Acting Techniques for Speakers
Do you want to win an Academy Award every time you speak? To deliver each story as though you just thought of it, even though you've told it 500 times? Many successful speakers are using acting techniques to upgrade their platform skills. After all, the speaker's job is the same as the actor's -- get the audience involved. Actors have to do the same role for months and years. How do they stay fresh? That's what speakers can learn from show biz.
During twelve years as a professional actor, it was my privilege to study with some splendid coaches in New York and Los Angeles: Lee Strasberg, Mary Tarcai, Warren Robertson, David Craig, José Quintero. This acting training has been invaluable in my career as a professional speaker. Here are ten practical secrets from the craft of acting that can help you win an Academy Award on the platform.
To Be...or Not to Be?
- Secret Number One: Improvise
Improvisation means making it up as you go along. It means letting go in order to try something new and exciting. Actors use improv to free up their creativity and to discover their comfort level with the script.
You can improvise by trying out different ways of structuring your speech. By improvising with my negotiation keynote, I came up with the signature story of how I accidentally knocked my grandfather's false teeth down the toilet. It has nothing to do with negotiation, but it succeeds in getting the point across with warmth and humor.
Speaker Tony Alessandra improvised a story to explain the difference between the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule. "One day," he recalls, "something suddenly popped into my mind about my mother treating people in a restaurant as if she's in her own kitchen, and I built the story up from there." Improvisation took him beyond the obvious.
Try practicing one of your scripted stories with improvised words -- you will discover the language and mode of delivery that feels most comfortable. You can clean up your timing by delivering your speech at twice the normal speed or by delivering it in gibberish.
Reminding audiences of Sid Caesar, speaker/actor Alan Ovson cleverly improvises with foreign and regional accents in order to highlight his serious business message. "While it is heavily rehearsed," Ovson says, "99% of my actual speech is improvised based on the mood and reactions of the audience."
The idea is to keep the instrument (you) free and open. Improvisation gives you the space to be creative and spontaneous.
- Secret Number Two: Personalize your stories
The key to story telling is not to memorize the words, but to memorize the experience. Actors do this using a technique called personalization. It means tapping into an experience from your life and applying the emotional impact of that experience to an acting scene or to a story. Personalization is the actor's secret for being real.
For example, when Anthony Hopkins is playing the role of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the film, Silence of the Lambs, he recreates the emotional impact from an experience in his life where he was so mad that he wanted to kill someone. What we see on the screen is Hopkins as a psychopathic killer. In reality, Hopkins the actor is playing out the emotional reality of his substituted experience.
As a speaker, personalizing means bringing yourself into the speech. "For telling stories," speaker Patricia Fripp advises, "if you can't see it, the audience won't." Get the audience involved by reliving the experience with them. The payoff is that each time you recreate the experience, it will be fresh.
Even when you are describing something that happened to someone else, make the material your own. "All of my stories are personal stories," says Tony Alessandra. "If I hear a story that I like, I will rework it for me. I don't tell it the way everyone else tells it."
- Secret Number Three: Have a strong drive
An actor has a drive (or objective) in each scene, and a drive which serves as a through-line for the play. The drive is what motivates the character. Hamlet's drive is to kill his uncle, Claudius. Hamlet finds many obstacles in the way, but without his drive the play would collapse.
As a speaker, your drive is whatever you are advocating to the audience, your point-of-view. My drive is to convince the audience that win-win negotiating is more productive than win-lose. Speaker Joe Calloway says, "My drive is to have the audience saying, 'Wow. I never thought of it that way.' To help them create a new perspective." Barry Wishner's drive is, "Not just to present ideas, but how to execute those ideas."
Without a drive, you are merely a walking encyclopedia. Take a stand and stand out!
- Secret Number Four: Be theatrical
Actors always try to be real on stage. But stage reality is actually a heightened form of what we normally experience as reality. Reality without theatricality is boring! Even the most subtle film performance has a dash of theatricality thrown in.
Being theatrical as a speaker means, "You need to be yourself but slightly 'larger than life,'" says Patricia Fripp. She adds, "Style is being yourself...but on purpose." At the humorous end of the spectrum is speaker Larry Winget, who tells his audiences about shopping with his wife and finding a display of small plungers. He says, "It ends up with me putting a plunger on my head and pulling some other bald guy on stage and putting another plunger on his head and then having a ring toss."
Speaker Marianna Nunes summed it up by saying, "Great performers can read out of the phone book and keep the audience entertained!" When you are communicating with a large audience, a lot of electricity is flying around. Use that electricity. Put on the Ritz!
- Secret Number Five: Start at the top of the scene
First impressions are crucial. Actors know that they have to grab the audience immediately. They do this by starting at the top of the scene -- their energy level must be up there right from the beginning. For speakers, "Your energy is what motivates and energizes them," says Marianna Nunes. "You must be warmed up when you begin."
Many speakers advise, "Come out punching." This doesn't mean that you should open your speech by screaming or by jumping up and down. "Match the audience's energy and come out a little higher," Nunes suggests. "If they're low key, don't come out too wild or they'll be turned off."
Alan Ovson opens up with a story. "I involve the audience as much as possible right away," he says, "so they get the scene, the smells, the warmth, and the feeling of what's going on in the story."
I have seen speakers take half an hour to warm up. You will lose the audience if you wait too long to rev up your motor.
- Secret Number Six: Work moment to moment
Great actors are great reactors. They strive to work moment to moment. This means they keep their senses open and alert, not anticipating what the other actor is going to do. Jack Nicholson's performance is more exciting because his response to the other actor's behavior is spontaneous and unplanned.
Don't be like a speaker I know who pauses at certain points in his presentation for audience laughter--whether he gets it or not! Be there fully. Allow your senses to be aware of everything that is going on as you speak, and adjust your presentation accordingly.
"The 'magic' happens spontaneously," observes Joe Calloway, "in reaction to the audience. Often my best material comes from what is happening in that meeting. My presentation is not like a train that is locked onto the tracks -- it's much more like surfing, moving this way and that, sometimes falling off!!"
Tony Alessandra agrees. "I have an outline in my head, but I never know what I'm going to say because I like to involve the audience," he explains. "When you ask questions of the audience, you may get answers that you weren't expecting, and you have to play off of it. Some of my best lines come from the audience."
- Secret Number Seven: Go for variation
Anything that goes on too long in the same way is boring. Actors break a scene down into beats and establish variation for each beat. Speakers can strive for variation in emphasis, movement, volume, energy level, material, etc.
You can build variation into the organization of your speech, e.g., story...transition...story...major point...story...and so on. Variation can occur in the volume and tone of your voice. Pausing is a form of variation. And don't forget to build variation into your body movement.
Patricia Fripp quotes her coach, Ron Arden, as saying, "The enemy of the speaker is sameness." When she outlines her talk, Fripp asks, "How many points of wisdom, stories, laughs, transitions, questions...?"
Bear in mind that your audience has a short attention span. Variation is an effective technique for keeping them with you.
- Secret Number Eight: Take risks
Do you remember Marlon Brando's "Granny" in the film, Missouri Breaks? The willingness to take risks is what makes great actors stand out. The same is true for speakers. "To be truly in the moment with the audience," Joe Calloway insists, "you have to be willing to fall off the surfboard once in a while."
Barry Wishner's risk-taking is bringing audience members up on stage. "I never know who they will turn out to be or what they will say," he admits, "but that's exciting."
Recently, I beat up a rubber chicken during a keynote. It was a risk. Some people loved it and some hated it, but no one forgot it. People still come up to me and ask, "Ed, how's your rubber chicken?"
So, how's your rubber chicken? Have you taken any risks lately? As speaker Sally Walton says, "After all, we're not doing the Presidential Debates. What have you got to lose?"
- Secret Number Nine: Be fully committed to your choices
When Brando put on a dress and became "Granny" in Missouri Breaks, there was no holding back. Actors strive to make interesting choices and then commit to them fully.
If you decide to be theatrical or to take a risk on the platform, don't hold back. When I beat up my rubber chicken, I strangled it, slammed its poor little head into the podium, threw it to the ground and jumped up and down on top of it, screamed and growled and snorted.
For speaker Marjorie Brody, being fully committed means, "being passionate about my message and how it will impact the audience's careers." Be fully committed to your message and your choices.
- Secret Number Ten: Your relaxation is in your concentration
If the actor's mind is allowed to roam free, it will focus on nervousness. Actors relax by concentrating on their preparation, the script, and the other actors. Speakers can relax by concentrating on their drive, the client, the audience, customization details, room mechanics, etc.
Marjorie Brody relaxes by meeting and greeting audience members, giving out handouts, and chatting with them before her presentation. Alan Ovson concentrates on his points of wisdom. "As I get more information about the audience, I realize that what's important to me may not be important to them," he admits. "So I concentrate on re-prioritizing my points."
Don't expect to win your Academy Award without effort. Actors who are hailed for their instant stardom remind their fans that it took years of hard work for their "overnight success."
"Acting techniques are appealing and appear easy to use," cautions speaker coach Dawne Bernhardt, "but if they don't blend in with your natural style, you run the risk of losing authenticity and appearing artificial." How can you avoid that? "Practice is essential," advises Bernhardt, "along with feedback to be sure your technique isn't showing."
When used correctly, these ten acting secrets can help you to be yourself on the platform. They can help your delivery become spontaneous and alive. They can help you command your audience. So, as we show biz folk say, break a leg!
Ed Brodow is a motivational speaker, negotiation guru on PBS, and author of Negotiate with Confidence and Beating the Success Trap.
Copyright © 2005 Ed Brodow Seminars, Inc. All rights reserved.