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Rx for Peak Platform Performance

Cover Story, "The Toastmaster" magazine November, 2000

As a student actor my training taught me that all the aspects of my being, which is to say my voice, face, body, mind and spirit, were instruments to be played upon for the expression of my art. As a speaker, I have found this training to be tremendously useful. It seems to me that others who wish to become more effective as speakers and communicators could likewise benefit from learning a few of the techniques of the actor’s craft.

We have just enough space here to touch on three of them.

 

  • 1. Being Alive
  • 2.Voice and diction.
  • 3. Memorizing / Improvising

1. Being Alive. One thing that acting training stresses that you seldom see referred to in speaker’s training is how to be alive in front of an audience. What training is needed to be alive, for crying out loud? After all, anybody that breathes, qualifies, right? It isn’t that simple. Being alive means being in the moment, responsive to what happens here and now. Have you ever seen a speaker on the platform when a distraction occurs? Someone enters the room noisily; something falls to the floor with a loud bang; a fire truck screams past the window? If everyone in the room reacts except the speaker, guess what? That speaker is not living the same moment everyone else is.

Now, distractions are not the reason to be alive, they are just the most obvious indicators. The canaries in the coal mine. Consider. If the speaker is not alive to the same moment the audience is – to whom is he speaking? In Toastmasters we give great emphasis to “eye contact.” The more important of those two words by far, is “contact.” (“Eye contact” has always seemed to me to be a sentence fragment. . . it needs an object. Better to complete the sentence by saying “I contact You!”) It is the primary task of the speaker to build a relationship with his audience.

Actors (by which I mean stage actors), train everyday to make contact. It is the essential element in creating a piece of theatre. Without contact, everyone might as well stay home and play canasta. To connect, to be directly in touch with another human being in an emotionally cathartic situation is the whole reason we go to the theatre. And that is exactly the reason to give a speech rather than pass out a few neatly typed pages. The speaker brings his ideas to life. Provided, of course, that he is alive himself.

How do actors practice being alive? One way is by listening. It may seem paradoxical for a speaker to work on listening, but it is one of the more valuable skills to acquire. Learning to listen to the audience is very important. There is much to listen to in an audience. I don’t mean just listening with the ears, but feeling them instinctively, being responsive to them. The dictionary definition of listen includes “to pay attention.” That is exactly what is needed from speakers. . . to pay or better, to repay attention to the audience. Socially, you can quickly spot a person who does not listen as he speaks. “Here is a bore,” you say to yourself and later to your friends. Listening to your audience is simply good manners – the mark of a considerate speaker.

Next time you’re speaking, pause. Listen to what’s coming back to you from the audience. Are they smiling or yawning? How’s their body language? Are they on the edge of their seats or in danger of sliding onto the floor? If you can’t tell, ask them a direct question – “are you following me?” The manuals talk about the value of the pause as a device for building suspense and so forth, but the real value to the speaker is to assess the audience.

Bad acting is usually bad because it is self-conscious. Same with speakers. It’s self-consciousness that creates paralyzing stage fright. The remedy is to focus on the task before you which is to help the audience understand; to persuade them, to inspire them, to entertain them. An interesting thing happens when you listen to your audience. By putting your attention onto them, you take it off yourself. Good actors know that every long speech in a play, every monologue, every soliloquy, is actually a dialogue. The challenge of such speeches is not so much how to speak them, as how to be alive in them – and bring them to life for your listeners.

2) Voice and Diction. Perhaps the most important craft that acting training could provide to the platform speaker concerns the use of one’s vocal tools. Here, more than anywhere else, the lack of technique among speakers is most apparent. If only speakers could improve their diction and the power and range of their voices it would make an enormous difference in their effectiveness as communicators. In our Platformance ℠ workshops we devote a good deal of time to these problems.

Of what use is the most carefully worded, most persuasive, wickedly funny or inspiring speech – if it is inaudible? We have all had the experience of sitting in an audience and straining to hear a speaker who whispers, mutters, mumbles or races through a speech. I went up to such a speaker not long ago, and before I could ask for a written copy of the speech he had just delivered, he said: “please don’t give me any pointers on speaking clearly. This is just who I am and the audience must take it or leave it.” Needless to say, a goodly number did just that, at the intermission.

Too many speakers feel as helpless to change as that inaudible gentleman. People think that the great voices of the acting world – James Earl Jones, Richard Burton, Sir John Geilgud for instance, were simply born with powerful speaking instruments and perfect diction. Let me assure you that actors of this caliber work very hard to be heard and understood. I once had the privilege of supporting James Earl Jones in a production of Othello in a cavernous, unamplified theatre. His nightly pre-show routine included a solid hour of vocal warm-up exercises.

“Well, yes,” I can hear you say. “James Earl Jones doing Othello is one thing – my five-to-seven-minute manual speech is quite another. Nobody expects me to sound like that.”

No. But we in your audience expect and deserve to hear and understand you. Consider. If Jones, with one of the most famous and beautiful vocal gifts in the world, feels the need to practice, exercise and improve what nature gave him, how are the rest of us to justify living content with our weak pipes and slender reeds?

Here’s a suggestion that can make a real difference in your delivery. Sing in the shower. Or the bath, whichever. Do tongue-twisters, recite poems, learn to focus your vowels. Practice some of the vocal exercises (see below) in the tub. If your family snickers and jeers, so much the better. Entertain them every day! Make sure they can hear you clearly. Shampoo out some of your inhibitions. Scrub away the notion that a soft, quiet voice is required of a polite and virtuous person. Sing LOUD!

3) Improvising / Memorizing. While the texts of plays may differ in style and manner from speeches, the basic relationship the performer takes to them is similar. True, the actor in a play must memorize perfectly and the speaker need not. Still, the process of memory is important for both; and the rehearsal of a speech is a lot like the early stages of rehearsal for a play.

An actor works to memorize the role, not the lines. First the script is broken into small pieces, called ‘beats’. Each beat contains a single idea, action or intention. By repeatedly going over these beats one by one and forging transitions between them, the play and the role become a continuous “arc.” The lines are easier to remember because they provide the most efficient way to travel along that arc.

The speaker should construct his speech so that it also forms a unified arc. The better the structure of the speech, the easier to remember – and the easier for the audience to remember as well. In approaching a role, it is the transitions that the actor works hardest on. If you’re having trouble remembering a certain element in your speech, you probably need a stronger transition just there.

It is usual for actors to learn their parts by paraphrasing at first and then becoming more and more ‘word perfect’ with repetition. This is exactly the case with experienced speakers who concentrate first on the order and progress of the ideas in their talk. The exact wording is often developed as they rehearse. Some speakers like to set the words firmly for themselves, while others are content to set only the ideas.

There are advantages to both methods. Those who feel strongest about their writing skill like to have the strongest words, developed and set for the greatest impact. Those who set more value on their spontaneity will leave the idea in a nascent state and depend on the energy of the moment to carry the day. Often a combination of the two styles can work well, using rote memorization where some especially apt or forceful phrases have emerged in rehearsal, and in other places improvising and finding the exact words to express the idea at the moment and in partnership with the audience.

This brings us to improvisation. ‘Improv’ is an important tool for an actor and we see the parallel in off-the-cuff presentations and in ‘Table Topics’ at Toastmasters’ meetings. In the theatre, improv is mainly an exercise meant to keep the actor’s imagination agile and flexible. More and more, however, improvisation has become the main event with theatre companies like Second City, TV programs like Saturday Night Live and the films of Mike Leigh succeeding with only the sketchiest of scripts. Improv is the jazz of drama.

There are many improvisational techniques that the actor can show to the speaker. Chief among them is the need to take what you get and play with it. Improvising is not a happy experience for perfectionists. The spirit of play must be present in abundance. There is no greater kill-joy than a grumpy grown-up standing by in one’s mind, all judgement and negativity.

This seeming paradox between rigid control and spontaneous freedom, between a strong, well structured arc and a playful, improvisational spirit, is the reason great actors and great speakers are so rare. Most fall on one side or the other. There are speakers who write brilliantly but undermine their brilliance by reading slavishly; there are others who can entertain and banter til the cows come home, but leave us wondering if there was any point to it.

Fortunately, both these skills are learn-able. If you feel safest reading or memorizing until your speech is rock solid – lighten up! Build in a Q&A; interact with your audience; give yourself the challenge of doing a 5 to 7 minute speech off the cuff.

For the free-wheeling banterist, try to practice a speech two hours for each minute of time at the lectern. But practice the actor’s way. Learn the ideas first, then the most expressive, efficient words to communicate them. Work in small pieces and then hammer in the transitions. Absolutely memorize the opening and the closing. Use your improv skills in the performance.

When I first joined Toastmasters, people who knew my acting background told me to beware as a speaker – that platform speaking was not a performance. I think they meant that there was a need for great authenticity in a speaker. No room for the actor to hide behind a character; no sets, props, playwright or director. It seems to me that these people were holding too narrow a view of “performance” and putting too exclusive a definition on “authentic.”

To my mind, every speaker, actor, acrobat and clown must perform. If they are to move and entertain, to persuade or inspire their audience, they must do so with great authenticity . For speakers, the challenge is to bring the wide world of experience and ideas to the most restricted of spaces – a platform. We speakers must find a way to create a ‘platformance.’