Using Acting To Convince People You’re Better At Speaking

Anyone who’s spent much physical or digital time with me picks up that I’m a theatre person – I’ve been acting (in an amateur capacity) for about a decade now, and I’m also becoming a regular at various science stand-up comedy nights. The relationship between theatre and academia – particularly sociology – could be the subject of several posts (watch this space, fans). But a prosaic link is that both involve a fair amount of standing up and speaking in public. Using acting techniques in academic presentations is hardly a novel idea – indeed, there’s an industry based around it. I’ve never actually attended such a session, but as I’ve recently found myself teaching presentation/recording skills to undergraduates I’ve ended up developing underdeveloped – though considerably cheaper – versions of those sort of techniques. In that spirit of inexpensive-work-in-progress, here they are in blog form. Some of these are things I’ve tried myself.1 Some are things I’d like to try. But most are things I’ve spotted when listening to other people doing things that I’ve admired or not-admired. Such is sociology.



If I’m going to listen to an 8-minute song, give me the four-songs-in-one of Bohemian Rhapsody over the same three chords on cycle. Same for any sort of performance. It’s easier to put variation when you don’t have an audience looking at you, so it’s worth annotating any script or notes well beforehand.   It’s something actory types often do with audition speeches, and different forms of annotation work for different people. Some good ones can be as simple as ‘pause/breathe here’, underlining words for emphasis, or ‘this bit is important deliver it very slowly’. Or there can be a more emotional element – this is the funny/anecdotal bit, this is the exciting discovery, this is the stuff that makes me angry and we should really do something about it folks. Or even those little markings that musical scores have, if that’s your thing (ideas like reaching a crescendo can work quite nicely in a speech). Don’t feel bound by conventional sections or punctuation – if you get good at this you can even change style multiple times mid-sentence. Old actors do this all the time when interviewed – and when you listen with this in mind, it’s amazing how much what seems like innate charisma can be based on simple mechanical work.


Basic Acting 101

Everyone puts some emotion and expression into their voice. Even the most monotonous person you’ve met would probably sound noticeably angry if you stole their dog or surprised if you brought it back fluent in French. There are things you can do to bring that very real expression back in, even where it might feel odd. One exercise I tried with a pair of actors recently, to put some anger into a script that it didn’t really fit, was to get them to stand face-to-face and swear violently at each other before they said each line. You could do something similar with phrases like ‘I’m so relieved’ or ‘I love you’ or [funnier one]; you can develop it by making it more exaggerated each time you say it (that’s particularly fun in pairs, where each person has to build on the previous person). Or imagine (or create…) some appropriate and vivid physical cues, such as strenuous exercise for frustration, drunkenness for relaxation, or smiling broadly or laughing for happiness.

The key point – whatever you choose should be a) really really over-the-top and b) completely impractical to do when you actually deliver the paper or do the recording or whatever. That way, even when you take out the weird cues, some of that real expression should remain as sort of residue.


Circles of Concentration

Sounds pretentious, but hold on for a moment.  I was introduced to these recently by some actual drama school folks, and was surprised at just how useful I’ve found them. There are three of these circles, which correspond to different ways of speaking. The first is when you’re talking to only yourself, pondering or musing or trying to work something out or remember your shopping list. The second is when you’re in conversation with one other person and trying to keep their attention. The third is when you’re speaking to a large group of people, orator-style, and trying to impress them.2 If you can make first circle work for an academic presentation, well done – most usually this occurs when people read to themselves from a paper, seemingly forgetting the presence of anyone else. Whether second or third works for you can vary. Many speakers with confident voices and stage presence fall quite naturally into third, but using the second – imagining your presentation as a conversation with an individual friend – can be really quite engaging. So, next time you’re practising a speech, note how you do it – do you read to yourself from a screen, do you stand up and imagine the back wall is an audience, or do you deliver it a single plant pot? Try changing that and seeing what happens. Then imagine the plant pot is bored and you need to convince it how cool your paper is, or that the back wall is sitting in rapturous admiration of you. Again, the more extreme the better.


Other generically useful stuff

  • English is usually spoken at roughly 150 words per minute. Useful for writing scripts.
  • If you stand still (please stand still, please) with your feet planted roughly in line with your shoulders that helps you breathe and speak clearly. Doing some yawns or throaty laughs beforehand also opens up the back of your throat which is a good thing.
  • If you find looking at people’s faces unnerving, then focus on the triangle at the top of the nose and in between the eyes. It’s less unsettling than looking directly into the eyes, but still so SO much more engaging than just looking at paper or the screen in front of or (even worse) behind you. That’s probably the single best way you can be more engaging. Even looking at an empty space in the back row is better than the script-or-screen approach (most of the audience will assume you’re actually looking at someone anyway).
  • If things are going badly – if you realise you’ve been going too fast, or you’ve never actually looked away from your screen, or you can hear snoring – then you can actually turn that to your advantage. Remember that a talk in two parts, each delivered quite differently, is much better than one delivered on a single note. So ignore the voices that say ‘well looking at the audience now would be unsettling’ or ‘if I slow down now they’ll notice it and find it weird’, take a drink of something (brandy works well here), and make that big necessary change. Nay, exaggerate it.  Which leads to the most important point…
  • Being exaggerated and extreme may feel internally weird, but externally it’s probably making much less difference than you think. The most common note I’ve given and received in rehearsals is ‘you know that change I suggested you make? I didn’t see it. Make it much bigger’. And it gets a lot more fun when you do that. Both for you and your audience.


1 = Caveat: Before you all rush to sign up for my next talk, none of this is to claim that I’m the world’s greatest presenter. My style has been usually described as something between “entertaining” (said with a slightly arched eyebrow) and “exhausting”.

2 = If you’re interested in examples from some pretty decent Shakespearian actors: first circle (Judi Dench as Viola in Twelfth Night); second circle (Lynn Collins as Portia in Merchant of Venice); third circle (Mark Rylance as Henry V in Henry V). Though as these folks are good at the whole acting thing they throw in a few changes of circle for good measure. I’m not entirely sure if these are obviously applicable these are to academic speaking, unless your papers are really dramatic affairs – if I find myself in a quiet room with time to spare I’ll try recording some more appropriate examples.


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