Updated version following an extremely informative experience with a bizarre play called White Rabbit Red Rabbit. It taught me a lot about pauses, which has been of great use.
Anyone who’s spent much physical or digital time with me picks up that I’m a theatre person. I’ve been acting, in an amateur capacity, for about a decade now; I’m also a regular at various science stand-up comedy nights. The relationship between theatre and academia – particularly sociology – could be the subject of several posts (watch this space, fans). But a straightforward link is: both involve a fair amount of standing up and speaking in public.
Using acting techniques in presentations is hardly a novel idea – indeed, there’s an industry of courses and workshops based around it. I’ve attended a couple of such courses, but this post mostly comes from my experiences teaching presentation/recording skills to undergraduates, and acting/standup skills to new performers. That’s required me to develop ad-hoc (and cut-price) ways of teaching presentation techniques.
Some are techniques I’ve tried myself. Some are things I’d like to try. But most are things I’ve spotted when listening to other people doing things that I’ve admired or not-admired.
Thanks to the Not I Theatre Company, I got to perform in a strange one-man show called White Rabbit Red Rabbit. It’s written by Nassim Soleimanpour, who (at the time) was forbidden from leaving his native Iran. In the show a single actor is handed an envelope, which contains the script of the play. The actor has never seen the script before the moment they open the envelope. It’s great experience, but does mean ‘rehearsals’ are a bit odd.
Instead of going through lines, the directors – Matt and Matt – trained me to read from a script in an engaging fashion. They handed me texts I’d never seen before, and we went through a series of exercises. I had to memorise-and-read a line at a time; I was only allowed to look down at the script when I reached full stops; I had to spend longer looking in the directors’ eyes than at the page; and so on, and so on.
Immediately, and unexpectedly, my public speaking improved. This was largely because I gained new-found confidence with the pause, and a deeper respect for the full stop. I learned that, in the heady rush of (literally) not knowing what I was going to say, stopping actually made things better. It gave me back a moment of control.
I’ve frequently been told to slow down when I speak. This advice is a good diagnosis of a problem; somewhat less good as a solution. Because, y’know, adreneline. But making an effort to extend pauses, long enough to look around everyone in the room, is something I could do.
It’s still, obviously, easy to forget – though post-it notes labelled PAUSE all over the desk and monitor can help. But, when remembered, it’s a small action which can have great effects. The moment of downtime slows the brain and the adreneline, and thereby the rest of the speech. For the audience, the thinking time – and the variation (discussed more shortly) – allows them to process information and stay engaged.
I’ve began to notice pauses, or lack thereof, in other speeches. Once, I saw someone dive across a stage for a glass of water rather than leave a gap. More subtly, I’ve seen presenters talk with good pace and clarity – but lose people after two minutes of unbroken speech. And I’ve seen just how long people can stay silent, without losing the audience – indeed, holding the audience through those moments of mutual thinking. So remember those post-it notes, and remember to mark them with …. …. …. ‘Pause’.
Basic Acting 101
Everyone puts some emotion and expression into their voice. Even the most monotonous person you’ve met would probably sound noticeably angry if you stole their dog, or surprised if you brought it back fluent in French. There are things you can do to bring that very real expression back in, even where it might feel odd.
One exercise I tried with a pair of actors recently, to put some anger into a script that it didn’t really fit, was to get them to stand face-to-face and swear angrily at each other before they said each line. You could do something similar with phrases like ‘I’m so relieved’ or ‘I love you’ or ‘this is the best darn speech you’ll hear EVER’. You then develop it by making it more exaggerated each time you say it – that’s particularly fun in pairs, where each person has to build on the previous person. Or imagine (or create…) some appropriate and vivid physical cues, such as strenuous exercise for frustration, drunkenness for relaxation, or smiling broadly or laughing for happiness.
The key point – whatever you choose should be a) really really over-the-top and b) completely impractical to do when you actually deliver the paper or do the recording or whatever. That way, even when you take out the weird cues, some of that real expression should remain as sort of residue.
It must be noted that plenty of actors would disagree that emotion can be produced through mechanics. They would say you really, deep down, have to experience the same motivations and intentions as your character (see the Stanislavski Method). That’s also applicable to speech – really know what you intend to do with your talk, really believe in it, and let that drive you. That’s a method discussed more in the books The Pin Drop Principle and The Bullseye Principle, by a pair of actor-businesspeople (which go beyond public speaking, and into workplace communication more widely).
If I’m going to listen to an 8-minute song, give me the four-songs-in-one of Bohemian Rhapsody over the same three chords on cycle. Same for any sort of performance. It’s easier to put variation when you don’t have an audience looking at you, so it’s worth annotating any script or notes well beforehand. It’s something actory types often do with audition speeches, and different forms of annotation work for different people. Some good ones can be as simple as ‘pause/breathe here’, underlining words for emphasis, or ‘this bit is important deliver it very slowly’. Or there can be a more emotional element – this is the funny/anecdotal bit, this is the exciting discovery, this is the stuff that makes me angry and we should really do something about it folks. Or even those little markings that musical scores have, if that’s your thing (ideas like reaching a crescendo can work quite nicely in a speech).
Don’t feel bound by conventional sections or punctuation – if you get good at this you can even change style multiple times mid-sentence. Elderly actors do this all the time when interviewed – and when you listen with this in mind, it’s amazing how much what seems like innate charisma can be based on simple mechanical work.
Circles of Concentration
Sounds pretentious, but hold on for a moment. I was introduced to these recently by some actual drama school folks, and was surprised at just how useful I’ve found them. There are three of these circles, which correspond to different ways of speaking.
The first is when you’re talking to only yourself, pondering or musing or trying to work something out or remember your shopping list. The second is when you’re in conversation with one other person and trying to keep their attention. The third is when you’re speaking to a large group of people, orator-style, and trying to impress them.
If you can make first circle work for a presentation, well done – most usually this occurs when people soliloquise to themselves, seemingly forgetting the presence of anyone else. Whether second or third works for you can vary. Many speakers with confident voices and stage presence fall quite naturally into third, but using the second – imagining your presentation as a conversation with an individual friend – can be really quite engaging.
So, next time you’re practising a speech, note how you do it – do you read to yourself from a screen (first circle), do you stand up and imagine the whole back wall is an audience (third circle), or do you deliver it a single plant pot (second circle)? Try changing that and seeing what happens. Then imagine the plant pot is bored and you need to convince it how cool your paper is, or that the back wall is sitting in rapturous admiration of you. Again, the more extreme the better.
Other generically useful stuff
SPEED: English is usually spoken at roughly 150 words per minute. Useful for writing scripts.
STANCE: If you stand still (please stand still, please) with your feet planted roughly in line with your shoulders, that helps you breathe and speak clearly. Doing some yawns or throaty laughs beforehand also opens up the back of your throat which is a good thing.
WHERE TO LOOK: If you find looking at people’s faces unnerving, then focus on the triangle at the top of the nose and in between the eyes. It’s less unsettling than looking directly into the eyes, but still so SO much more engaging than just looking at paper or the screen in front of or (even worse) behind you. (That’s probably the single best way you can be more engaging. Even looking at an empty space in the back row is better than the script-or-screen approach – most of the audience will assume you’re actually looking at someone anyway).
RECOVERING: If things are going badly – if you realise you’ve been going too fast, or you’ve never actually looked away from your screen, or you can hear snoring – then you can actually turn that to your advantage. Remember that a talk in two parts, each delivered quite differently, is much better than one delivered on a single note.
So ignore the voices that say ‘well looking at the audience now would be unsettling’ or ‘if I slow down now they’ll notice it and find it weird’, take a drink of something (brandy works well here), and make that big necessary change. Nay, exaggerate it. Which leads to the most important point…
EXAGGERATE: Being exaggerated and extreme may feel internally weird, but externally it’s probably making much less difference than you think. The most common note I’ve given and received in rehearsals is ‘you know that change I suggested you make? I didn’t see any change. Make it much bigger’. And it gets a lot more fun when you do that. Both for you and your audience.
 = Caveat: Before you all rush to sign up for my next talk, none of this is to claim that I’m the world’s greatest presenter. My style has been usually described as something between “entertaining” (said with a slightly arched eyebrow) and “exhausting”.
 = If you’re interested in examples from some pretty decent Shakespearian actors: first circle (Judi Dench as Viola in Twelfth Night); second circle (Lynn Collins as Portia in Merchant of Venice); third circle (Mark Rylance as Henry V in Henry V). Though as these folks are good at the whole acting thing they throw in a few changes of circle for good measure. I’m not entirely sure if these are obviously applicable these are to academic speaking, unless your papers are really dramatic affairs – if I find myself in a quiet room with time to spare I’ll try recording some more appropriate examples.