The Performance of Speaking

To develop a book of business, or be seen as thought leaders in their respective fields, professionals need to deliver compelling presentations. And like it or not, you are judged by the same standards as a performer.

To develop a book of business, or be seen as thought leaders in their respective fields, professionals need to deliver compelling presentations. And like it or not, you are judged by the same standards as a performer. Yet few business executives know the techniques performers use to captivate an audience. From the perspective of a former Director of film and television, here are tips from the inside the Entertainment Industry.

Focus on Your Intention
Every actor worth his salt identifies his intention before going on stage or appearing on camera. It is the only way to make the “script” or material his own, especially when the wording cannot be changed. For example, an actor playing Macbeth is desperate for one thing: to be king. Shakespeare never wrote this phrase for the character to say, but Macbeth’s actions make it clear.

It is the same in business. Before a client meeting, pitch, or networking event, you need to know your intention, or what you want more than anything else. Never say your intention out loud—but keep it top of mind for laser beam focus. An intention will keep you from rambling, over-educating, or going off course. Examples of intentions are “they will see me as the go-to person in my field”; “I will prove our services are critical to their success”; or “I will persuade her to sign off on my proposal.” Before speaking, remind yourself of your intention to reduce your anxiety.

Have Your Opening Down Cold
Since your opening sets the tone and frame for everything that follows, don’t wing it. Like any A-list performer, rehearse what you will say, and each time, change up the wording and phrasing just slightly so that you sound natural and spontaneous.

Speaker anxiety plagues amateurs and professionals alike. Anxiety tends to spike just before and in the first few minutes of any performance. When you have a clear, strong intention, and know your opening, the rest is easier.

Rather than giving the traditional welcome or obligatory remarks, share something colorful about your perspective or experience with the subject. Be specific and use concrete language. Your descriptive opening should be brief and connected to the topic. Make the audience see your content in a new way. As a default, you can describe a news item and link it to your topic. Here is how President Obama opened the dedication to the 9/11 Memorial. Notice his use of concrete language, visual snapshots and brief sentences.

“In those awful moments after the South Tower was hit, some of the injured huddled in the wreckage of the 78th floor. The fires were spreading. The air was filled with smoke. It was dark, and they could barely see. It seemed as if there was no way out.

“And then there came a voice — clear, calm, saying he had found the stairs. A young man in his 20s, strong, emerged from the smoke, and over his nose and his mouth he wore a red handkerchief…

“They didn’t know his name. They didn’t know where he came from. But they knew their lives had been saved by the man in the red bandana…”

It was only after these remarks that the President gave his obligatory thank you’s. But the audience was hooked.

Call to Action
When we see a great performance, we feel the actors’ pain, excitement, or sadness. It is the same in business: Decisions are emotive. Move your audience to take an action. If you educate people, you get them to think. But if you persuade them, you get them to act.

Performers know that to persuade an audience, they need to invest themselves in the material. Speakers are often more concerned with being polished and getting every word right, than connecting with their audience. This emphasis is wrong. Give us your perspective. Tell us why you care, and reveal your skin-in-the-game.

Being on the Ice
Great performers must be in the moment to deliver a message effectively. It is the same in business. Eliminate all distractions and focus on your message. Then put your attention out on your audience. There is no better way to quiet the annoying, critical voice in your head. Worrying about your performance or that someone may not be paying attention only detracts from your presentation. And the audience can tell. One way to regain focus is to tell yourself, “They need what I have to deliver.”

Own the Room
Actors don’t stand still during a performance, and neither should speakers. Make the space your own. Move out from behind the lectern and physically connect with the audience. However, movement must be justified and have purpose. For example, cross downstage on an angle, when making an important point. Walk back and forth on a parallel plane when delivering a list. And stand in the center of the space for your open and close.

If the opening sets the tone and frame, the ending is what the audience will remember most. Rather than rushing through their lines, performers know this is the time to commit, invest themselves in their material, and make it more important to them, not the audience. Take a page from the actor’s playbook. Pause before launching into your close. Make eye contact around the room. Keep your sentences short. And with total confidence, “bring the curtain down.”