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Ten tips from stage performers to improve your presentations

Ten tips from stage performers to improve your presentations

mic on stage

How well are you performing the role of business presenter?

With that question, I don’t mean to imply that you’re pretending to be someone else when giving a presentation, facilitating a meeting or conducting a training. That would be acting. Effective business communication is more about being yourself than putting on someone else’s style, voice or attitude. It’s also about responding to the reality in the room, not play-acting for others.

But even though you’re not acting when you give a presentation, you are performing, in a very real sense. Here’s how.

Shakespeare was right

The_Presentation_of_Self_in_Everyday_LifeJaques, a character in As You Like It, noted centuries ago that “all the world’s a stage.” But it wasn’t until 1959 that we understood how useful that metaphor could be. That’s when sociologist Erving Goffman published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and gave us a fresh way of looking at our social interactions in terms of various roles.

Each of the roles you play in the course of a week—parent, spouse, colleague, coach, employee, business owner, consultant, sibling, neighbor—involves making certain choices (whether consciously or not) about how others experience you. You choose words and how you say them, you use certain body language, even decide what “costumes” you choose to wear. In this view, anytime you present yourself to others, you’re performing.

One way in which this perspective is useful for business presenters is that it reminds us to pay attention to the instruments of our craft—our voices and bodies. And stage performers—who devote years to physical and vocal training—offer a lot of good lessons in that regard.

Get serious about the physical

Giving a one-hour presentation may not be as physically demanding as performing a three-act play, eight times a week, but it is nonetheless an intensely physical activity. Sometimes presenters spend so much time sitting at their desks preparing slides or poring over training materials that they forget about voice and body. That’s where a lot of uncontrolled nervous energy comes from when you speak: without preparation, your body is often surprised to find itself in front of an audience. Here’s how to get serious about your physical prep to perform and feel your best.

  1. Think as you move. In the days and weeks leading up to your presentation, link your mental preparation to any other regular exercise you do. Think about your presentation while on your morning walk, evening run, or while biking to and from work. Make your preparation active, not stationary.
  2. Move as you think. Don’t wait until the last minute to practice delivering your presentation. Get your body involved early on in your process—even as you’re figuring out what to say or how to organize content. Talk out your “first drafts” to yourself. Try on a moment to see how it feels to deliver it. This way, as you prepare your content, you’re training both your body and voice.
  3. Have a good night. The night before, get good rest and go easy on heavy food, caffeine and alcohol. Plan out what you’ll wear, typically something a notch more formal than what your audience will be wearing (though contexts of course vary).
  4. Lubricate. On the day of your presentation, stay hydrated. Again, go easy on caffeine, which may heighten nervous energy. Avoid beverages and foods such as chocolate and milk, which can coat or clog your throat. Instead, drink water. Squeeze some lemon in for added clarity and energy.
  5. Warm up. Just before your presentation, find a quiet place to stretch and do shoulder and neck rolls to release tension. Limber up your face muscles by chewing in an exaggerated manner. Clear your throat. Yawn or take a few long, deep breaths. Hum to prepare the vocal cords.
  6. Build strong breath support. Learn the difference between high-chest and abdominal breathing. Abdominal breathing gives you more oxygen for greater support of your voice (and a clearer head). If you don’t normally breathe abdominally, it’s really easy to learn and your body adapts to it quickly.
  7. Remember to breathe. Plan spots in your presentation or talk when you will purposefully stop and breathe. Mindful breathing also calms you and gives the audience time to process what you say.
  8. Own the space. Getting into the space in which you’ll be speaking prior to your event is about more than making sure there are enough dry-erase markers. It’s about letting your body get used to the space and feeling comfortable and confident there. Actors call this “walking the boards.” Stand where you will be speaking and imagine yourself expanding into the entire room. Own it.
  9. Cheat open. “Cheating to the audience” is theater-speak for staying physically open so everyone in the room can see you. As you work on owning the space, move around it and explore where you can move comfortably and still be seen.
  10. Start at the top. Actors know their energy levels need to be strong and focused from the very first moment they step onto the stage (the “top of the scene”). As a speaker, you also need to start with a burst of energy so you don’t spend the first minutes warming up in front of the audience. Instead, start with the focus and self-confidence you usually find 15 minutes into your presentation.

Viewing everyday life through a theatrical lens doesn’t make our roles any less real or less authentic—it just highlights the many dimensions of public communication and how we can be intentional in the choices we make as we present ourselves.

Try applying these tips from the stage as you prepare for your next performance as business presenter.

John CapecciJohn Capecci of Capecci Communications (Minneapolis) is a trainer and consultant who offers personal coaching, group workshops, and webinars on communication effectiveness.

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