Honestly, who doesn’t love a good motivational quote from Libby Mae (played brilliantly by Parker Posey) in the indie 90’s comedy Waiting for Guffman? The story of a rag-tag community theatre group trying to make it to the great white way is simply… okay, okay, forgive the nerdy theatre kid reference, I couldn’t resist.
When facing similarly exciting and sometimes nerve-wracking opening night moments in my professional corporate career whether giving presentations, facilitating large group trainings, or delivering a new speech to a crowd of strangers, I always feel the urge to yell, “It’s the day of the show y’all!” — “Let’s do this!” Thankfully, I have managed to resist the urge until now, but I make no guarantees going forward.
While Waiting for Guffman is a brilliant send up of most of the cliches that actors have experienced working in theatres both amateur and professional, the skills trained actors leverage when preparing for a performance are anything but trite or frivolous. The broader concepts at the root of these tools can be applied to anyone’s preparation for presentations of most any variety. In approaching my work as an actor, acting coach, or director, whether I am coaching actors for big auditions, directing actors in a full scale production, or coaching corporate professionals for on camera content, the work always centers around a common core.
Instead of focusing solely on your content, KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Awareness of the audience’s collective story is as critical to your success as knowing your own. Cut more simply, why does your audience care and why is the content you are sharing of value to them? In educational or training terms, this is often referred to as the what’s in it for me? Spend time reflecting on both the story you are attempting to share with your audience AND why they should care. If you find you are unable to answer that question, study the audience demographic further, study the reason for convening this group and adapt your content until you can clearly demonstrate why what you are sharing is of high value. We all want to be taken on a journey when we join an audience. To be fair, some journeys are inevitably more exciting than others but as storytellers, we must always understand why the audience needs to travel with us. Ask yourself this question: where is my audience when the curtain rises, and how should they be different when the curtain falls? Even if the answer is as simple as laying a basic foundational understanding of compliance regulations x, y, and z, your story will be more effective as a result.
Rather than simply knowing your lines, OWN YOUR STORY
Once you have answered why your story matters for this presentation, own it fully. This is the next step in preparation and many argue the most critical. Work on engaging your body physically as you learn your content. Move when you study your script, speech, research, or memorize your slide deck (which should be filled with images rather than text). Literally get up from your desk or sofa and move. Get on a treadmill, wash the dishes, or take the dog for a walk. Don’t worry; people will think you’re talking to the dog so you won’t look too crazy. Actors physicalize their lines as a play is staged in rehearsals, or a film is blocked for the camera. This physicality fosters ownership of the text and story no matter how the circumstances onstage or in the scene may change from one moment to the next. This is key to the ability to recover when something unexpected happens on stage. When you own the story down to your bones, you are free to remain in the present moment aware of shifts and changes in energy in the room. Expert comedians harness this skill regularly. For actors who routinely practice this type of preparation, a cast mate can miss a line, cry in a different spot in the script, change the blocking unexpectedly or even miss an entrance, and the actor’s performance will continue to soar because the character’s story has deep roots which cannot be easily shaken.
For public speakers of all types, this means a phone can ring in the audience, people can walk out to go to the bathroom, or your microphone or slideshow might fail and you won’t miss a beat because you own the words of your story inside you. Nothing and no one can distract you from them. You will be able to acknowledge the distraction, address it if critical, and then move effortlessly back into your story. If you need note cards or a script for a safety net, use them. Actors have stage managers ‘on book’ until late in the rehearsal process in case they need a line prompt. However, work to keep your notes with you as a back up plan only. Over time, the more you prepare, the less you’ll need to refer to them. Expert public speakers carry note cards and may not reference them once beyond a glance here or there as they change from one to the next while moving through content. As you gain more confidence and skill in public speaking, you may eventually find you won’t need them at all.
All public speaking is storytelling of some form or another. So, learn the story backwards and forwards — ingest it until it is part of your being. Eventually, with plenty of preparation and practice, you will be able to share it as effortlessly as if you were around a campfire among friends. Along those lines, if you are ever fortunate enough to present in a space with a fireplace in it or around an actual campfire, do it! Then make s’mores!
Avoid ‘show and tell’ hour and INVITE YOUR AUDIENCE INTO THE ACTION
Move beyond simple staging or blocking as we call it in the business. A trained animal can stand at a podium, walk from one spot to another and perform a simple task like clicking a PowerPoint remote. So let’s dare to move beyond simplistic staging for both you and the audience. Break the fourth wall and live amongst your audience as you speak. What if there’s no front of the room for the audience at a large meeting or sitting in a training session? What if there’s no stage during a speech? What if the audience is seated in a circle, or even more groundbreaking, your production is site-specific in some way — meaning it’s a space relevant to the topic you are sharing, leading, discussing, or teaching.
One of the greatest challenges in my work, whether during an artistic or corporate project, arrives when someone suggests “showing” any type of content or worse, an emotion — “show the audience you care,” “show empathy when you speak with your direct reports about the upcoming merger,” or “show us how to, don’t tell us how to.” The best creative work we experience as audience members shows nothing. It actively lives in the experience of the story from one moment to another thus engaging the audience fully along the way.
Instead of showing anything, what if we actually DO instead? Showing is passive. Actually caring about an audience and the content being shared is active. Even if it’s technically a very dry training, find the reason to care. Actually be empathetic especially if the subject matter is of a sensitive nature. If empathy is a struggle, emotional intelligence training might foster better connection to honest, authentic emotional interactions. By definition, one cannot simply show empathy in order to connect with others. One must actually be empathetic. Experience your content right alongside those you are offering it to. This ability is what brings any content, no matter how mundane, into the realm of the living. There is a disconnect when we merely show content. It’s not as personal as it could be given we aren’t living it. When actors experience a disconnected performance, it is sometimes described as having been “phoned in” — meaning the actor could have just as easily been somewhere else entirely calling into the performance rather than living moment to moment in the venue as the story unfolds.
Once you are actively living the content amongst the audience, put the pen in the learner’s hand so to speak. Don’t do all the work yourself, especially if it is truly intended to be an educational experience. Hand the pen, or microphone, or white board, or teaching aid to those in attendance. Let them drive for portions of the content. Let them guide the work. Let them resonate aloud as the story unfolds. Some of the best active learning happens amongst the learners themselves. Invite them in whenever possible. While this may be a more advanced step taken once the first two preparation tools are mastered, it will work wonders for the learning in the room and the retention of the experience afterwards.
The best creative work we experience as audience members shows nothing. It actively lives in the experience of the story from one moment to another thus engaging the audience fully along the way.
Even when it feels like a chore, FIND THE WONDER AND PLAY
Speaking of working wonders, when a story is shared on stage, it’s called a play for a reason, so PLAY. Encourage your audience to play. Whether it’s serious content or lighter content, bring the audience into the work as mentioned above. Play, like true improvisation, doesn’t always have to be humorous and joy filled. Play can be as serious as it needs to be. This is that experience of “getting your hands on new technology” as you learn it, or “actively digging through the weeds amongst a team in search of some gem of knowledge.” Get everyone involved whenever possible. Find the humor if it’s available and appropriate in the content. This may not always be possible but when and if it is, it is gold. There’s solid scientific evidence that humor infused into curricula of all varieties is profoundly linked to our ability to learn and retain information.
Insist on at least one DRESS REHEARSAL
The next step in owning your story is to practice sharing it in circumstances that raise the stakes for you. While sharing your presentation with your spouse, or kids in the carpool, or dog on that walk I mentioned earlier is good early on, you’ll want to test yourself with higher stakes. Therefore, you’ll need to test it with a few people who are invested in your success but can push you harder than your loved ones will. Ideally, this would happen in the actual space you’ll be presenting in or one very similar to it. Invite in a couple of strangers if you really want to recreate how you’ll feel on “opening night.” Wear the shoes and clothes you’ll wear on the day, or again, at least an outfit which is comparable. This is effectively recreating a dress rehearsal as would occur in the theatre. It is also why actors often hold superstitions that a bad dress rehearsal (working out all the kinks and nerves ahead of time) leads to a better opening performance. Beyond the superstition, there’s actual science here. In preparing with a practice audience, within a setting that mimics the live one, your body, mind, and emotional state gain alignment with similar circumstances to what the actual production will foster as the story unfolds.
Storytelling! the Musical – PLOT SUMMARY
Public speaking feels dangerous and threatening but so does a live performance of any kind. This risk for the performer is what fuels audience engagement. From the dawn of human experience in live storytelling, the danger is what connects us all. Trust that audiences are rooting for you to win because they want to feel the win along with you. When something goes wrong, as it almost always does, your ability to acknowledge the flaw or imperfection as you navigate beyond it grounds you as human. It instantly connects you back to the audience while pulling synergy into any space. This is the definition of a truly in the moment performance. It’s electric and the energy will carry you and the audience if you allow it to.
There are certainly many other tips and tricks which may be useful in our pursuit of dynamic, confident, and engaging public speeches, training sessions, or presentations of all varieties. Beyond the preparation techniques shared above, what other suggestions would you offer to those seeking to improve on their skills in this space? Feel free to comment and share your thoughts.