transition between main points; and for effect? Actors understand that a pause can be a thunderclap. Learn how to trust and use silence—play with it. The more you control the pace and rhythm of your presentations, the more confident and credible you'll appear.
5. Establishing a Relationship with Your Audience. Theater is a form of community, and it's exactly the same with any type of pitch, lecture, speech or presentation. Your job as a speaker is to create a community of influence. That's impossible without having a relationship with your audience.
What does such a relationship mean? Well, start by paying attention to those people out there! The next time you sit through a speech, ask yourself if the speaker seems to be talking to you or whether he or she is wearing blinders, like a horse who's not meant to see anywhere but straight ahead. Speakers who aren't sure of themselves often proceed "full steam ahead," and we instinctively feel we'd better get out of the way!
Actors, on the other hand, know that nothing matters more than touching the hearts and minds of the people in the seats. Stage actors in particular are acutely aware of whether an audience is with them or not. "Eating out of the palm of their hand" is an expression that sums it up nicely.
How can you accomplish that? One good way is to accept that your listeners matter far more than the material you're presenting. Watch their reactions. If you're losing them, switch tracks. Use a story. Give an example. Insert an activity . . . and in general use your imagination! Say "you" and "we" instead of "I" and "me." Ask questions to remind them that they're the reason you're giving this talk. Shakespeare's Macbeth speaks of an action as being the "be-all and the end-all." Let your audience be your be-all and end-all—the center of your speaking universe.