What acting taught me about public speaking

Many moons ago I took up amateur dramatics for a while. That may seem a bit odd for someone who likes to keep himself to himself, but someone invited me to see a play he was in, and I thought it looked like fun.

I have to say that the thought of going on stage was a terrifying experience. Note that I said the thought of it, not the experience itself. I’ll try to explain.

Speaker with a lot of microphones, by www.audio-luci-store.it https://www.flickr.com/photos/audiolucistore/

It was alright on the night

Before walking on to the stage, actors have to wait for their cue. I used to wait in the wings about 20 minutes before my cue. I was frightened that either I would miss it, or that the actors on stage would somehow skip a page or two of the script (it has been known), in which case I would have to come on earlier than I’d anticipated.  And there was always the possibility that an actor on stage would fluff his lines, so my cue wouldn’t be recognisable unless I had been closely following the script.

So there I’d be, in the wings, poring over the script, which I’d have to hold with both hands because they were shaking so much.

Then my cue would come, I’d walk on to the stage and …

Amazing! Something would take over. I’d feel a calmness, serenity even. I’d play the part really well, and have the audience wrapped around my little finger.

Then I’d walk off, and start shaking again, this time from the adrenalin.

The reasons why

So how could that happen? I put it down to the following:


You have to learn your part by heart. But you must also learn the parts of other actors too, so you can get them out of a hole if necessary. You also have to know about your character and the play inside out, so that if you do forget your lines you can ad lib convincingly.

I think the same applies to giving a talk. I don’t learn my ‘speech’ by heart, because I think that would create a stultifying effect. But I do an awful lot of research, reading around the subject, thinking about it, and going over my talk again and again in my mind before the big day arrives.

It’s not about you

I think another important thing about acting is that nobody cares about you. Your job is to be true to the character, and respect the playwright, and to give the audience a good time. They have paid good money to see the play: you owe it to them to make sure they go away happy.

Is it not the same when you give a talk? The conference delegates or audience at a reading event, say, have come to hear something that you know and they don’t. If you think about the event from their point of view, it helps to stop you obsessing about yourself.

Once you’ve prepared your talk as well as you can, and decided it’s not all about you anyway, you can relax. In my experience, an experience, although the thought of giving the talk is terrifying, the deed itself can actually be enjoyable!

And as for those nerves: in my opinion, the adrenalin is your friend. The nervousness makes you give of your best. Those speakers who are nonchalalant tend, in my experience, to give lacklustre talks, memorable to nobody.