The actor's art: Can it teach you anything about public speaking? Let's count the ways!
“A great actor can break your heart at fifty feet.” So said the poet W.H. Auden—and if there’s a quote about acting worth knowing for public speaking, that's it.
As an actor, I began The Genard Method 15 years ago to bring the tools and techniques of the theater to the world of business. Every day professionals in all industries speak in meetings, presentations, pitches, lectures, and keynotes. These are all performances—and they need the exact same skills that go into a dramatic presentation.
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Let’s take a look at four major ways acting can help you create your own standing-room only performances in speeches and presentations.
Actors Understand the Presentational Art
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured an article that got to the heart of the art of presentation as practiced by stage actors. If you’re a moviegoer, you probably recognize the name Forest Whitaker, an actor featured in the films Platoon and Bird, and an Academy Award winner for The Last King of Scotland in 2006.
Whitaker is currently appearing on Broadway in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s short drama Hughie. If you’re interested in seeing that performance, you’d better hurry because the show is closing early after only 55 performances. Terry Teachout, the WSJ’s theater critic, informs us that Whitaker now joins a long list of movie stars who fail on the boards of Broadway.
Teachout discusses how stage performers are “painstakingly” trained in the techniques of creating larger-than-life characters, whose actions, personalities, and emotional responses can fill an entire theater. Theatrical performance—without the help of movie actors' close-up mics and cameras—demands the ability to project across a vast space. Stage acting, Teachout reminds us, is a presentational art.
And there you have it: To communicate with your audience in public speaking, you must cultivate the ability to reach the person farthest from you. That means developing and projecting physical expression as well as speech. Whether it’s gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, or your use of the stage, you need to become comfortable in the art of presenting yourself, not just information. Yes, you will need to become larger than life. But you’ll embrace your listeners, every one of them in the space you’re speaking in, by doing so. Here's more on the theater-based techniques for business training we use at The Genard Method.
Actors Know How to Move an Audience
Both common sense and neuroscience tell us that reaching audiences on an emotional level is a key to public speaking success. And so you, like any actor, need the skills of reaching and moving listeners.
Emotions are more of the currency of public speaking than you might imagine. “Passion” isn’t the dirty word we sometimes make it in business speaking. The more important the decision to be reached by your audiences, the more they will make it emotionally (and afterwards, justify it with logical arguments). In fact, brain studies have shown that even the most mundane decisions aren’t possible without involvement of our emotions.
You may not be able to break the heart of audience members at fifty feet, but you must still touch your listeners emotionally. Pour yourself into the things you believe most strongly, perhaps going beyond what you think is decorous. Passion alone compensates for a multitude of sins in terms of public speaking mechanics; and too many business speakers keep themselves on too tight a leash. So allow your passion to show—and learn how to use emotion in public speaking. Then watch the change in the reactions you get from listeners.
Actors Can Externalize Thoughts and Feelings
Here we can talk about the purely physical in terms of the actor’s art. For physicality is intimately tied to both understanding on an audience’s part, and your ability to activate others positively.
I studied in the U.S. and acted professionally here, before completing my training at one of the British acting academies in London. So I learned the Method-based style that’s prevalent in New York, as well as the English philosophy. The British approach tends to emphasize externalization, i.e., “using one’s instrument” to get a character across to an audience.
That approach is also a key requirement for public speaking. It’s almost never true that a presenter from business, industry, law, healthcare, nonprofits, or any other sector lacks the knowledge or desire to convey a vital message. The challenge is in externalizing those feelings and convictions, because audiences aren’t mind readers.
Do you know, then, how to use your instrument? That means employing body language and gestures, and learning how to develop an effective voice for business communication. It also means knowing how to talk directly to large groups, and even working the physical space between you and your audience. Tape yourself on video to see how you externalize what you say. Even better, work with a speech coach or take an acting class. Either will help you discover the intimate connection between what you show and what your listeners receive and perceive.
Actors Can Create the Illusion of the First Time
Do you speak frequently on the same topic? Are you making identical points in many of your pitches; do you even have a stump speech that you deliver a lot with only minor variations?
Speakers who rattle off points they make on a daily basis—and worse, those who sound bored with the whole affair—don’t inspire audiences. And they certainly aren’t memorable.
Again, think of the theater. Stage actors lucky enough to be in a long run may be acting a role for the 1,000th performance—but they never lose sight of the fact that it’s you who paid $175 for that seat! And so they work hard every night at creating what’s called “the illusion of the first time.” Yes, as an actor you've heard this shattering news in the script well over a thousand times including rehearsals. But for that character, it's the first time, and the scene will never succeed unless it looks that way. So you must deliver that information with all the verve you can muster so your audience is excited by the moment—because for them too, it's the first time.
You see, It’s a question of energy. Every amp of electricity you send your audience’s way shoots right back to you. Summon it from somewhere, anywhere, but bring it to today’s speech. Be like the actress playing a demanding three-hour role in one of Shakespeare’s plays. She has a cold this evening and didn’t sleep much last night, but as we all know, the show must go on.
Just like your presentation.
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