Expert Advice
During my years as an actor, director and theater producer, I noticed that what professional actors do to relax, focus and engage are the same skills public speakers could use to turn their talks from boring readings into dynamic performances. Today, I draw from my professional theater training and experience to help Amherst students, faculty and staff become more confident and compelling public speakers. Here are six public speaking tips that actors practice every day and that members of the Amherst community are now using in their own public “performances.”

Breathe from the Belly

Learn and practice breathing from the diaphragm, or what actors call “belly breathing.” Because we live in a “stress culture,” we have forgotten how to breathe. Instead, we live in fight-or-flight mode most of the time, causing our breath to go up into our chests. Speaking with your belly breath produces a deep, full, confident sound. It allows you to control how long you speak on one breath. It also increases your volume when you want to be louder; even if your microphone fails, the back of the room will hear you. As a bonus, research shows that diaphragmatic breathing relaxes you physically.

Root Your Feet

Actors root their feet when they forget their lines, or when something happens onstage that makes them feel unsteady. You’ll know you’re unsteady because one of your heels is up and you are jutting out your opposite hip. If someone bumped into you, you would certainly fall over. Instead, try rooting: Place your feet flat on the floor, directly under your hips. Feel your feet in your shoes. Now, imagine that you have roots shooting out the bottom of your feet, through your shoes, through the floor, through the basement and into the ground. As if by magic, rooting helps you remember that lost line or, at the very least, gives you the appearance of confidence. Root when you are standing or sitting, whenever you feel nervous. I’ve observed Barack Obama rooting when he speaks. It adds to a powerful presentation.

Start with the First Word

Can you imagine that instead of an actor beginning with his lines, “To be or not to be,” he said, “Today, I plan to recite some lines from Shakespeare,” or, “I want to apologize for having a cold,” or, “Hi, everyone,” or, “Bear with me, folks—I’m nervous.” Treat your speech as you would a Broadway script. Respect what you wrote and begin with those words. I will bet money those words are not “So,” “Um” or “Okay.”

Memorize your Introduction

Now more than ever, audiences are easily distracted. We need to grab their attention at the beginning. Start with a story, a thought-provoking question, a quotation or a startling statement or statistic. Write it down in advance. Then memorize it so you can have strong eye contact. Your audience will feel engaged, and your credibility will rise. If you have to look down to read your personal story, the audience will doubt its truth. Imagine an opening-night audience seeing actors reading from their scripts! A speech is not a reading; don’t treat it as one. 

Craft your Conclusion

When you end with a crafted, memorized sentence, the audience will applaud on cue. Saying “thank you” at the end of a speech because you have no conclusion is becoming common. In my opinion, this smacks of an apology. Why are you thanking them? For tolerating you? For not throwing tomatoes? Imagine Romeo and Juliet ending in such a way: “For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo. Thank you.” For heaven’s sake. Craft a conclusion, allow the applause—and then thank the audience.

Remember: It’s Not About You!

Create an audience-focused purpose for your speech; is it to instruct, persuade, inspire, entertain? Make sure your voice, your body and your spirit is focused on the message reaching your audience. When we focus on ourselves (by fidgeting, repeatedly clearing our voice, apologizing, listening to the negative messages in our heads), we become self-conscious. When you focus on someone other than yourself, you become less self-conscious, more “other-centered”—and highly effective.