9 Public Speaking Lessons from the Theatre

theatre masks2

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while you might have gathered that I love the theatre and in particular the lessons we can learn from the theatre to enhance our public speaking. Whether you like it or not, each time you speak in public it is a performance.

I recently attended a fabulous event bringing together around 100 performers in a concert to raise money for a charity. The show was thoroughly enjoyable and it inspired me to write about some of the areas of performance that presenters sometimes overlook.

  1. Respect the audience

Your audience deserves your best from the moment you step in front of them. I hear many people say that they like to warm into their presentation and they get better as they go along. However, given that people decide whether they like you and want to listen to you within the first 30 seconds, can you really afford not to be performing at your best from the beginning of your talk? This is the reason that professional performers do a thorough warm up of their voice, body and mind before a performance. If you are giving a presentation, you owe it to your audience to warm up so that they get the best of you right from the get go.

  1. Your costume is in the spotlight

As a presenter all eyes will be on you for the duration of your talk. And those eyes will be looking at the complete package of you. So think carefully about what you wear and bear in mind that it will be in the spotlight. Ideally your outfit will be aligned with your brand. If it fits well, flatters your body type and is appropriate for the occasion, people will be able to focus on you and your message. However, if your suit jacket doesn’t quite match your trousers (this particularly shows up under stage lights), your skirt has threads hanging from it, your shoes aren’t polished, your jewellery is jangling or your zip is open, you are in danger of inadvertently undermining your credibility and distracting people from the content of your presentation.

  1. Preparation is crucial

When you are on stage performing or giving a presentation it is not only your outfit that will be in the spotlight. You are on show; the more prepared you are the better you will come across and the more the audience will enjoy it. If you look unsure about what you’re doing it will be highlighted and make the audience feel uneasy so prepare well to ensure that you are confident and comfortable with the material you are delivering.

  1. Embrace stillness

The concert I watched was well put together and the choreography added interest but my favourite parts were when the performers were completely still as I could focus on the words they were singing and really connect with the song. Too much movement can be a distraction for your audience when you’re speaking. Stillness is incredibly powerful, so stop moving about and just connect with your material and the audience.

  1. Commit to your movements

Whilst I encourage you to include some stillness, using appropriate gestures and purposeful movement can enhance your presentation. However, half-hearted gestures won’t do you any favours. Some performers in the concert appeared to be just going through the motions and not really committing to the movements; unfortunately the result was that it looked sloppy and as if they didn’t care. It’s the same when you’re presenting – if you’re going to gesture or move, make it purposeful and extend the movement right to your finger tips.

  1. Once more with feeling!

There is a difference between someone singing a song with all the words and notes in the right place and someone truly performing a song with passion and conviction. There is also a difference between a presenter saying the words in their talk and a presenter who really communicates the meaning behind those words. When you’re speaking, if you think about the meaning behind the words you will naturally express that through your voice and body language and you will have a much better connection with the audience.

  1. Don’t highlight mistakes

If you forget something or you make a mistake, don’t worry about and don’t show it! The audience won’t usually know what you were going to do or say; so as long as you don’t pull a face or apologise, they’ll never know it wasn’t what you were planning.

  1. Training is invaluable

When watching a concert put on by a group of people committed to having fun and raising money for charity, as an audience member I expect to see a range of talents and abilities. Having said that, it is always very obvious who has had experience and training and who hasn’t. Training and ‘stage time’ experience is invaluable when it comes to public speaking as well. As you learn and develop stagecraft skills you will be more aware of your presence on stage and the countless other elements that impact on the whole performance. You will also develop the ability to adapt and easily cope with unexpected occurrences during your talk.

  1. Focus focus focus

Whether you’re new to public speaking or performing, or you’ve been doing it for years, there can be all sorts of distractions – not least your internal chatter! But the audience will sense when you aren’t completely present so it’s important to be able to fully concentrate on the task at hand. A good warm up beforehand including some mindfulness meditation or visualisation will help to calm and focus your mind. When you’re in front of the audience, ensure that you direct your energy into communicating with them; if you focus fully on delivering your message to the audience you can’t be distracted by internal chatter or external interferences.

What do you think? Do you agree that a presentation is a performance? Which of these nine things do you already do and what could you incorporate to enhance your public speaking? I’d love your thoughts so please feel free to share your comments.

Mel Sherwood empowers ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to communicate with more confidence, credibility and conviction. She is a multi-award winning speaker, trainer and coach and the founder of Grow Your Potential, a company passionate about providing the seeds to speaking success.

Mel’s background includes over 20 years’ experience in public, private and not-for-profit organisations in Australia and the United Kingdom and she has also worked as an actor, presenter and singer. To find out more about Mel’s inspiring talks, masterclasses and coaching programmes go to www.grow-your-potential.com or follow Mel on Twitter @Grow_Potential

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4 thoughts on “9 Public Speaking Lessons from the Theatre

  1. Simon

    Couldn’t agree more! I’ve worked as a theatre tech as well as a speaker (and speaker trainer). One of the things that always made me proud was that when the SM (Stage Manager) said “Now” everything trivial got dropped and the job *happened*. It was all about the performance and the audience, never about the ego or the actors (well it was once, but he was crap! 😉 )

    You’re also ABSOLUTELY right about the idea of stillness… but can I suggest something more radical: speakers can learn so, so, SO much from dancers. 🙂

    Simon

    Reply
    1. Mel Sherwood Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Simon. I agree with your radical suggestion that speakers can learn from dancers. Immediate thoughts that come to mind are presence, poise and complete dedication and commitment to their craft. What are your thoughts?

      Reply
      1. Simon

        The obvious place to start is Roth’s 5 rhythms…. 🙂

        But for me the big, big idea, is the idea of stillness… and movement within that stillness. There’s a visceral difference between a body which is still because it has no energy and/or is at rest, compared to a body which is not moving because it has chosen, in that moment and in that space to *be* still. Audiences sense it: the energy levels are charismatic…. (Can you tell I’m a fan? 🙂 ) From memory this is and idea from Jacques Lecoq, but I could be very wrong about that bit!

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