Just before my recent trip to Italy I directed a stage production of a Neil Simon play called “Come Blow Your Horn” (the first Broadway hit of his illustrious career). I’ve been directing plays for over twenty years and doing that became a major reason I created Speak Louder Than Words and became a public speaking coach. I was seeing many entrepreneurs struggle with their presentations and knew that theatre skills could help them become more successful.
Theatre has been a major way of sharing stories for centuries. Many of the things that actors do to connect with audiences and with other characters in a play correlate to public speaking engagements. Here are five particular strategies you can apply to become a more powerful and memorable presenter.:
1. Creativity is important. Sometimes I have directed actors who read a script for the first time and make an immediate decision on what a scene is supposed to mean. That can limit the story by making it a very pre-conceived message, one that is tied to a mental analysis and which can ignore other nuances. When I direct actors and actresses I stress ways of getting them out of a pure mental approach and encourage outside-the-box thinking. For example, there may be moments where the word would seem to indicate anger and yelling. Yet by exploring the opposite (going quieter and gentler) sometimes a deeper meaning can arise. This often leads to a more meaningful message. The last thing you want to do as a public speaker is seem bland or predictable.
2. Importance of first moments. When you do a play, it’s important the audience knows quickly the context of a play or of a particular scene. For example, in a comedy it’s imperative the audience knows at the start it’s okay to laugh. If the pacing of a scene is off or the characters try too hard the opening may not have its humor established. If it’s not done quickly, the first few scenes may not get laughter as the viewers try to ascertain whether it’s a comedy meant to be funny or a drama meant to be taken seriously. For a public speaker, opening the speech with the context of benefits for the audience will make it clearer that the speech is about them, and they'll be more engaged from the start.
3. Have one overall theme. Many scripts can have a variety of meanings and interpretations given. Yet if a director tries to convey too many messages in a single piece it becomes confusing to an audience. While there can be subplots and minor twists, a play still comes down to one primary theme which everything supports. The same should happen at a speaking engagement. Of course a speaker will make more than one point; however, all those points fit under a single umbrella. That unifying theme provides a structure that ties things together and lets people see how they connect to achieve a greater goal.
4. Let moments land. Actors and scenes can get in trouble if they rush ahead to the next event in a scene before the first one is realized. It’s like trying to start a conversation before the other person has acknowledged you’re in the room. There is a need to let each particular moment come to fruition before moving on. That lets everything become more completely experienced and understood. Similarly for a speaker, jumping ahead to the next point before letting the previous point settle with the audience can cause them to lose you. You may already be speaking about something new while the audience is trying to process the prior point. Part of their focus is behind you and not all of their focus is on your new item so they won’t grasp it totally. You want to have each point get to the level of conclusion and then move on.
5. Position, posture and breathing from your core. When an actor appears on stage, his or her position on that stage translates into a degree of connection with the audience. Downstage (closest to the audience) center is the strongest spot for an actor to appear. While not every moment of a play may be doable from that position, it’s still one for which actors aim, the place where they are the center of focus and their power dominates. A strong physical posture will also provide strength, both in underscoring the actor’s lines and also in giving them a more commanding presence. And good breathing, emanating from the body’s core, is something that lets the voice project further without changing the vocal quality to shouting which is less pleasant. Strong breathing habits help create a more resonant tone. These same items can help a speaker. Positioning yourself in the center of an audience’s focus and close to them on the stage can heighten your presence. A confident posture will help an audience sense you are confident in your message, so they can be as well. And good breathing from your core and having your voice come from well within your body as opposed to from your throat or nasal passages will allow you a better tone and more stamina on stage. A side benefit is that deep breathing can relax any tendency to speed up which happens as speakers get nervous, so it becomes a calming technique.
Even though you may think of theatre as just a performance, many of the skills that have been used there by top actors can have just as much impact on your business if you take advantage. Your audiences will respond differently, so pay attention.
If you have the opportunity to attend a live theatre production I suggest spending some of your attention focusing on actors and actresses particularly during certain moments: the opening of scenes, their longer monologues and the scene’s climactic moments. Watch how the great moments become memorable.