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"From the Stage to the Podium: Acting Techniques for Speakers"
By Ed Brodow   Printer Friendly Version

(This article was the feature story in the June 1998 issue of
"Professional Speaker Magazine," the official magazine of the
National Speakers Association)

Many successful speakers use acting techniques to upgrade their
platform skills. After all, the speaker's job is the same as the
actor's: to get the audience involved.

Well-known speaker Patricia Fripp attributes much of her success
to her acting training. "Actors have to do the same role for
months and years," Fripp points out. "How do they stay fresh?
That's what we have to learn." Even if you've told your story 500
times, you need to be able to present it each time as if it were
the first time.

During my 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, Jose Quintero. This acting training has been invaluable in
my career as a professional speaker. Here are 10 practical
secrets from the craft of acting that can help you give an
Academy Award-winning presentation every time.

1. Improvise

Improvisation is a tool that allows you to make it up as you
go along, to let go in order to try something new and
exciting. 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.

Try practicing one of your scripted stories with improvised
words to discover the 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

Speaker 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
percent 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

2. Personalize Your Stories

The key to storytelling is not to memorize the words, but to
memorize the experience. Actors utilize the personalization
technique to tap into an experience from their lives and apply
the emotional impact of that experience to a scene or story.

For example, when Anthony Hopkins played the role of serial
killer Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, he recreated
the emotional impact from a real experience where he was so
mad that he wanted to kill someone. What we see on the screen
is Hopkins as a psychopathic killer, while Hopkins, the actor,
is playing out the emotional reality of his substituted

As a speaker, personalizing means bringing yourself into the
speech. "For telling stories," 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.

The use of strong personal imagery will make the material your
own. Even when you are describing something that happened to
someone else, discover your own perspective. "All of my
stories are personal stories," says speaker 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."

Get in touch with how you feel about your material--your
reactions and feelings. Concentrate not on the words but on
communicating the emotional impact of the experience to the

3. Have a Strong Drive

An actor has a drive (or objective) that 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.

What is your drive as a speaker? The difference between actors
and speakers is that the actor is pretending to be someone
else while the speaker is you. As a speaker, your drive is
your point-of-view. What do you want to drive home to the
audience in your speech?

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' and help them create a new
perspective." Make the audience understand the message from
where you stand.

4. Be Theatrical

On-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.

"You need to be yourself, but slightly 'larger than life,'"
says Fripp. "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. "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," he says.

Speaker Marianna Nunes sums 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!

5. 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 is strong when they

If it takes a speaker half an hour to warm up, he or she will
likely lose the audience. Instead, Fripp suggests that
speakers "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.

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

6. Work Moment to Moment

Great actors are great reactors. They keep their senses open
and alert, not anticipating what the other actor is going to
do. Jack Nicholson's performances are more exciting because
his response to the other actors' behavior is spontaneous and

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 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."

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. Some of my best lines come from the audience."

7. Variation

Anything that goes on too long in the same way is boring, and
audiences typically have short attention spans. One way actors
avoid monotony is to break a scene down into beats and
establish variation for each beat. Speakers can strive for the
same kind of variation in emphasis, movement, volume, energy
level, or material.

You can build variation into the organization of your speech,
(e.g., story, transition, story, major point, story, etc.) Or,
variation may occur in the volume and tone of your voice.
Pausing is also a form of variation. And, don't forget to
build variation into your body movement.

8. Take Risks

Do you remember Marlon Brando's "Granny" in 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," Calloway insists, "you have to be
willing to fall off the surfboard once in a while."

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? What have you got to lose?

9. Commit to Your Choices

When Brando put on a dress and became "Granny," there was no
holding back. Actors strive to make interesting choices and
commit to them fully. For speaker Marjorie Brody, being fully
committed means, "being passionate about my message and how it
will impact the audience's careers."

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. Be
totally committed to your message and to your choices.

10. Relax Through Concentration

If the actor's mind is allowed to roam free, it will focus on
nervousness. On the other hand, actors are able to 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 and room
mechanics, etc.

Brody relaxes by distributing handouts, meeting and greeting
audience members, and then chatting with them before her
presentation. 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 reprioritizing my points."

To Be or Not to Be?

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 to be 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."

When used correctly, these ten acting secrets can create a
delivery that is spontaneous and alive, and as a result, help you
command your audience more effectively.

So, as we showbiz folk say, break a leg!

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