Last night, at rehearsal for the play Born Yesterday, I answered questions about a curious machine that was now onstage for two of our younger cast members. Both were in their twenties. Neither had ever seen a...record player.
How can a record player be so strange?
Time marches on. Do the stories and examples you use in your speeches march on as well?
Are you using outdated words? Outdated models? Outdated images? Can anyone under 30 relate? Or under 40? Ok, 50?
When you are standing in one place you should stand at the ready. If facing the audience full-front, your feet should be shoulder width apart, knees slightly flexed, ready to move in either direction, much like an athlete. If you do slouch, slouch on purpose.
To face forty-five degrees left (quarter-front), step forward slightly with your right foot while pivoting on the ball your left. Stand with slightly more of your weight on your right (downstage) foot. If the move were toward stage right (quarter-front) you would do the opposite.
This is easier done than said!
This movement is most helpful when you have a story in which two characters converse. As character one you turn forty-five degrees left and speak as character one to a specific person in the audience. Then turn ninety degrees to the right (so that you are turned forty-five degrees right) and speak as character two, again to a specific person. You can continue this way throughout the conversation. To end the conversation, simply face the audience full-front again.
This method is simpler, more elegant, and clearer to your audience than what I often see: a speaker dashing between two spots, first facing directly stage left, then directly stage right.
If you wish to move toward stage left, just begin walking with your left foot and stride so you can continue facing slightly toward your audience. For stage right, begin with your right foot. Easy-peasy!
Moving in this way helps you move gracefully while keeping you faced toward the audience.
Do you have to memorize your speech?
“You must be able to stand there not thinking of that line. You take it off the other actor’s face.” -- Michael Caine, Actor
Your speech should be second nature to you, words, meaning, and movement.
Does that mean a speech should be memorized?
I’m going to say definitely, maybe. That’s my stand.
When you give your speech in its final form, whether that is at your Toastmaster club, a conference, a service club, at work, or as a paid appearance, you should know your material so well that you need not rely on notes.
Does that mean you’ll say it the exact same way that you planned every single time?
Well, no, unless your speech is very short, like a five to seven minute contest speech. This is another area where public speaking differs from a play. You don’t have to be letter perfect but, in the main, you should be able to replicate your speech every time.
Your speech should be internalized so that the ideas and movements flow, with little conscious thought on your part while performing. Like driving a car to the grocery store -you know where you are going, and you know the route you plan to take, but you can change lanes, avoid road hazards, or even detour if needed.
There are a number of methods to do this but I prefer to learn my script right along with its blocking. Learning a speech this way coordinates your internalization of the material with words, meaning, and action making it all easier to remember. This is known as kinesthetic coordination (using body movement to aid learning) and works much easier than just trying to memorize words on a page.
Once, while waiting for my cue to enter a scene in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, I thought that I had forgotten my lines. But as soon as I entered and walked toward the other actors, my character’s words were suddenly coming out of my mouth. That is the power of learning words, meaning, and movement in context.
This isn’t just some touchy-feely new-age folderol. It’s brain science.
According to John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, in his book Brain Rules, “The more elaborately we encode information at the moment of learning, the stronger the memory.” Also, “Retrieval [of the memory] may best be improved by replicating the conditions surrounding the initial encoding.” Whew!
That’s why I suddenly remembered my lines when I walked onstage. I had returned to the context in which I learned the lines. This method can work for your speeches, too.
What can you and I learn from the theater? Well, here are five ideas:
1. Rehearse thoroughly and often.
2. Get objective feedback from video, your speaker buddies, or a coach.
3. Plan your movement in a speech just as you would plan your words. Don’t wing it. Plan purposeful, powerful movement.
4. Adopt a modified athletic stance on stage. This will keep you balanced and help make your movements fluid.
5. Internalize your speech more easily by learning your words and movements together.
These ideas will increase your confidence, help you connect with your audience, and focus the power of your message.
In the theater, the process of planning your stage movement is called blocking. As a speaker you need this process as well. Many speakers just wing it. They move back and forth like wind-blown leaves, or stand rooted to one spot, they lean on the lectern, or pace like Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup. The speech suffers because these speakers gave little or no thought where they should move, or if they should move and why they should move, or not move, or fly about the room like a bird.
Your movement should have purpose.
Movement draws attention. If you draw attention away from your central purpose you weaken your speech. For example, many untrained speakers fidget. They move their hands or feet yet are unaware of their movement. Some speakers shift their weight from one foot to another, or pace back and forth, or even do a little box step. You can almost hear the music.
If you do fidget, fidget on purpose.
These kinesthetic (body movement) crutches are even more distracting than the verbal crutches such as ums and ahs we in Toastmasters try so hard to eliminate. Rehearsal, particularly video recorded rehearsal, can help make you aware of such potential problems.
Purposeful motion, like purposeful words, adds power to your presentation. Would you add unneeded words to your speech? A random phrase here and there?
Of course you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t get up before an audience and just wing it with your words, so don’t do it with movement either.
According to John Dolman, Jr. and Richard K. Knaub in The Art of Play Production, there at least twelve purposes for movement on stage. For example, you might move for emphasis. There is no need to list all the reasons here. What is important is that you know why you are moving.
Your movement in front of your audience, like your writing, should be planned with care and rehearsed thoroughly. At least one rehearsal should be devoted to planning your blocking (movement).
There is a method to describe your movement on stage.
The stage (and your speaking area) may be divided into sections. Upstage refers to the area furthest from your audience. Downstage then is the area closest to the audience. These terms came about because stages used to be tilted. Upstage really was UP stage.
Stage right is the area to the right of the ACTOR as he or she faces the audience. (So, for the AUDIENCE, it is the LEFT side of the stage.) Stage left then is the area to the left of the actor (or speaker) facing the audience.
Here is a diagram showing different areas of a stage.
When I first started as a Toastmaster, I used my experience in Community Theater as a guide. That experience was invaluable in helping me prepare and deliver my speeches.
I’m not talking about singing and dancing, or doing improvisation exercises, or method acting, although all of those disciplines can help your speaking as well. I mean more basic concepts like rehearsal, learning your speech, and moving on stage. These theater techniques will help you better prepare your speeches and deliver them with power.
Let me share with you some ideas and practices from the world of theater that have helped me that can help you as well.
Frequent and thorough rehearsal is essential.
Plays are rehearsed for weeks in advance. In rehearsal, every detail of the performance is addressed - words, meaning, movement, everything.
Guy Kawasaki is a legendary business speaker. In his book The Art of the Start Kawasaki says, “As a rule of thumb, the twenty-fifth time you give a speech is when it gets good. Few people will practice or give the same speech twenty-five times. That’s why there are so few good speakers. Ironically, the more you practice, the more you’ll sound spontaneous.”
I’m not suggesting that every speech project should be rehearsed twenty-five times before you give the speech to your Toastmasters club. Sometimes, a club speech should be part of your rehearsal process. If you are preparing to use your speech outside of your Toastmasters club, then one or more of your rehearsals should be at your club. Your club is a place to explore, try out new ideas, and to grow. Sometimes you may even give a speech with little or no chance to prepare. But most club speeches would be better, and better learning experiences with more, and more thorough rehearsal.
Ample rehearsal has another benefit. If you get nervous, or suffer from stage fright, then being prepared will help reduce those problems. In my experience most of the fear from public speaking comes from feeling unprepared.
Acting is not the same as public speaking, that’s true. But even where the disciplines differ, knowledge of theatrical concepts, practices, and roles can help a speaker.
One difference between theater and speaking is that, as a speaker, you perform three major roles that are usually accomplished by three different people in the theater: actor, writer, and director.
You are the actor, the writer, and the director of your speech.
As the actor, you must interpret the speech to make its meaning clear to the audience.
As the speechwriter, unlike the usual practice in the theater, you will find rehearsals offer opportunities to refine and rewrite your script.
Of the three roles, the most difficult for the speaker to fill is director. You need a way to get an objective view of your speech and your delivery. One way to do this is to record your rehearsals on video.
Alternatively you could find a speech coach. Your coach will perform the director’s role for you. This would be someone you respect who has more experience and expertise in public speaking. Often this is done for pay but you may find someone willing to help you for free.
A third way is have speaker buddies who watch your speech and give you comments. Hmmm, sounds like a Toastmasters club, doesn’t it?
Getting others to observe and evaluate your speech helps you avoid The Curse of Knowledge. That’s what Chip and Dan Heath call a particular problem in their book, Made to Stick. This curse can be worse than The Mummy’s Curse for your speech. The problem is, you know too much. That’s right! You know too much about your speech, its subject, and what it’s supposed to be about.
Sometimes it helps just to have someone say after your rehearsal, “I don’t get it!” Then you can find a way to make your speech clearer.