Thursday, September 27, 2012

Acting Techniques for Everyday Life: A Book Review

Yesterday I compared the two disciplines of Acting & Speaking - separating them in spots, joining them in others. I had a couple of comments suggesting that the two feed into each other - or as Michael Erwine succinctly put it "Acting and Speaking inform one another".

I completely agree, and today I'll review a book that isn't about speaking, per se, but, as the title reads: Acting Techniques for Everyday Life, by Jane Marla Robbins.

Logically separated into four parts: Prepare Like an Actor, Nuts and Bolts Techniques, More Tricks of the Trade, and Real-Life Challenges, Robbins covers a lot of ground, with something to readers of most any experience level in acting OR speaking.

She writes from inside her own mind, sharing her thought processes at each step, vs. taking a lecture approach. Her own experience as a professional actress is heavily drawn upon, as she reveals her failures and fears, as well as her successes. It isn't done so much to establish her credibility, rather she reveals it anecdotally where appropriate. She weaves in stories about her coachees as well, explaining their challenges and the work done to overcome them, and occasionally drops a name here or there, discussing the techniques of Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando, without ever slipping into 'big shot' mode. If anything, she shows remarkable humility throughout the book, despite her achievements.

Part One: Prepare Like an Actor describes techniques from how to stand - feet under your hips, hands at your sides, watch that sunken chest - to vocal exercises to relaxation techniques you may never have considered as 'speaking preparation'.

While you might think "Oh, of course, I knew THAT", the real question this book answered was WHY we should use certain techniques, and made me re-evaluate whether I actually DID what I knew to do.

Part Two: Nuts and Bolts Techniques includes role-playing, memorization techniques, playing with props and costumes, and even some improv exercises. As I mentioned in yesterday's post (though not necessarily this clearly), speakers should act WITHIN their presentation, just not AS their presentation.

Learning how to create characters on stage is a valuable skill when you create dialogue or tell a story about someone else's experience - this section will invariably help you in your growth process if you actually do the exercises she suggests.

My favorite part of this section is 'The Magic "As If"'. Her accounts of Henry and Pam changing their internal stories about what they were capable of were inspiring, and if you still can't quite overcome your fear to speak, to get a coach, or to go to your local Toastmasters club, this technique is a winner. More experienced speakers likely use "As If" thinking without necessarily knowing why. Robbins again does a great job exploring the why factor, for those who need more concrete reasoning behind their leaps of Faith.

Part Three: More Tricks of the Trade discusses gestures, breathing techniques, the power of music, and  her personal technique of using mental symbols to get into and stay in the right state on stage, called "The Inner Walnut". Again, ideas are presented in detail, with both the why and the how, without overdoing it.

Part Four: Real-Life Challenges is both the most valuable aspect of the book to me, as well as the most self-helpish and occasionally psychologically mystical.

It also specifically addresses public speaking - suggesting our fear often comes from suppressed childhood memories, fear of failure, even a subconscious fear of death for lack of performance. She discusses how to feel 'safe and love' while speaking, as well as keeping the passion for your message alive even if you've presented it a thousand times.

Jane Marla Robbins
Other aspect in Part Four include handling yourself at social gatherings, playing your ideal self, and feeling sexy - not something I'd really concerned myself with as a speaker or an actor. Interesting thoughts, nonetheless.

Acting Techniques for Everyday Life is well-written, easy-to-read, and often one of the most insightful books about speaking, without being about speaking, I have read. When the review copy arrived, I was a bit determined not to like it, but the more I read, the more I warmed up to both the author and the ideas she shared. Her case studies were evenly split between male and female, usually offering one of each for each major concept. She also had small sidebars titled 'If it works for actors, it can work for you' - helping us transfer each idea from the acting world to the real world, or, for our purposes, to the speaking world.

Worth your money, worth your reading time, and...worth exercising and applying Ms. Robbins techniques.

Authors Disclaimer: I received Acting Techniques for Everyday Life as a review copy, with no payment in exchange for a review. All link within the review are non-affiliate links.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Acting vs. Speaking

Have you ever watched a speaker and wondered if he knew you were even in the room?

It can be easy to go into acting mode as a speaker, especially if you've put a lot of work into your presentation. To start, you're on a stage, already separated from your audience. You know what you want to say, how you want to say it (whisper here, yell here), what gestures you want to use, and you don't want to miss a practiced beat.

I've watched many a terrifically constructed speech packed with wit, pathos, action, and a strong calls to action, fall completely flat. They were in full performance mode, but forgot we were in the room - putting up a virtual television screen that separated us from them. Had we watched the speech at home on our wide screen HD with stereo sound, we'd be closer to contentment. What we want from a speaker in person, however, is not just a message, but a connection, a conversation. When presenters go into acting mode, we leave empty, even if we laughed and cried.

Ultimately, this type of speaking is more about the speaker than the audience. 

It may be about the speaker's fear. Going in front of an audience can make you feel like the Emperor with no clothes. Acting can be an emotional robe, protecting you from the audience, while ultimately separating you. Speakers who aren't comfortable with their message, or fear pushback from their audience can put on an act in self-defense. Unfortunately, once you're on, you're on regardless. If you're going to go ahead and speak, commit to the moment, and let nothing stand between you and your audience. Still, I advise wearing a suit.

Acting can come from too much or too little experience. If you aren't familiar with your message, you'll be so wrapped up in getting it right, you won't connect. If you are TOO familiar, you risk going through the motions, perhaps unsure of which audience you're even in front of today. Speaking often is great, but not if you're already mentally out of town when you speak.

It may ALSO be ego. The speaker may be so into themselves that they care more about looking good on stage, more about being remembered as a great speaker than a great communicator. If you're one of those, you're probably not reading this. But it can be easy to slide this way when we first start getting good reviews and loud, perhaps standing, ovations.

My initial training is actually as a stage actor. Beyond a high school speech class and a horrifying oral book report in the 7th grade, I didn't do much public speaking. Ironically, I was taught that GOOD acting meant connecting with the audience. Not in the same way a speaker should, but a connection through an authentic performance. Which means that not only is a speaker who is acting without connection not speaking well, they technically aren't even acting well!

Typical Acting VS. Effective Speaking

- Memorized lines written by others VS. memorized ideas written by the speaker

- Blocking (move stage left) as written VS. movement (step towards the audience to strengthen statement) out of natural intent and authentic emotion

- Dialogue stays on stage VS. dialogue with the audience

- Suspension of disbelief (putting your audience into the moment for the entirety of the performance) VS. temporary transport (taking your audience in and out of a scene, always landing in reality)

- Little to no eye-contact VS. intentional, specific, and continual eye contact

- Appreciation for their performance VS. appreciation for our reception of message

These are generalities, of course. I can already hear my theatre friends shouting exceptions. Stage acting can certainly break the barriers between actor and audience, and some performances can transcend the art form. And yes, there are speakers who speak as George Washington or Winston Churchill - though I would submit that is really just acting, not being a speaker. What's important to understand is that the intent behind effective acting is almost always different than effective speaking. It doesn't lessen either discipline, but clearly separates the two.

I'm not even saying acting in a speech is altogether inappropriate or ineffective - as long as it's the temporary transport mentioned above. It's okay for us to get involved in your stories, as long as they lead us back to our reality.

As speakers, we are not on a three camera soundstage with an audience being told when to laugh. We are not bound to a chiseled-in-stone script. We are not under the thumb of a director. We are free with our message, and bound only by our responsibility to our audience.

It can be scary as our we nakedly share our ideas with actual human beings - with both sides aware of our vulnerability. The reward, however, when we break through the imagined glass screen, and know the audience is in tune with our message, in sync with us as speakers, goes beyond an appreciated performance. It becomes an attitude, a habit, an action - an idea that goes beyond the stage and take corporeal form within the lives of your listeners. 

Save your acting for the community theatre - the speaking stage wants you, not your character, to Speak & Deliver.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Yet Another Post on Originality

I was speaking to a group of professional speakers and aspiring professional speakers Friday night about finding their message. I've said before that finding your message is the first thing you need to do in this business - and its also one of the hardest.

One of the items that came out during the talk was originality - how do we keep from saying what everyone else is saying? Well, I hate to say this true believers, but you probably can't. (I even stole 'true believers' from  Stan Lee). 

Unless we're geniuses who can extrapolate new answers from old data, a la Einstein or Hawking, (whose 'new' ideas are often old ideas not widely circulated) we're likely stuck with repackaging old data. Think about it - how many times has your most recent original thought shown up on a placard on Facebook? Heck, as students of what we talk about, its tough to always separate our own original thoughts from what we've read or heard along the way.

We think what we've been taught to think by people who have been taught to think by generations before them who have been taught to think by others. We're wired to be derivative. And that's OK. The fact that it's been said before may be exactly why it needs to be said again.

We went through the room and brought up concepts that the more experienced speakers already got paid to talk about. The best ones were in niches, but all came down to the basic concept of CHOICE. You choose which action to take, which attitude to feel. The information would change based on the niche, but not the underlying idea.

What are Obama and Romney discussing? Choices. What are fitness gurus preaching? Choices. What are preachers offering? Choices.

If you're not offering choices, you're not speaking as much as teaching - and even then, choices can enter the picture (want to solve it this way, not this way, even if it reaches the same answer - and in higher math, I suppose answers can be fuzzy - but I never made it to higher math, by choice).

Stop worrying about being original - instead focus on being memorable. Add yourself. A cake is a cake is a cake, until you start to decorate it. Add flavor, add fun. Be shocking, be intelligent. Be YOU. If we have not choice but to be derivative, we can still choose to be creatively derivative.

We live in a world that relives the same experiences year after year, century after century, in different packages. Because new people are growing every year - and they all need the same basic messages.

I know what you're thinking've heard it all before. Now you have a choice to go Speak & Deliver....Anyway.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Did Bill Clinton Speak & Deliver? Jonathan Sprinkles Thinks So

I spent the time to watch Clinton's speech yesterday morning, and was all set to write my analysis, when Speaker and Coach Jonathan Sprinkles posted his own on Facebook. He paralleled my thoughts in many ways, though he's not quite as bi-partisan in his approach. Still, I felt his analysis was worth sharing...

President Bill Clinton
Grade: A+
 JONATHAN'S DISCLAIMER: This is long, but worth it for YOU. I put extra effort into explaining how YOU can use this in your business and life. Don't take the lazy way out. Not this time, okay?

Here’s why: Even if you’re a Republican, you probably hated the content of his speech, but you had to respect his smooth delivery and the eloquence in which h
e unfolded his argument for his party’s reelection. If you’re a Democrat, you’re saying “FINALLY…someone who makes sense, has experience, and speaks in detail.” If you’re an Independent, you’re saying, “Can we amend the laws to get this guy back in office?”

Bill Clinton was 50 Shades of Brilliant. Politics aside, he was a classic example of a speaker who understood his role, but even moreso understood his place in time existentially. This is key. Bill Clinton understands people. He made it clear why he is one of the most well-liked political figures alive today—even after nearly being impeached while in office. He knows how to move people.

Clinton’s paternal tone, his use of his left index figure to jab home certain points (this right was normally held together), and subtle phrases such as “Listen to me” were all exceptionally-well used tools to step in, own his position as the authority, and speak to the American people as a father would on the back porch sipping some lemonade. Bill Clinton, for one night, became anointed as The Great Explainer. He made it very easy to listen to him for 48 minutes, which by the way, was far greater than the time he was allotted. This is the hallmark of a great speech and to a greater extent, a great speaker.

Instead of providing future suggestions, I will use this space to highlight (or in some cases reveal) Clinton’s verbal tactics and how they added to his argument. These are some of the (rough) notes I took as I watched his speech.

Used the “okay” sign with right hand and Obama’s record with his left hand to show contrast between millions on the left and ZERO on the right. NOTE: Not sure if this was intentional, but this is also reflective of the political “right wing” conservatives and “left wing” liberals.

Clinton seemed to honestly value the efforts of Republicans. This made him sound objective; a true problem solver, not a partisan pundit. From a persuasion standpoint, it also drew the crowd in early and got them on his side. If they agree early on, they will be unlikely to question his forthcoming criticisms.

Highlighted Obama as committed to compromise. Went against the claims that he was leading from the far left, but was still a centrist at heart, despite being vehemently opposed by the GOP.

Very, very smart. Take your opponent’s argument, over-simplify it, and tear it apart. Make people laugh while doing it so they aren’t thinking about the details of your argument.

Clinton said, "Here's what we've forgotten…" “Forgotten” is the key word. As The Great Explainer, he also had to remind us what was important (as he defined it) He said that improvements were happening but people just hadn't FELT it yet. Same as '95 and '96. "But the difference is in the circumstances." "No one could have fully repaired the damage in just four years." Clinton’s argument: It’s working; just be patient.

"I believe it. Why do I believe it? I'm about to tell you why…"
-Brilliant framework. “I believe___ and here’s why.” Hones the audience’s focus to YOUR logic.

"What does this mean…"
-The Great Explainer helping the people sort through all the dogma, myths and half-truths.

"I never hated Republicans the way they seem to hate our president." (paraphrased)
-Exposed the GOP’s “Obama is a good person but has failed as a president” argument. Reminded us how much of the aspersions over Obama’s term were personal and vitriolic, not based on political philosophy

"If he (Romney) is elected, and he does what he promised, Medicare will go broke by 2016."
"This is serious…because it gets worse."
-Every persuasive argument should answer the question WHAT’S AT STAKE? Show how making the wrong decision, or even indecision could really hurt you. People are motivated by pain. Cause pain then create a solution.

"…a strong middle class with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it."
-Nobody had addressed the poor until then. “Work” their way into it speaks to the GOP argument of Dem’s entitlement programs.

"Why is this true…" (about cooperation).
-Phrasing your statements this way subconsciously causes your audience to make the assumption that his information is correct. They want to know "WHY is this true" versus "Is this true?"

"Business and government working together."
"’We're all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than 'you're on your own.’"
-Clinton created a moderate middle ground approach that explains the Dem’s platform in a way that seems un-American to reject.

Jonathan Sprinkles, "Your Connection Coach", is a TV personality,

multiple award-winning speaker and author of over a dozen books.

For more tips on connecting with your audience and owning the

room, visit


Thank you for sharing Jonathan - I don't think it's a stretch to add that you would believe truly did Speak...and Deliver.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Speaking of Focus

"Focus your eyes,
focus your ears,
focus your mind,
focus your body."

My seven year old son will say this on command, thanks to his karate training, and even better, will actually focus. Focus is important in the martial arts - you never want to be caught off-guard by a reverse tornado kick.

It's just as important to you as a speaker.

Focus Your Eyes - Don't let yourself be distracted by people walking in and out, by the lighting, by the waitstaff, by the giant screens on either side of you. Take inventory of your possible distractions before you walk on stage, address any you can control, then go out and keep your eyes on those you're conversing with - nothing breaks communication like wandering eyes.

Focus Your Ears - In addition to visual distractions, clanking dishes, conversations in the room, audience applause just on the other side of the partition, even blaring wedding reception music from down the hall can turn both the speaker's head and the heads of the audience. Some distractions need to be acknowledged, to refocus your audience. Others only you are keenly aware of, because your audience is focused on listening to YOU. You'll know which is which by focusing your ears, and eyes, on THEM.

Focus Your Mind - Not just on what you want to say, but on your mindset. Friend and fellow speaker Datta Groover believes "Whatever state of mind you are in when you present, people will tend to follow." If your mind is focused on how lousy breakfast was, or the fight you had last night with your spouse, it will be seen and heard in your performance. Sneakier mental machinations like fear of failure and lack of conviction are just as dangerous. Focus your mind on the moment and on the audience outcome - and leave everything else backstage.

Focus Your Body - I know what it's like to be betrayed by my body. I'm not the most balanced person in the world (yeah, I know what you're thinking - mentally OR physically, Rich), and occasionally find myself having to steady myself on stage. Focusing your body starts before you ever walk out to the microphone, however. Are you eating right? When are you eating? Are you physically energized or drained? Are you drinking enough water, and keeping water available to you when you speak? Have you scoped out the stage for weak spots, wires, and suddenly appearing orchestra pits? You need to focus your body both inside and out. Nothing's worse than needing a potty break in the middle of a keynote, except tripping over a power cord as you rush to the restroom.

Different speakers have different routines before presenting. Some eat the same meal or snack, some have a lucky blazer or tie, others listen to music, pray, or recite words reminding them of their purpose. Some of us do ALL of those things. Maybe Riker, my little green belt, has it simplified perfectly. Focus your eyes, focus your ears, focus your mind, focus your body. Then go kick - go Speak...& Deliver!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...