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From the Stage to the Podium: Acting Techniques for Speakers
By Ed Brodow, CEO, Ed Brodow Seminars, Inc.

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.

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 gibberish.

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 spontaneous.

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 experience.

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 audience.

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 begin.

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 story."

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 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 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!

Copyright © 2000 Ed Brodow Seminars, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ed Brodow is the author of Negotiate With Confidence and negotiation guru on PBS The Business Channel, and motivational speaker presenting customized keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations. He can be reached at 831-372-7270, or

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