Public Speaking 101 - Borrow Some Acting Tips
Terrified of public speaking? Most people are. This is one area where actors definitely have a leg up.
I recently attended a 30 minute webinar hosted by Mark Schaefer, one of the world’s leading marketing futurists and keynote speakers. He’s funny, entertaining, and informative – and definitely high energy. Lucky for me and the other attendees, Mark shared some of his main takeaways for giving a great speech.
I’m not going to give away his secrets, but I am going to offer a few insights why actors have a bit of an edge. Hint: it’s not just because we’re hams and crave attention.
OK, it's kinda obvious that at some level we are and we do. Duh. Not all, though. Can't generalize too broadly. There are plenty of actors who are actually rather introverted and only comfortable working from a script or within a character role, whether it’s on stage, on camera, or in front of a microphone.
But by and large, it helps to be a bit of an actor when you’re about to walk out front and address a group of people. I came from the business world, where most people would rather gouge out their eyes than step up on stage and give a speech. I’ve been told (by an acting coach) that if you actually enjoy public speaking, chances are that down deep you’re probably a bit of an actor.
Not an actor? No worries. Plenty of actor tips for non-actors to help you come off like the polished pro.
Experience Lends Confidence
There’s no denying that experience performing before an audience, live or recorded, adds to one’s confidence. You’re used to speaking words aloud, even if they’re well scripted and your scene partner’s reactions already known. You've accumulated some body wisdom just by being on stage or in a space where others can easily see and hear you. You don’t feel so completely exposed and vulnerable as someone speaking in public for the first time.
As a trained actor, you also know how to modulate your voice and your body’s movements to support and enhance what you’re saying. Lights, microphone, and a real audience’s reactions aren’t necessarily going to throw you off your game, even if you do have a few butterflies madly dashing around in your stomach, all fighting for an exit.
You’re also rather organized BEFORE you stand before an audience. Yes, it’s a bit easier when you have a script in front of you or, if it’s improv, a general idea of where you’re going with your material. The same holds true as a public speaker. You'll want to:
Know what your message is all about, how you want your audience to feel, and what you want them to take away from your talk.
Organize your main talking points and set them up in a logical order.
Need a little guidance? A few notes on cards or a lively presentation will prompt your along from point to point. Just DON’T, if you’re using a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation tool, read the bullet points from your slides. That’s about as entertaining as an actor standing in front of you, nose buried in his script, as he reads his line without any interesting delivery.
Practice! As an actor, you will have done your script analysis, rehearsal, blocking. Do the same with your speech so that you really are well-prepared and sounding fluent. Run through it as many times to get comfortable. Ask for feedback from trusted friends, family, or colleagues so that you can fine-tune it before delivering it live.
As an actor, you probably have a few relaxation techniques up your sleeve that work well for you. And you also know to hydrate well before you approach that stage or podium and to avoid eating peanut butter or other such mouth-clogging substances before you open your mouth. Or at least you should.
Here are a few of my favorite relaxation techniques that I use to prepare:
Slow measured breaths to get that heart rate under control: slow breath in through the nose (count to 4), hold for 7 counts, and out through the nose very slowly. See if you can get to 8 counts on the exhale.
Stretch your whole body earlier in the day. Every morning, I take at least a few minutes for floor exercises, stretching my torso, legs, and arms. Got just a minute? Shrug your shoulders up high – slowly! – and then release – also slowly. Repeat a few times. Do the same with your eyebrows, up and down. Then, for good measure, slowly turn your head from side to side. The trick to all of these stretches is … you got it … to do them slowly.
Very nervous? Get rid of the excess energy by doing a few pushups. Come on … if I can do them, so can you. If there’s no room (or sufficient privacy), shake out your hands at your wrists vigorously, side to side and up and down. Or reach your arms up very high, get on your tip toes, and then bend over at the waist and try to touch the floor with your fingertips.
Simulate big yawns to move your jaw muscles. Funny thing, pretending to yawn often brings on the real thing. A terrific way to loosen up your mouth and jaw.
Don’t forget to warm up your voice, too with a few vocal exercises. I like to count from 1 to 10 varying my pitch and then run through the alphabet, enunciating each consonant before each of the vowels. Add in a favorite tongue or even a silly old song sung at a super fast pace. For some bizarre reason, I still remember an old ridiculous song of nonsense words from a day camp I attended when I was 8 years old. It works pretty well as a warm-up exercise. Sometimes, I'll throw in a motormouth or raspberry sound effect or two, just to rev up the voice and lips.
And yes! Drink plenty of water before you begin. That hydration thing is really important.
If you enjoy public speaking, I have a suspicion that some part of you down deep is a bit of an actor. Or you're a really accomplished ham.
In my video series, On Camera Tips for Busy Execs, I introduce both relaxation exercises and tips for looking like a pro on camera when you don’t even know what you’re doing. Quite a few of these tips apply to public speaking, too. Here are a few suggestions:
Talk to one person. Make it comfortable for the audience to hear you speaking casually, conversationally with them. Do so by imagine that you’re talking to a great friend in the audience. When you’re addressing a group of people, take the time to look in the eye of one person as you’re delivering a sentence or two. Move on to another part of the audience and speak directly to someone else for a while. The audience – and the individuals themselves! – will feel like you’re truly connected to them and are much more likely to be engaged.
Move around. Don’t be haphazard, pacing around or gesturing your arms wildly. That’s sadly distracting and not the hallmark of a professional speaker. Note the major transitions in your speech and physically and deliberately move to another spot to highlight them. But do so naturally, not like you’re following some literal marching orders. You’ll find it more effective, too, to begin speaking once you’ve stopped moving, rather than as you’re walking. Once you’re at a new spot, plant yourself there for a bit so you look grounded and decisive.
Add some dynamic delivery. Pauses will get your audience’s attention. “Hey, why did she stop talking? Must be something about to happen.” Vary your pitch, pace, and tone. Make it interesting to listen to you!
Work on eliminating filler words like … like (a big one!), you know, well, ummm, etc. How? Slow down! Think about what you’re saying; you don’t have race through your talk. Use a pause if you need to collect your thoughts.
Have fun with the material and so will your audience. Just be yourself and feel free to use good-natured humor throughout - your audience wants to be 1) entertained and 2) informed. A good laugh will win them over.
Laura's Quick Tips
Great speakers are made, rarely born. Learn from some of the best, like Mark Schaefer.
Get organized. Half the battle is knowing what you're going to say, why you're saying it, and what you want your audience to take away from it afterwards. If you're in sales, that last bit changes to: what you want your audience to DO with the info afterwards.
Relax! You're not going to die from public speaking, though it may seem that way at the time. Most speakers go on to hyperventilate another day.
Take a tip or two from the actor's handbook and learn how to play to your audience. You may even actually come to enjoy it.
Have fun! When you let your true, authentic personality shine through, your audience will be quite naturally more engaged with your material ... and with you.
If you're not an actor and you've been reading through this blog to its not-quite-bitter end (and I thank you for it!) ... you might consider taking an acting class or two, just to get a feel for being on stage. You'll really and truly get some of those I'll-never-be-caught-speaking-in-public jitters under control and find out that, like with most things, talking in front of a group becomes easier the more often you try it. A classroom is an easy, relatively non-stressful way to learn and practice a new skill. Organizations like Speakeasy and Toastmasters do the same thing.
The best way to learn about public speaking, though, is to watch great speakers in action, like Mark Schaefer. Mark is an exceptional speaker, author, motivator, and all-around great guy; you can read more about him via his website: https://businessesgrow.com/. He's also a well-known marketing author, and I’m privileged to be part of his group of 35 marketers worldwide who are each writing a chapter on their specialty for a new marketing book to be published in the summer of 2023. Mine is about video and YouTube, and touches on much of the same ground as this blog post. (There! You just got a sneak peak.) More about this exciting project later!