Adam Smith

13 Ways Acting Classes Improved My Public Speaking Skillz

October, 2009

Now, I am no public speaker. In 2007 I got a chance to say some words at Startup School along with several other Y Combinator founders. My voice was cracking and I spoke at ten thousand words a second I was so nervous.

Which is why I was excited to give a talk to eight hundred people at this last weekend’s MIT Startup Bootcamp. This was a chance to redeem myself. I’ve been taking acting classes for the past six months to work on my communication and presence skills, so this was a perfect mid-term exam.

I put about 30 hours into the talk. I wanted to test how far my skills could take me so that meant putting in an excess of time to make sure I took the best possible shot. I wrote a full twelve page script that I memorized. I rehearsed with my acting teacher for three or four hours. I spent a hours on a couple different versions of my slides.

I’m calling this one a success! It was the least nervous I have ever been doing public speaking. Part of that might have been that I only got three hours of sleep the night before and just had no energy to be nervous; I’m not sure. I had gone to sleep at 1am, woke up at 4am, and couldn’t go back to sleep until it was time to get up!

But, without further adieu, here are the thirteen things I learned that went into my public speaking improvements, in no particular order:

  1. Get out of your head. There’s a silly exercise we do at the beginning of every acting class to make this happen. We all sit on the stage in our own folding chairs, close our eyes, and move our body around one limb at a time, often yelling and punching and kicking. For whatever reason (placebo effect?) it always pulls me back into my body and out of my head.

  2. Walk around the stage, shake some hands from the audience. I first saw Ken Morse do this at MIT; he walked up and down the aisles shaking hands. I always thought it’s a nice touch but it also helped me ground myself out of my head and into a friendship with the audience.

  3. Silently dedicate the talk beforehand to someone from your life that has helped you get to where you are today. (In my case this was Paul Graham.) If you haven’t noticed, all three of the hints so far have to do with getting past yourself and out of your head.

  4. My acting teacher told me “If you continue with your career you will end up talking to a million people. This is no big deal. It’s a warm up!” That also helped me get more out of my head and shifted the focus more towards the journey than the outcome.

  5. She told me that, when I walk up, before I start talking just take a short moment to get an emotional feeling for how you feel. Acting is all about getting to the TRUTH, and staying in the present moment. That’s different than focusing on fears or judgments. Trust your emotions over your intellect during that moment. It gives you a moment to establish a connection with the audience.

  6. Professional speakers apparently eat a slice of apple, and then a cracker before talking for long periods of time such as recording a book on tape. It helps your mouth stay watered. I’m not sure how true this is, but there’s a low downside to being wrong. If you know more please comment!

  7. Try not to read, even from your memory. This suggestion will be a focus point for my next talk. I didn't do well here this time around. You want to sound like you’re into the words, and discovering them as you go. What fun would your favorite plays be if the actors were just reading the script? You've got to feel what you’re saying on an emotional level, not a reading monotone. Most of my talk was memorized so it was natural for me to parrot the words, not to mention the talk was at 9am eastern which is 6am California time! Which leads me to..

  8. Get excited! Be energetic! I was worried about drinking a Red Bull before the talk because it might make me more energetic and thus more nervous. Turns out I needed it. I also walked furiously around the stage clapping and getting myself pumped before everyone started coming into the auditorium.

    But I still noticed that I got a little bit more excited once I had the audience involved and asking questions. This is also related to sounding like you’re reading. So I give myself a B- here.

  9. Have good content. I had a lot of good material to share. I actually prepared about 40 minutes of material but only had 25 minutes so I gave the audience the chance to ask me their own questions or choose from a list of seven topics I had prepared thoughts on.

    (They were: finding an idea, hiring rockstars, hints for execution, personal growth, what Silicon Valley is like, startup reading, and why do it.)

    My material was good and had gone through about three iterations but it could have used three more, mostly for pedagogical reasons. A lot of the content was great but wasn’t delivered well enough so it was going to really stick. So I get a B or B- here!

    Some folks emailed and asked that I write about some of the topics that didn’t get covered, like hiring rockstars. I agree and look forward to doing that in future blog posts!

  10. Get a stool! It gives you more presence than talking from a podium, and more grounding/security than walking around which should be reserved for the more experienced among us.

  11. Support the peaks in your text. Stay with the arcs. If you’re making a joke don’t make it and then immediately say something else. Give it a second or two to settle in. Even if it doesn’t hit it will be better than not supporting the words and intention.

    I messed this up once or twice on smaller jokes. On the other hand after the video of Bill Gates’ Xobni demo I held my hands out with a big smile and a ‘wow’ face without saying anything for four or five seconds. Everyone started clapping, whereas had I filled in the silence with speech it wouldn’t have peaked. 

    Similarly for any sentences describing stress, elation, sadness, or any other feeling. Technical folks like me tend to avoid such expressions, ESPECIALLY in public settings. That’s not what pulls audiences in; great performances are all about sticking with the truth.

    Here’s a great example: Dharmesh Shah’s talk included a slide in the middle that was a “Time Out: how are you doing Dharmesh?” Dharmesh is introverted like me and such a slides serves a purpose for him personally but also BUILDS his connection with the audience because he’s being real with folks.

  12. Practice pronunciation. Try saying “Real World” five times fast! Hard, right? During practice I was slurring some of my words. This happens particularly when I was reading the words from my head instead of really discovering them and owning them during delivery.

  13. Enjoy the journey! I mentioned this point above but it's worth reiterating! It's easy to be outcome-focused when it comes to public speaking. Instead, think of it as a journey where the outcome is not the point. Ironically such a focus will improve your results, but that's just a bonus to the peace of mind.

What do you think? Any other good tips for MIT personality public speaking?

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