August 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio August 1998 Current Issue
August 1998 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

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Drama Lessons for Speakers

These theatrical tricks work wonders at the podium

Theater and meetings have a lot in common - an audience, a message, a design, inadequate budgets and petulant stars. And both industries have been around for a long time: Imagine the requests to the planner who coordinated the Last Supper - "I want to sit next to the Messiah." Later, of course, the wine runs out and you have to go to the client to ask for another "little miracle."

Theater has been around just as long: Cro-Magnon man used elaborate sets in his cave to dramatize his "hunter/gatherer" act. At its peak, Rome's Coliseum ran two shows a day, six days a week.

Here are some tips for marrying the professions.

Rehearse. Okay you've heard this before - but I mean really rehearse the speakers. In theater, we use dress rehearsals to work out all the variables. Form a similar system for your speakers, offering them the chance to work out the kinks before showtime. A fly on the wall also might catch remarks that are inappropriate for your group. For your own speeches, form a core of friends to review each other. Have the group create spontaneous interruptions: The mike goes out, the slides aren't working, your jokes bomb, etc. This builds skill at handling problems.

Warm 'em up. I can't tell you how many times I've seen speakers in corners with their scripts, mumbling their lines. This is a fabulous technique to teach you how to whisper and mumble your lines. Get them out where they can fill their lungs. Encourage them to get their blood flowing through movement, using the conscious part of the brain to stretch the body. When speakers are comfortable, it's easier for the audience to feel that way, too, which helps them absorb the material.

Tell speakers to sleep. Not during their presentations, before them. Actors expend enormous amounts of energy to achieve the emotional levels demanded in their performances. Adequate sleep enhances their abilities. Personally, after 25 years on the road I can nap anywhere - except Des Moines for some weird reason.

Public speaking can be a terrifying, physically draining experience, causing many presenters to sleep badly the night before. Coach them to nap the day before, and have them rehearse when they're awake and pacing in the hotel room.

Visualize. When rehearsing, have speakers imagine themselves in the process of a wonderful presentation. Coach them to see the audience, the too-bright lights, the stage setup. Have them build to a peak performance in their visualization. Have them practice being really good, charming, knowledgeable. Most people practice being normal, adequate, competent, but we become good at things we do a lot, so practice being good a lot.

Be ON when you're on. A speaker's function is to communicate to and interact with the audience. The audience's function is to get the message. Attendees will analyze the speaker from the moment he saunters onstage, so coach speakers to gear up backstage. I teach actors to be "in character" - active and ready to go - well before they enter the stage.

Script the event, not just the speech. Which would you rather attend: a speech or an event? You've got a big world of theater out there, so use it. We worked recently with the CEO of a major communications company. In the past, the meeting was a dry review of annual sales and marketing objectives. This time, the CEO introduced the information as usual, pulling out a huge annual report. Suddenly he tossed the report away and announced: "Let's have a financial picnic instead." Room dividers opened to reveal a hot dog picnic ready for the group. They reviewed the materials, munching on lunch. Attention was grabbed in a unique, entertaining manner, making the information and event more memorable.

Use less time than allotted. Start by telling speakers to use a minimum of words to get their point across - then cut out a few more. For example, before Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am," he said, "I think too much, therefore I am too much." The edit helped a lot.

Another effective old trick: If they've got 45 minutes to deliver the speech, get them to use 38. Time it to the minute and rehearse it to the second. Audiences will love them and you for it. For example, they allowed me 1,200 words to complete this article and I only wrote about 750.

Joe Keefe is executive producer and monsignor of comedy at Chicago's Second City Communications.

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