What an Acting Coach Taught Me About Public Speaking

This is a guest post by Brian Owen. He is the discipleship pastor at Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church in Katy, Texas. His blog is here and you can follow him on Twitter. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner defined acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” But for many of us who communicate before an audience, whether as pastors, executives, educators, or lawyers, the temptation is to do the opposite, to act imaginarily under truthful circumstances.

Young Actor About to Start a Scene - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/MicroWorks, Image #15438308

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/MicroWorks

Fueled by a legitimate desire to deliver a powerful message, we craft our words, our presentation, and our delivery to such an extent that the drive to do our best can actually rob us of sharing a genuine moment with an audience.

Meisner’s unique approach to acting focuses on cultivating a real response with a scene partner and allowing the genuine emotional reaction to shape the performance on stage. As a pastor, I wondered what actors trained in the Meisner technique would say to those of us who practice public speaking.

During a recent question and answer session on the Meisner technique of acting, I asked Houston based acting coach and Meisner technique expert Kim Tobin what public speakers could learn from this method of acting. This is what she suggested:

  • Be nervous. When you step before an audience, allow yourself to experience your nervousness. Allow yourself to feel. Shutting down your emotions in an attempt to “pull yourself together” will disconnect you from your audience. Suppressing your nervousness will also suppress other emotions that add life and authenticity to your message.
  • Make eye contact. Look at the audience members. Make a connection with them. See the people sitting before you. Allow the humanity of the experience of communicating with others to actually happen. Refuse to allow your fear of connection with another to keep you from making eye contact. Speakers often avoid eye contact to avoid the feeling of vulnerability that comes with standing before an audience. The cost of this avoidance is too great. It will rob you of real contact, reducing your impact and influence.
  • Take detours. More than likely, you know your material. You’ve written your outline, you’ve practiced; you’ve gotten familiar with the content. It’s okay to take a tangent every now and then. “Play” with your material.
  • Pause. Too many public speakers fail to realize the power and importance of not speaking at times. Allow the gravity and weight of what has been spoken to settle on your listeners.
  • Messing up isn’t a bad thing. Making a mistake simply makes you more human and provides your audience an opportunity to empathize with you and connect with you. They will become your biggest supporters as you refocus on your content and move forward.

Kim’s perspective highlights the reality of the moment that is occurring between a speaker and his or her audience. This moment is not a dispensing of information from an automated machine. It is not merely a performance nor is it an opportunity to offer a flawless moment of oration. This isn’t about a perfect moment of communication. This is about a genuine, authentic encounter between human beings.

Our ability to impact others is not simply a result of the words we deliver. Our very presence touches the life of another. When you prepare for your next message, give thought not simply to how you might craft a better delivery. Give thought to how you might more fully offer yourself as much as you offer your message.

Question: How might this advice from an acting coach shape your next public speaking opportunity? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://FollowingJesusSucks.org Shon Ridenour

    This is a fantastic post! I don’t do a a lot of public speaking, but I just recently performed my first wedding. I focused on doing many of the things you said, without even knowing what I was doing. In other words, I didn’t have your post to coach me before hand! :) But I knew I wanted to have a “genuine, authentic encounter between human beings.” After the ceremony, I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said that it was the best wedding ceremony they’d ever been to. Wow! So humbling! But it shows that everything you said in this post is so true!

  • http://www.ryanhanley.com/2011/11/29/how-small-business-can-leverage-social-media-to-fight-back-against-their-big-business-competitors/ Ryan Hanley


    My first public speaking engagement of 2012 is in February… I really like #1, the idea of allowing yourself to be nervous and harnessing the energy for your presentation.  I’m going to use that…
    Excellent article!

    Thank you

    • http://www.the-white-stone.blogspot.com Brian Owen

      You’re welcome!   Glad the article was helpful.

  • Diane Yuhas

    Excellent advice.  Good preparation, I might add, frees you to be fully present in the moment on stage.  Whether I’m teaching or speaking, I always shoot a little from the hip. 

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    Interesting first point, a sit-up-and-say-what? piece of advice–be nervous. Okay, I think I can do that one.

  • http://www.noahlomax.com Noah Lomax

    Great tips! Seems so simple, but these definitely help keep the speaker authentic and connected.

    • http://www.the-white-stone.blogspot.com Brian Owen

      Thanks Noah.

  • Eric Anderson

    I run a company that teaches presentation and communication skills to scientists and engineers. This was great. I wish I had had the advice this morning before my social media workshop. I have been doing this for 10 years, and I still learned something. I will remember to be nervous. Thanks

    • http://www.the-white-stone.blogspot.com Brian Owen

      Sorry I wasn’t posted sooner. :)  If there ever was an audience that could benefit from the insights of a left-brained, creative acting coach, it would have to be a group of scientists and engineers!

  • Anonymous

    These are some wonderful points, in which I will think about and apply.

    • http://www.the-white-stone.blogspot.com Brian Owen

      Thank you.

  • Sam Chittenden

    I really enjoyed your post, thank you.  These pointers for bringing all of who we are to presentations (and our relationships in general) are among those explored in The Mastery of Self Expression Workshops, run in the USA, Canada, UK and Israel.  Details on http://www.bethsomerford.com/Brighton_Mastery/About.html

    Warmest wishes
    Sam Chittenden

  • http://www.livesimplylove.com/ Merritt

    I loved this post! I’ve done a lot of public speaking (some has gone well and some has gone not so well probably b/c I’ve tried to be perfect and polished and missed the opportunity to be personable). This was really helpful advice that I hope to remember the next time there’s such an opportunity. Thanks! 

    • http://www.the-white-stone.blogspot.com Brian Owen

      You’re welcome.  Glad it was helpful.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gary-Uranga/100003173706165 Gary Uranga

    Eye contact is a very primal way of communication, this a is a great article on eye contact!

    I think Making eye Contact is one of those very basic ways of communicating and does wonders when it come to building confidence. It’s so important to learn to make good eye contact and communicate on a deeper level.


  • http://twitter.com/JustinHayslett Justin Hayslett

    Brian, Great post. The point that stuck with me was on pausing! I struggle with this; feeling like I need to fill the air whenever there is silence, or I need a drink of water. That’s usually when I say the stupidest stuff too!

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    Thanks for the advice on public speaking. Many times I do the opposite. You have given me a new perspective. I should be experimenting these tips to improve myself. 

    • http://www.the-white-stone.blogspot.com Brian Owen

      Great!  Hope the tips help!

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  • http://sevensentences.com Geoff Talbot

    Thanks so much Brian,

    I spent three years training in the Meisner technique with one of Sandy’s pupils. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Transforming.

    It showed me sides of myself that a religious (but not truthful) me would usually keep covered up. It made me more empathetic, a better listener and a more honest and non-judgmental man.

    Thanks again for this excellent guest post!


  • http://twitter.com/rkinnick59 Randy Kinnick

    I read this a while back and just came back to give it a second look today.  Being a pastor/preacher and having some experience in acting over the years (college, church and community), I find the link between acting and public speaking quite significant.  Connecting with the audience and projecting a level of authenticity is crucial to a successful speaking event.

    I am currently mentoring a young man who is pursuing an acting career in Hollywood as well…these things are interesting to consider in that context as well.


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  • govinda panta

    thank you brian !

    thank again a great post

  • Owen Hemsath

    Michael- what advice do you have for getting better at public speaking? I’m not sure Im even at a place where an expensive conference would benefit (yet). What would be a good stepping stone to getting there? I speak a lot at local events and trainings but I spend too much time “warming up.” I almost NEVER get through all the content.

    How do I right an outline?
    How do I track my time?
    How do I engage more with the audience when they don’t answer questions?

    Any ideas?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Honestly, the best possible thing you could do is attend the SCORRE™ Conference. It will save you years of trying to learn on your own. It’s worth the investment. http://scorreconference.tv

      • Owen Hemsath

        Awesome, thanks for the feedback. I, gonna look more seriously at it