What can the public speaker learn from the professional actor?

Preparation and Practice.

Consider the actor's process of rehearsing a role. An actor in a lead role spends about 130 hours of time over six weeks preparing to perform a two-hour play. During this time, the performer learns lines, studies what the character says and does, does research, and consciously changes voice, movement, make-up, hair and wardrobe to create the role convincingly. In the end, the actor gives the sum sum of long hours practice and passion to the job of performing.


Platform speaker or actor, the person who delivers is in touch with what s/he cares about and communicates that directly, with concentration and conviction, to the audience. In business, too, the presenter researches, writes text, makes slides and overheads, and rehearses, rehearses, rehearses. The speaker, like the actor, is equipped with personal power and a presentation to tell a business story. The everyman or everywoman of the business world becomes the Mel Gibson of the lectern or the Meryl Streep of the dais. Impassioned speakers care about what they say.

The Myth of 'Being Yourself'.

Many people experience stagefright--a nervousness so strong that it makes hands shake, mouths taste dry, palms sweat or voices break--when called upon to speak in public. Because they believe they are making fools of themselves, they conclude they must get rid of the nervousness in order to behave normally.

But telling yourself not to be nervous may only make your heart race faster. You can learn to calm your nerves with deep breathing, to check your voice for fullness and quality, to gather galloping butterflies into a centered flutter In the stomach. This flutter is a friend who helps boost adrenaline and pumps up conviction of delivery. Controlled in this way, stagefright becomes a friend, and out of this symbiosis of nerves and calm is born an energized ease which allows any speaker to maximize his/her personality.

The Role of Presenter.

Seeing yourself in the role of the speaker provides an important psychological safety zone when working with the sensitive materials of self. As a presenter performing a role, criticism, problems or perceived failures becomes an objective matter and feedback Is depersonalized. Performance technique is not 'right' or 'wrong,' but instead either 'works' or 'doesn't work.'

Both speaker and actor, then, are liberated from fear of failure and the accompanying embarrassment. They are free to play with all the elements of presentation as if they were notes on a piano, their hands ranging over the keyboard at will. With practice, the speaker becomes a skilled performer using voice, movement, and appearance to be convincing in interpretation and in command of the material.

Performance Skills.

When you decide to create a powerful role for yourself, there are some skills you must develop. You must learn to concentrate and commit your energy. You must concern yourself with developing a positive, energized relationship with your audience. You must make informed decisions regarding the space in which you will present. You must learn how to handle problems as they arise. And finally, you must assume power over and mastery of the event.

Concentration and Energy.

An actor knows that his powers of concentration are crucial, because the intensity of his belief in his actions on-stage affects the conviction of his performance and the power with which it communicates. The platform speaker must amass his or her powers of concentration so that the listener will be impacted by the information he presents. 

The Speaker-Audience Relationship.

The ability to develop a strong relationship with your audience is one of the most important tools a speaker can possess. If the nature of your concern for them is one of caring, then your interaction with them can be memorable. Conceive of yourself as host and your audience as your guests. If you care for them, they will give that caring back. They will listen, they will grant respect, they will absorb you and your message. They will attend. And so is created the circular current of electricity that is the dynamic speaker-audience relationship. This flow of energy moves out from the speaker to the audience and back to the speaker again.

Space as Theater.

The platform speaker has, like the actor, an arena to perform in. It is helpful to view this arena as a theater, even though the physical setup may be very different, and to think of all aspects of the room as useful parts of your play. In a conference room the speaker becomes the set, costume and lighting designer. You decide how to use the physical setting. Therefore it is smart to find out everything you can about the space you will be using in advance so you can use it to your advantage.

There are numerous factors to consider. Should the lights be on or off during your video clip? Should you ask someone to assist you? Will the audience be comfortable in their chairs? Should you be dressed formally or casually? Are your handouts placed at each seat to begin the session or do you distribute them when you are done talking? Will music be a part of your presentation? The platform speaker, like the actor in a one-person show, is responsible for everything. Making decisions about all elements of presentation is definitely part of your job.


The speaker's ultimate goal is to achieve a dynamic personal style of presenting. But before you can consider yourself a master of the event, having practiced the presentation skills you can control, you must learn how to deal with the unexpected things you can't control. What do you do if you make a mistake? How do you handle questions you can't answer? What if the audience is hostile? What if the projector bulb is blown out or your chalk is missing?

Traditional advice to the actor is to stay in character and keep concentrating. The speaker must maintain authority as a presenter. You can call a break to fix the mishap and let the room attend to itself, but you must let them know you are still leading the event. Sharing your frustration in a humorous way shows you are fallible and bonds you to them. And, when you resume your presentation, you must resume it with more concentration and energy.

The worst kind of occurrence is one in which an audience member is hostile for some reason and can't be stopped. I once watched a woman giving a presentation who was attacked by a listener with a hidden agenda. Instead of crumbling or being defensive, the speaker listened with respect, held her ground, and answered to the best of her ability. Because she stayed centered, she retained her dignity. As a result, her detractor appeared foolish.


Personal power is the single most important gift speakers can give themselves. It comes from confidence--the confidence of knowing you have authority, of believing passionately in what you have to say, of wanting your message to be heard, and of caring about your listeners. Your conviction relaxes the audience, relieves them of the burden of boredom, and lets them enter the world of your presentation. As a seasoned speaker, you stand smiling and relaxed behind a lectern and begin to talk. You give them your passion and you give them your best. You speak sure!

This article was originally published in THE LAMPLIGHTER, Journal of the New York City Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development, in November 1996, pp. 11 & 12

Kathleen M. Robbins, Ph.D., is president of Speak Sure.
You may reach her at 317-297-2287.

© 2001 - Speak Sure, P.O. Box 532355, Indianapolis. IN 46253