8 Tips for Better Speeches
Fresh advice from an actor whose been talking out of his ass for decades.
Speak the speech, I pray you! Tired of hackneyed tips and recycled advice on how to give better speeches? Here’s a fresh batch of ideas from the point of view of an actor who has delivered monologues and soliloquies for a decade.
Soft skills are becoming more essential each day. Yes, the world is run on code, but as we continue to merge with the machines we are discovering more and more the importance of things such as writing, story, and being able to handle a crowd. Since we have been on lockdown, Zoom has emerged as the preeminent tool for businesses and auditions alike and now, more than ever, the ability to speak and have people listen is crucial.
But let’s be honest here, ever since grade school most presentations suck. TED talks had a heyday in part because it was nice to see people deliver speeches worth a damn. And although they’ve become trite now, those TED talks packed a punch.
So what separates a good speech from a bad one, besides the obvious unpreparedness and lack of confidence? In today’s blog, I will discuss eight tips culled from film, theatre and a lifetime, thus far, in front of crowds.
Now, before we begin I have a tip before the tips. The first thing you need to do is own the situation. In an audition, the casting director wants you to be the answer to their problems. In a speech, the audience wants you to be good. The audience is on your side. But before you walk on stage you need to know that you belong there. Make the choice to be in charge.
Lastly, a presentation is not a report. It is not slides or graphs. A speech is a sales pitch, and what you are selling is yourself. Your charm, your charisma, your knowledge of the topic. So whether you are an eighth grade student talking about World War 1 or a Vice President talking about sales, you must remember that this is a performance, not a test of your memorization and ability to read. Don’t be afraid to let it fly and enjoy the flow.
Head Coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide and arguably the greatest college football coach of all-time Nick Saban said about his practices that they run the play not until they get it right, but until they can’t get it wrong. Now, me personally, I like leaving a little wiggle room for improvisation, so I don’t get wooden; however, the point is the more reps you take the more confident you become. Robin Williams was known for his ability to improvise, yet, many of those “improvisations” in his stand up routines were scripted. The audience wants to believe they are experiencing a genuine moment. Even in the school of improv there is a saying, “I like my scripted material to seem improvised, and my improv to seem scripted.” Comedians know the audience loves spontaneity, but the speaker must be in control of the room, and to get that they knock out sets night after night and craft jokes every day. Hard work breeds confidence. Public speaking, acting, comedy it’s all about confidence. Audiences are like a pack of wolves and they can smell blood. We don’t want our time to be wasted, especially in this day and age. So, we must be prepared when giving a speech. Know your material, know your plan, and execute. Know the material cold. Should you memorize your speech? No. It’s a speech and it’s not Shakespeare. So, know your points, outline where you want to go, and practice running through it again and again.
Take a Deep Breath
Public speaking is hard. People avoid it like the plague. And of course they do. When we are in front of a crowd we get nervous. We know that we are being judged and that people are listening to us, so anxiety kicks in and we start taking short breaths. Take enough of them and your anxiety only gets worse. Catch breaths, those little breaths when you take when you don’t have enough air but you try and play it off like no one will notice, are the worse thing you can do when giving a speech. Rather than give you rehased advice like “Picture the audience naked” which is dumb and I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing, all I want you to do is to take a deep breath. I do this before every take of a scene, an audition, or any time I am going to be in front of people talking. This isn’t a casual “Let me say one more thing” breath either. This is a Wim Hof “Breath Man!” breath. If I can take one huge belly breath that fills my diaphragm, lungs, and even my head it immediately relaxes me and fills my body with oxygen. This relaxes me.
Own the Space, Win the Room
The next thing I do is I say to myself, “Win the Room.” See, speeches are not essays. They don’t work the same way as a book or a paper. The moment we change from print to speech the rules change. Think about every awful presentation you’ve seen where the person just speaks what the sides say out loud, or when you have to sit through a monotonous reader who simply says their lesson plan, verbatim, from the page. Now compare that to a comedian or an actor who steps on stage. Huge difference. One of the biggest differences is that the performer owns the room they are in. They act like they deserve to be there. They may be humble and human, but they fill the stage they are on. They’re body language is open, they make eye contact, and they probably make a joke. The point is they don’t let the room control them, they control the room. There’s a saying in casting offices, “That guy had Elvis dust.” Basically, it’s when an actor walks into a room and they’re on. Casting Directors don’t want to work with needy nervous actors any more than people want to sit through bad presentations. We want the person we’re watching to have it. The audition and the speech doesn’t start when you start speaking. It starts when you walk into the room. One more point on this, when I was in college my professors stressed the idea that, “It’s your audition.” Every time you audition it’s a chance to perform. Rather than give that power to the audience or the casting director, take it back. This is your speech and your time.
Rate of Speech
We have a misconception in this country that speed equals intelligence. I want you to think right now about the smartest people you’ve ever seen on T.V. Who are they? House? Sherlock Holmes? TV likes this troupe of the fast talking genius like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, that fast computer-like sound that rattles off facts and opinions. And if you were playing Sherlock or Mark Zuckerberg, yeah it works. But presentations don’t work like that. It takes the audience time to pick up on your rhythm and cadence. We need time to adjust to the new information we are taking in. In every Shakespeare production ever, the first 15 minutes are delivered a little more slowly, even if there is a fight scene. Why? The audience’s brain needs time to adjust to the verse. They need time to pick up the speech. Also, just a practical tip, odds are you will get dry mouth. No matter how much water you drink, and you should drink a lot, when you go out there you will probably experience a little cotton mouth or have to work your way through a word. The faster you talk the more this happens.
I almost didn’t include this one because it’s easy for people to put on heirs. Think about how Elizabeth Holmes looked in front of the crowd putting on that persona of confidence, or Ricky Bobby not knowing what to do with his hands. It’s so easy to be super focused on gestures and posturing that we lose touch with what we are saying. Instead of saying get your shoulders back, which isn’t a bad idea, or stand still, which you should do, I want to offer you a more practical piece of advice: stay present. If you are in the moment and focusing on what you are doing, that means not thinking about the audience’s opinion of you or what you’re doing after it’s all over, then you will be okay. In a way, you want to reach a flowstate. All of us have different gestures and body language. Some of us talk with our hands, some of us don’t. Some of us move around kinetically others are statues. If this was theatre we would hammer out specifically how to present you as a leader, but this isn’t and people can smell when something is inauthentic (actually, they can smell authenticity in an actor too there’s just more time to iron it out). So, be mindful. In your rehearsals notice if you shift or lean and attempt to correct it where you can, but in the moment let her rip.
Know Your Shit
Again, not to hammer this home too much, but we like to think that if we can control our body and our breath, if we stand still and deliver exactly what we wrote then that equals a good speech. Nope. The golden rule when learning a character is that you leave the rehearsal room in the rehearsal room. One of my favorite sayings is “Check your training at the door.” Just like a golfer doesn’t think about his swing at the tee or a baseball player at play, don’t worry about your performance during the performance. This is suicide. It’s a fast track for getting into your head and psyching yourself out. When I was a baseball player in college I got the yips. My coaches spent so much time trying to help my swing, we broke it and my confidence. Then, in games I was so focused on getting my swing right I forgot how to hit, and it snowballed. Everytime I perform or speak in public, this crosses my mind. Games are meant to be played not thought. So, play. The more you focus on what you are saying and being clear and making your points the better off you will be. If you put in the work, rehearsed, and know the points then you are good to go. Trust yourself.
Look ’em in the eye and Tell them the truth
John Wayne once gave the greatest piece of acting advice ever. “Acting is easy you just look a man in the eye and tell him the truth.” It’s the most John Wayne thing ever. But it’s true. We try to conflate all these grandiose ideas into speaking and acting, but if we simplify it down to its most quintessential essence, what is it? We are relating the truth to someone. Story is a lie that tells the truth better than the truth can. This goes doubly for public speaking. There is no fourth wall. The audience is in the room with you. Treat them as such. Don’t look at their foreheads or try and talk to the exit sign. Find the audience members, look at them as individuals, and talk to them. This is one of my favorite things to do when I deliver a Shakespearean monologue. Audiences don’t expect it. They’re so used to the Vagner idea of theatre and the Studio theatre idea of the fourth wall that when I break it, and speak to them, I don’t have to act. It’s one person talking to another person. It’s amazing how effective this is for communicating to the whole audience. By picking someone and talking to them we automatically make the rest of the audience feel more at ease; however, you don’t just talk to one person, you’ve got to spread the love. P.S. Also, the front row is a difficult place for eyeline so maybe pick people in the middle of back.
Dress Well, but Dress like You
Do the clothes make the man? No, but if you’re going to be in front of an audience you better consider what image you are putting out there. If you go onstage and look like a slub then people will discredit you. Likewise, if you overdress or wear something you’ve never worn before then you stick out like a sore thumb. People who wear suits know how a suit is supposed to fit. Just like people who know Slayer know what album is on your shirt. The point is we judge people. Our brain makes decisions quickly. We value our time. If you go in front of an audience and look like you don’t belong they will quickly write you off. The best piece of advice ever is to dress like you would on a first date. If you’re the kind of guy who wears a suit, like I am, then sure dress well. If you’re more of a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy then find a way to dress up your look so that you feel confident and casual.
All of these tips boil down to one thing: Don’t overthink the room. If acting is about action and a speech is theatre, focus on your task, which is to deliver the point. Actors talk about super objectives, desires, and wants because it helps get us out of the weeds. Rather than focusing on how you should be performing, you focus on what you’re doing. The same is true with a speech. Focus on the action at hand and deliver the information you are there to deliver. The better you know it the better you show it.