Want to give the best performance you're capable of? Here are some acting secrets on how to rehearse for amazing speeches and presentations!
Ask any actor about preparing for an audition and you're likely to get a picture of two worlds.
In the first world, the actor rehearses the monologue, song, or routine at home or in a hotel room in the city where the audition will take place. This is an amazing and magical world. In it, the actor reaches a depth of character and insight matched only by the skill in the performance. The mirror that the actor probably works with accurately reflects back every dazzling effect.
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The harsh reality, however, is that this world often evaporates at the actual audition. Nervousness and self-consciousness can take over in the presence of a director or casting agent. All the power of the actor's rehearsal (when no one was watching and employment wasn't on the line) bleed away, replaced by a painful acknowledgment of how hard it all is.
What went wrong?
Aim for Truth Not the Finished Product
As a working actor, I've experienced the above scenario more times than I'd like to say. Have you felt it too while preparing to speak in public? Does your confidence and self-assuredness vanish at the moment of performance? Would you benefit, for instance, from knowing 10 fast and effective ways to overcome stage fright?
The common denominator in your presentation and the actor's audition is an over-concern with the finished product. When you fall into this trap, you deliver what a teacher in the London acting academy I trained at called "an excellent second-rate performance." It's the same for you as a speaker and an actor: you've become too concerned with surface appearance over reality. You want to look good instead of being good!
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You "can't get there from here," as the saying goes, unless you've made the actual journey. As a speaker, the only thing you should be focusing on is what the audience needs and how you can give it to them.
When you get on that wavelength, you become an entirely different type of speaker. You're tuned into listeners and armed and ready to make something happen in the room to their benefit. Place your chips there, and you will give the winning performance you were hoping for.
Go from a Preparation Outline to a Speaking Outline
You can help yourself in another essential way by tapping into the power of orality. The essence of any speaking event is you connecting with the audience and taking them on a journey. Part of that, of course, is learning the key skills for improving your speaking voice. But here's another important point: it may seem to you that your content is the heart of your presentation; yet it will never attain the power it deserves unless you give that content life and immediacy.
To achieve that, understand the difference between the worlds of orality and literacy. You probably prepared your speech on a legal pad or keyboard, jotting down ideas then refining them into a polished manuscript or PowerPoint deck. But these are literary tools. What you need now is to step into what I call "the oral arena."
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One way to do this is by transitioning from a fully written preparation outline, to a stripped-down speaking outline with just key words and phrases. That way, you're still remind yourself of what comes next, but you won't be tempted to read it. The result? You speak to your audience!
Rehearse By Using a Layered Technique
You can also employ a savvy rehearsal strategy for maximum productivity. This involves focusing on one area at a time and working on that particular challenge before going on to the next.
Here, you need to resist the siren call of multi-tasking. Actors and directors know that they can profitably work on only one thing at a time, e.g., picking up the cues faster. Tackling all elements of a staged dramatic performance at once would lead to chaos in rehearsals and perhaps even opening night. The initial read-through, the director sharing his or her ideas, blocking on-stage movements, going "off-script" (having one's lines memorized), costume fittings, the tech rehearsal for lights and sound cues, the final dress—each is handled at the proper time.
You can benefit from a similar layered technique. Your first practice sessions, for instance, can focus on content. Next, you may concern yourself with the tech set up. Improving your vocal skills may be your concern in Round 3. And committing your opening and closing to memory is a good way to finish the rehearsal period. The order doesn't matter; it's the incremental nature of how you build your effectiveness in performance that's important.
Now Simulate the Actual Conditions If You Can
By this point in your rehearsal strategy, you've done all the heavy lifting. Now you're ready to prime yourself to succeed under the actual conditions of your talk.
Think of this as your own personal end-of-rehearsal-period leading up to a dress rehearsal. Believe me when I say nothing is as much fun as the costume parade when stage actors see each other dressed as the characters for the first time. That's usually followed by long and tedious tech rehearsals, with constant stopping-and-starting to get technical details right. At last, the final dress rehearsals will arrive when the fully mounted play will be run through without halt.
This process is effective because it simulates, step by step, the actual conditions of performance. As a speaker, you can benefit from the same strategy. Once you have your content finalized, and you've rehearsed a number of times with specifics needs in mind (as I explained above), you should create the actual conditions of your talk as closely as possible.
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Wear the clothes you'll have on that day, and rehearse in a room (or space) similar to your performance venue. If you'll be dealing with a lapel mic or other technical details, by all means practice multiple times with the real technology. If you'll be appearing in the media, try to rehearse in a similar set-up. And a must-do suggestion: Visit the speaking venue the day or evening before and do a walk-through, just as actors do. Learn the best places to stand and move in terms of body language and power dynamics as well as acoustics.
Follow the four-step approach I've outlined in this article, and you'll be using the best rehearsal practices that exist. Actors have used them for millennia, with good reason. They allow you to a) discover the truth of what you're saying, b) give you practice delivering it to listeners, and c) help you build your performance slowly and reliably.
Now—you won't be surprised if your actual performance is amazing, will you?
The article was first published in 2016. It is updated here.
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