Ever wonder whether the stagecraft practiced by actors of the highest caliber might apply to your own work as a public speaker or presenter?
Over the past forty years, I’ve coached thousands of actors from Broadway, London’s West End and in Hollywood, as well as speakers, CEO’s and business leaders from across the globe. In that time, I’ve come to learn the elements of a compelling performance, and the approach to delivering that level of work consistently—for the actor and for the professional speaker—are one and the same.
It’s important to note that, as a professional storyteller, your “instrument” is your voice, your body, your articulators, your emotional life and thus, the development of your craft can only be truly be done through repeated, immersive in-person coaching, practice and observation until these tools become second nature.
That said, the following is an examination of the many ways that acting techniques are directly applicable to the work of professional speakers, along with a breakdown of the tools used to achieve the most powerful performance possible in any context!
Preparation vs. Improvisation
Every performer, whether an actor, business leader or public speaker of any kind, must strike a balance between preparation and improvisation (between the controlled and the spontaneous) in order to both inform and inspire an audience.
We all have two equal and opposite needs in life: the need for certainty and the need for uncertainty. The former dictates that you must be professional in your preparation and punctuality, while the latter insists that you be unlike hundreds of other actors who have already auditioned for this role—or unlike the hundreds of other public speakers who have come before you. Success requires that you acknowledge and embrace this duality.
Seek out and welcome life's duality everywhere. The duality of life dictates that there are essentially two choices: positive and negative and these must be apparent in your work as a presenter of any kind in order for the stories you’re telling to resonate with your audience. The stage is your ecstatic opportunity to stand out and shine.
It's not about being liked or getting good feedback. It’s about changing the molecules in the room.
The Five Motivations
There are essentially five motivations that bring an audience to the theater or cinema: to laugh, to cry, to learn or be enlightened, to be scared, or to be turned on sexually. Take a moment and think about the films, plays or live performances you’ve experienced in your life which stand out in your memory. Consider how these performances touched on the motivations above.
You must make us laugh, cry, think, scared, and hot. It's your job. These are five highly active intentions and never entail asking permission. If the work doesn't achieve at least one of these intentions, it is ineffective, with the end result for the audience being "It was okay." When your work includes all five of these truths, you will find yourself eminently and imminently employable. You'll also find yourself to be a hell of a lot of fun!
It’s your job as a speaker to take the audience on a journey. Unlike acting, though, the script comes from you! Strive to craft a story, first on paper, and then in performance, that touches on all five of these essential audience motivations. By engaging “the head + the heart + the hips,” you will leave your audience feeling deeply moved, inspired and motivated by your words.
Developing an unshakable skill set comes from regular training and constant discipline. If you don't keep going to the gym, it shows. Acting is best when it's invisible, but that doesn't mean nothing is happening. The same is true for professional speakers; we are compelled by those who look natural, at ease and relaxed on stage. It takes a lot of work to make it look like you’re doing no work at all. The key to relaxation is rehearsal. Rehearse and rehearse, then forget it. “Remembering to forget” is the key to spontaneity but only comes from “knowing that you know what you know.”
We go to live performances for a deeper experience of our own aliveness
To possess any behavioral insight into characters in a written text, you must first (and continually) delve into and explore your own motivations. The true actor/speaker is first and foremost a deeply curious psychologist, sociologist, anthropologist, and archaeologist—never a narcissist.
We find ourselves living in a graceless age when cynicism, sarcasm, entitlement, and lack of real skills are poor substitutes for wit, intellect, generosity, and vulnerability. Technology has caused us to disconnect, first from ourselves and then from others, by training our brains to move faster than we can breath and feel. The work of the speaker/actor has never been more important. Your task is to bring the audience home to themselves and remind them of their true feeling nature. Fully inhabiting your feelings is like cancer prevention. Early detection is everything. So breathe into your feelings and find your authentic voice! Embrace the vitality of feeling vulnerable in front of an audience.
Be a "Text Detective"
You must become a detective. As actors, we scour scripts for clues to our character’s inner life, history, social strata, idiosyncrasies, phobias, fetishes etc. We strive to find the universal themes and to be as specific as possible in our choices. Specificity kills cliche.
Remember, it's always all about your story and your audience—that’s where your focus needs to be. How delightful and freeing it is to discover it’s not about you! When you feel nervous, it’s because you’ve started watching yourself. The moment you feel this happening, you must immediately put your focus back on the person (or people) you’re speaking to - and the message you need to get across. In this way, you transfer nervousness into intensive excitement! We, as the audience, get the story or we get your issues. To get hired, you must instill the belief that you will be a useful and essential component of the production. We hire you because we feel we are in good hands.
As Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action." Find the need for every line you speak and every move you make. Only move if the story you’re telling insists upon it. Otherwise, embrace the power of stillness. All extraneous, unmotivated movement (e.g. arm waving or overuse of the same gesture) and devoicing (pulling back on your vocal support) comes from the unconscious desire to turn down internal feelings and sensation. What's required is someone who wants to be in the room and turns the feeling up!
The Physics of Performance
Four Parts of Vocal Variation
THE FIFTEEN GUIDEPOSTS - outlined in the book AUDITION by Michael Shurtelff*
Michael developed #13 just after the book was published. Michael and I developed #14 and #15 in the course of our work together. Michael was the casting director for Bob Fosse and David Merrick on Broadway for fifteen years and casting Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman and many others in their first professional roles. I’m proud to have called him my long time friend and colleague. Michael passed on his book and his method of teaching actors, presenters and public speakers when he passed. It forms the core of my approach to this work to this day.
- Relationship: As, yourself, who am I speaking to? What’s my relationship to everyone in the story I’m telling? Always choose the strongest relationship possible (e.g. you’re never just speaking to a friend, you’re speaking to your best friend in the whole world)!
- Conflict/ What Am I Fighting For? Ask yourself, what am I fighting for with this piece? What’s the message I need to get across? What’s the outcome I hope to achieve?
- The Moment Before: Consider where you are coming from. Enter with purpose, don’t just start speaking while standing on a bare stage. You need to “launch” yourself into the piece—this is more easily done with a strong entrance.
- Humor: Find the humor in your work and in your life! When we laugh, we relax because we are brought to the present moment and cannot think about the future or the past. Find every opportunity for humor early on in the speech, so that your audience relaxes, opens up and engages with you.
- Opposites: Bold, surprising performances come from occasionally “playing the opposite” of what is expected. The architecture of your voice, physicality, and emotions must be varied in order to remain interesting.
- Discoveries: No matter how many times you’ve given a particular speech, you must always “discover” it anew, so it’s fresh and sounds as though you are just thinking of these ideas for the first time, every time. Practice “discovering” your message as you go through it so that you hear it in a different way and avoid presenting it the same way every time. “Remember to forget.”
- Communication & Competition: Real, effective communication begins with listening. Really watch, listen, observe and respond to your audience. Nothing is worse than feeling like a presenter is speaking “at” you. Find ways to make a remark, a joke or an observation that are unique to the individuals in front of you.
- Importance: No scene in dramatic literature happens on an ordinary day. Drama is dramatic because of heightened circumstances, otherwise, why should the audience care? Likewise, the audience must understand that your message is of vital importance from the moment you begin speaking! If it’s not important to you, why should it be important to anyone else?
- Find the Events: Consider, where are the “events” in your presentation (i.e. where does the story shift)? For example, you may open with a statement about the way your message is commonly perceived, then share an anecdote that turns this common perception on its head. Now the story shifts, and you proceed to bust a myth and redefine the audience’s perspective. By identifying these “events” in the story, you give yourself a roadmap for how to perform it.
- Place: Consider where you are performing. Always play the room you’re in. If you’re playing to thousands in a conference hall, you’ll need to engage vocally and physically quite differently than if you’re in a boardroom with an audience of ten.
- Game Playing & Role Playing: Never miss an opportunity to game play/role play the story you’re telling. This can also be a specific way of finding humor in any story.
- Mystery & Secret: Always leave them wanting more. Don’t overstay your welcome.
- Mischief: Play mischief! Tease, flirt, meddle, and surprise yourself. These are all ways of finding humor and levity while also engaging an audience.
- Vulnerability: Ask yourself, am I revealing or am I concealing my heart with this story? Allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of an audience allows the individual watching you to immediately connect with you on a human level. While the point of your speech may be to demonstrate your expertise, you must also find a way to tell a story or share an experience in which you were vulnerable in order for the audience to identify with you and see themselves in your experience.
- Architecture: Marlon Brando once said, “The actor (read, speaker) has one job...never be boring.” All of the tools described here are created to inspire the performer to make choices about the presentation’s shape or “architecture”. You must consider emotional architecture, visual architecture (Viewpoints), vocal architecture (Vocal Variation), as well as the architecture of the message itself. For example, your message must have a clear beginning, middle, and end so the audience is taken on a journey that ends in a very different place than it began.
THE SIX VIEWPOINTS developed by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau. The Viewpoints are a methodology for storytelling through the following physical elements:
Time, Space, Shape, Movement, Story, Emotion
THE FOUR PARTS OF VOCAL VARIATION
Rate, Inflection, Pitch, Dynamics
THE FOUR AGREEMENTS An approach to life and professionalism by Don Miguel Ruiz
Be impeccable with your word
Don’t take anything personally
Don’t make assumptions
Always do your best
THE THREE TECHNIQUES
Audition → Rehearsal → Performance
THE THREE TENETS
Relaxation → Concentration → Imagination
Craft + Commitment = Career
Our craft affords us the most incredible vehicle for growth, healing, and the ongoing opportunity to savor the dynamic experience of this life. Remember, the windshield is larger than the rearview mirror, just as where you're headed is more important than where you've been.
Love takes and makes time. Make and take the time to develop and maintain an unshakable skill set. Hope is not a life strategy. Celebrate that you are making your life's work the following of your own heart. By example, you are teaching others to do the same.
Your authentic self seeks you. Burn bright; revel in your time. The adventure continues….
Tom Todoroff is a producer, director and performance coach. He trained at Juilliard and with Stella Adler. Tom’s coaching & directing credits range from The Royal Shakespeare Company to Jimmy Buffett. He is left-handed.