Gary Genard's

Speak for Success!

"Be a voice not an echo." - Albert Einstein

An Actor's Essential (Sneaky) Lesson About Public Speaking

In his book Confessions of a Public Speaker,* Scott Berkun relates what he calls "The Sneaky Lessons of Dr. Fox." The author is discussing an experiment conducted at the University of Southern California to test whether students' feedback about their professors have any validity.[1]

For those professors and adjunct faculty among you who are reading this article, my message to you is: take hope. It turns out the students' opinions about the "professor" they listened to in this experiment fell a bit short of perceptive and insightful.

To put much less of a fine point on it: the students were deceived. The professor in question was in fact an actor. And 90 percent of the imposter's audience believed he gave a well-organized, expert talk on his subject. (If you want to move your audience with honest influence and impact, download my free cheat sheet, "4 Characteristics of an Influential Speaker.")

How to be Successful in Your Presentations 

So what happened in the experiment described in Berkun's book to result in such a finding? The results become even more incredible when the reader realizes the lecture's attendees were not just college students but working professionals in their field.

Adding to the scam, the actor hired for the job was instructed to "look distinguished and sound authoritative, [but to] use double talk, contradictory statements, and meaningless references, to be charismatic and entertaining, but to deliberately provide no real substance, citing books and research papers that did not exist." Berkun asks the question the reader also easily arrives at: "How could an actor so easily fool people who were professionals in the same field?" (To legitimately impress your audience, here are 4 easy ways to be a more charismatic speaker.)

His answer, in part, is that the actor came off as believable because he had studied and practiced to achieve just that effect. As a former stage actor, I think this is exactly right. And notice the critical point in this conclusion: the speaker was considered credible because he had made the effort to be perceived that way, not because he prepared to load his audience with information and data without regard to that audience's response.

Do you see the difference? Understanding this distinction is, in fact, critical to your success as a speaker. Mundane and unsuccessful speakers remain inside the comfort zone of their topic expertise, giving little or no thought to how an audience will perceive them. Speakers of excellence, on the other hand, conceive and practice their presentations entirely based on what their audience needs and will retain from the talk.

Issues of credibility, performance skills, vocal dynamics, rapport with one's listeners, the back-and-forth of an active dialogue between speaker and audience—these should be your concerns in giving a memorable performance. Is there a coincidence between that fact and the way that actors prepare to impress an audience? Of course not. The actor and you both need to be as concerned with your effect on your audience as you are with getting across your raw material (for the actor, the script; and for you, your content). Here, for instance, are 12 foolproof ways to open a speech.

In other words, you live in the bubble of the sheer information you're delivering rather than in the world of your overall performance to your peril. So the lesson is: spend time improving your skills in reaching and influencing people (through a speech class, an acting class, working with a speech coach, etc.) and let your content take care of itself a bit more.

Three More Lessons from Dr. Fox

Berkun provides these additional lessons from the Dr. Fox experiment:

Credibility comes from the host. Did you know that your credibility as a speaker is derived in part from your host? What your host says, but also the position he or she holds within a group, affects the perception of expertise the audience invests in you. Here's a fascinating way to gain credibility and presence for leadership when you speak.

The Fox experiment can be seen, in fact, as a study in how an audience gauges credibility rather than how it judges teaching ability. Since credibility is absolutely essential to your ability to positively influence an audience, it's worth spending time carefully crafting the bio you provide to the person who introduces you, and making sure that person is highly credible themself.

Superficials count. Audiences may expect great things from you. But they also are paying attention to superficial matters. Appearance, dress, attitude, body language, posture, and the use of space are important. Again, when you pay attention to the effect you may have, and not only to the information you'll be delivering, you'll be assisting your own cause. You should certainly be aware of the image you're broadcasting through your body language.

Enthusiasm matters. To move an audience, you need energy and enthusiasm. You may be an expert, but if you're not enthusiastic about your topic and fail to convey passion through an energetic delivery, you'll lessen your effect on your listeners. For audiences to return mental and physical energy to you, they must have received it from you in the first place.

In my speech coaching with executives, I often find it necessary to speak of energy in terms of performance, sometimes by using this image: if you want all the boats to float higher (i.e., your listeners in the audience), the tide must rise. That means that when you step out on stage, or stand to speak, you must bring into play an actor's sense of "rising to the performance." Just like Dr. Fox, but with true expertise and honesty.

* This article cites Scott Berkun, Confessions of a Public Speaker (Beijing: O'Reilly, 2010), 115-118.

Key takeaways from this blog:

  • To be a successful speaker, spend time thinking about your performance.

  • Credibility comes in part from a speaker's charisma and entertainment quotient.

  • Leave the comfort zone of your expertise to gain rapport with people.

  • Audiences will perceive you positively if your host introduces you well. 
  • Energy and enthusiasm in speaking are as important as what you know.

    Dr. Gary Genard's free resource, Great Speaking? It's About Performance Over Content
[1] Naftulin, Donald H., John E. Ware, Jr., and Frank A. Donnelly, “The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction,” Journal of Medical Education, Vol. 48 (1973): 630-635.

Tags: audience perception,acting techniques for business,speaking with confidence

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