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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