You have great ideas and content. So, how do you give a dynamic performance? Learn the actor's secret to powerful public speaking—show your emotions!
In our last outing in this space here, we looked at how engaging and sharing your vision with audiences can help make you memorable.
Let’s say you’re totally committed to your topic and message. And you’re equally focused on getting the audience to understand everything in a way that relates to their lives. To accomplish that last task, you face a high hurdle: speaking in a way that not only aids listeners’ comprehension, but that conveys emotionally what you’re trying to say.
That said, if you’ve ever seen a speaker who is overly emotional, you’ll understand how unbridled passion can overwhelm anything else being conveyed. You need to know, in other words, how to manage your performance so you can turn your passion into a powerful speech without upsetting the balance between raw emotion and professionalism. That's definitely an aspect of speaking for leadership.
The Importance of Emotion in Public Speaking: In doing so, you may face another problem, which is common to too many speakers: relying on your content to persuade and motivate people. In other words, leaving your own emotion and commitment off stage.
There's an old Irish proverb that says, "You'll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind." I think of that saying sometimes when the passion involved in a speech seems to live only in the written words, not in the performance. An audience can’t see and hear your commitment by osmosis. If you don’t display how you feel, how are you going to get them to believe?
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Your speech's words, slides, and displays can only accomplish so much. Yes, data points convey information efficiently. But all the rest of it—including the immediacy of your message, its benefit for listeners, and the actual meaning of what you’re saying—is solidly your territory as speaker.
How, then, can you turn your passion into a powerful speech that reaches people emotionally as well as intellectually?
Well, one way is by using your voice effectively. Are you doing so? Discover how in my Free Tips and Tricks Guide, "5 Ways to Improve Your Voice As a Professional."
Just Talk to Us . . . and Stop Trying to Be Perfect
There's an aspect of public speaking that I urge you to avoid. It’s called "perfectionizing." It means what it sounds like: attempting to create a beautifully polished presentation that's perfect in every respect. This is due partly to what I've discussed elsewhere: spending too much time crafting a beautiful literary document as your speech. The public speaking realm is more boxing ring than literary salon. Your job is not to give a recital, but to step inside the ropes and mix it up. In fact, trying to write a perfect speech is useless for three reasons:
- You probably can't do it unless you're a talented speechwriter.
- You'll get wrapped up in the rhythms of writing, which are different from those of speaking.
- It will keep your attention on your script rather than on listeners’ responses.
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Believe me, audiences really don't care about beautiful rhetoric. They do care about speakers who can connect with them and who seem to share their interests and values. A solid punch to the gut is more productive than gently stroking someone’s sensibilities. When it comes to moving an audience, you need to be as adept on your feet as you are with your pen.
Learn the Actor's Skill of Externalizing Feelings
Once you commit to speaking with impact rather than oratory, it's time to learn how to get it across the footlights. It's never a question of having passion or even a fierce desire to share your feelings with listeners. It always comes down to demonstrating who you are in performance. Audiences aren't mind readers—if you don't show it, they won't know it!
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Here’s where you must take a page from the actor’s art. Actors spend their entire careers learning how to externalize what characters are thinking and feeling. The reason, of course, is so that audiences understand what that character is going through in the context of the drama (or comedy). So, here’s a quick-study guide on four ways to externalize what’s inside you when you speak so that audiences “get” it:
The Art of ‘Externalizing’ for Public Speaking
- Turn your energy around: Speakers who perfectionize think in terms of their own performance. But you’re not the sun in the public speaking solar system! That’s the audience. In effect, they are the center of everything and you are in motion around them—not the opposite. And like the sun, your audience is the source of all your energy. The simple act of turning your energy outward to listeners rather than inward will allow you to have more of a relationship with listeners and less with yourself.
- Make your emotions physical: Most of us are guilty of Talking Head Syndrome. You know this malady: the speaker stands statue-like behind the lectern, or monument-like at the conference table, though the lips appear to be moving. We experience a static, emotion-less presence going on and on about the content. A vital tool of connection between human beings—physical expression—is absent!
Stiff and lifeless performances make any speaker seem unengaged. Since audiences don't have a crystal ball, they need you to physically express what you're saying. Body language makes what you're thinking and feeling apparent. Its elements—posture, stance, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, and the voice (which is produced physically)—help you to express who you are fully. Effective body language will raise your performance to an entirely new level. Physical expressiveness allows you to reach your audience emotionally as well as intellectually, and is one of the keys to being memorable.
- Mind the pace and shape of your speech: Nothing is more disappointing than an interesting topic diluted through lack of shape or pacing. Think of a desert: the land stretching away in every direction without anything to break the monotony. That’s what a featureless speech feels like to an audience. Memorability in speaking means giving a talk exactly the way you intend it to come across. Your pace must be comfortable for you while allowing listeners to relax and absorb what you say.
You also need to consider the shape of the talk. Which segments of your speech should have the greatest impact? What are the most dramatic parts? Where should the climax occur—for instance, the part where you state the problem most powerfully, or the moment you reveal the solution? The parts of your speech aren’t equal. You should know how to play up the major sections while downplaying the others.
- Use your performance area: The space in which you stand as a speaker—from convention stage to a few square feet at the end of a conference table—is yours to command. This too is an aspect of connecting with others. As audiences, we expect you to be alive—to use the space itself to bring home what you're saying. Don't prowl or wander; but move with a purpose tied to what you're trying to achieve at each moment. Even a lectern shouldn't stop you from conveying your passion in a powerful way. Stand behind it and refer to your notes when that’s necessary. But take opportunities to come out from behind it. You’d be amazed at how doing that makes your speech come to life—for you and the audience.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching and corporate group training worldwide. In 2021 for the eighth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." The Online Meetings Handbook offers strategies and tools for speaking virtually. His latest book Speak for Leadership shares the secrets of speaking with leadership presence. To know more about TGM's services, Contact Gary.