How “the Actor’s Secret” Can Help You Improve Your Presentations

Adapted from “Leading From Your Best Self: Develop Executive Poise, Presence, and Influence to Maximize Your Potential” by Rob Salafia (McGraw-Hill).

Have you ever attended a live theater performance and left thrilled and energized by the experience? Have you ever wondered how the actors and performers on stage are able to bring that level of vitality and focus to every show? As executives and training professionals who are presenting and communicating day in and day out, many of us fall victim to becoming either tired of the material or disconnected from our audience. How do we keep our performances fresh? What does it take to sustain a high level of energy, concentration, and engagement?

The Actor’s Secret

Even if you don’t aspire to become a Broadway star, you can borrow a key from the theater that will help you generate consistent top performances—it’s called “the actor’s secret.” The actor’s secret means choosing one thing to work on each time you show up to deliver a presentation. No matter how many times you’ve run through it before, by choosing one thing to work on, you will be more likely to stay present to the moment and maintain your energy level rather than simply going through the motions. 

What Might You Work on?

Here are some ideas for what you might use to challenge yourself and stay in the moment during presentations:

  • Stand tall. Does your stance project confidence and competence throughout your entire presentation? Or do you notice that you shrink into yourself as your talk goes on? Try this. Experiment and discover a comfortable, strong, and inviting Signature Stance. This is one that makes you feel grounded and confident. It might be one you developed playing a sport or musical instrument or in a dance class. It also could be one you have noticed in others. Try it on and see how it feels. Practice and learn to extend your arms out wide and invite the audience in. Plan to use your Signature Stance at least two or three times during your presentation. Rather than pacing back and forth and speaking at the same time, move to a new spot, take your stance, look at someone in the audience, and deliver your line. 
  • Breathe in—speak out. Are you aware of your breath throughout your presentation, or do you find yourself gasping just before you are about to speak? Done right, breathing can help you focus, gather your thoughts, and project your voice. If you have ever played a reed instrument such as a saxophone or wind instrument such as a flute, you will know how important your breath is to creating a strong and clear tone. The same is true for the speaking voice. The solution? Develop a cadence to your speech pattern. Begin breathing in right after you have delivered a line. Use this as a pause point to add dramatic value. (It also helps to eliminate the annoying “ums” and “you knows”). You will always be ready with a full breath to add power to your next line. 
  • Look ’em in the eyes. For many of us, the feeling of having eyes on us can increase our levels of stress. As a reaction to this, we find ourselves scanning over the heads of our audience, which creates even more distance between us and them. The solution is the exact opposite. It is important to look at audience members in the eye and share your ideas with them. This will not only show you are confident but that those listening to you truly matter. 
  • Begin your talk with a story. Work on a story that will connect your presentation with something memorable or funny that has happened to you. Use a story introduction as a way to make your audience comfortable—just make sure the story relates to your content. Later that evening, when your audience is asked to explain your presentation, it is often the story you shared that they will recall and retell. 
  • Remember that practice makes perfect. Find a few friends and practice your speech in front of them. Ask them to tell you what you did well, specifically, and provide constructive criticism. Take notes, go home, keep practicing, and come the day of your presentation relaxed, focused, and on the top of your game. 

Whether you’re speaking to a group of five or 50, rememberthat your audience wants you to be successful. They want to feel as though their time has been well spent by listening to you. Try the actor’s secret for yourself and see if it helps you maintain focus and sharpness during your next presentation. 

Rob Salafiais an authority on executive presence and transformative learning experiences. He is the author of the book, “Leading From Your Best Self: Develop Executive Poise, Presence, and Influence to Maximize Your Potential” (McGraw-Hill), on which this article is based. Salafiais a lecturer and executive coach at MIT Sloan School of Management, and founder of Protagonist Consulting Group. Learn more at: http://www.protagonistconsulting.com

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