Ranice Tay is a Theatre Studies major and a performing and visual arts scholar from the National University of Singapore (NUS). She has been training at Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity under the tutelage of Kamil Haque. In 2016, Ranice co-founded her own performance collective, Passerby Projects and performed in its maiden production, LEAVES (written by Lucy Caldwell). Ranice also aspires to cultivate forms of free expression via acting.
Here’s the thing: everyone wants to be heard. There is, however, a difference between ranting to a friend and giving a speech on stage. On stage, you need a message that is important – and I mean important enough for hundreds of people to be willing to pay to listen to you. It must feel as if your life depended on the message you are about to impart. As mentioned by my friend, you must believe that the speech you give has the potential to change the world.
Yet, a message alone is not enough. The hard part comes in your delivery.
This delivery is a combination of your physical, mental and spiritual abilities. Just as in acting, the training of body, mind and spirit are crucial to the craft. Training takes a long time, of course, but there are some immediately applicable and practical exercises that I always do before I perform. Perhaps they may also be of some use to you.
THE PHYSICAL PREPARATION
The thing that sets good public speakers from great ones is performativity. Your audience is not there to read an academic journal, neither are they there to listen to a podcast. They are there to watch you. And, as long as you are there to present a very important message and not talk about the weather, you will need to engage them as much as possible using your body.
Voice projection is essential in any form of public speaking; especially so when you have to talk to the end of a big auditorium. If your audience cannot hear you, they will not care about your speech. You can find any number of vocal exercises on the internet, but here are some:
- To warm up your voice, try humming to yourself in an ‘mmm’ sound, or produce the ‘ng’ sound.
- Place your hand on your tummy (the place where your belly button is), and pant. You should feel your hand rising with every inhalation, and falling with every exhalation. When you do, it means that you are using your breath right.
- Ask a friend or partner to put their hands on your lower ribs. As you breathe in, they should feel your ribs expanding and pushing against their palms.
- Try speaking your speech to the back of the auditorium. Ask a friend or partner to sit at the back and give you feedback on the clarity of your speech.
- Work on your consonants – they give clarity to the words we speak. You can practice your plosives before a speech. That is, the ‘p’, ‘t’, ‘k’, ‘b’, ‘d’, and ‘g’.
- Tongue and lip trills help you to warm up the articulators in your mouth.
Stretching helps you to loosen up. Work the spine, arms, legs and especially the neck (as we tend to hold the most tension there). You will be surprised at how much lighter you feel after that.
After stretching, check your body for tension. Tension prevents us from acting on our physical impulses, and they can cause our nerves to impede our performance. When we are tense, we cannot feel. When we cannot feel, we cannot express.
When you feel tension in your body, massage the area to relax.
Doing jumping jacks or dancing to your favourite song helps you to get out of your own head and into your body. It keeps your physical impulses firing and helps you stay alert. This is also a good exercise for introverts as we take up as much space as we can, therefore stopping us from going into ourselves when we speak.
The Psychology of Clothing
The way you dress influences the way you feel. Pick your outfit carefully in the morning. You will not feel smart by turning up in a pair of bermudas and thin t-shirt for a grandiose public speaking event. Likewise, you might feel out of place if you come fully suited for a casual speech in the outdoors.
I personally alternate the shoes I wear to give me an extra boost before a performance. Wearing my black Nikes, for instance, helps me feel sporty and I get more inspired to perform intricate movement pieces.
THE MENTAL PREPARATION
Mental preparation is all about knowing what exactly you are there to say. If you are unclear about your message, you will confuse your audience. Having good mental preparation allows you to focus and (more importantly) let go during your performance so that you are completely able to express yourself.
Look at your script again and recap the points
There is a high degree of uncertainty when it comes to live performances. However, you can avoid the potential problem of forgetting your lines on stage. Always look through your script once before you perform, even when you think that you have it memorized by heart. If you find that large chunks of texts are too tedious to read, break them down into point form and write them on cue cards for yourself.
Never memorize your script at the eleventh hour. Not only would you most probably forget some important points, you will also spend the whole time on stage trying to remember your text. This only takes away from the performance and prevents you from giving your best.
What are the stakes?
Sometimes, we spend so much time and energy rehearsing for a performance that we forget why we chose to do it in the first place. To prevent burnout, ask yourself: why is it so important that I give this speech? What are the stakes to the world if I do not give this speech?
For example, if your speech is meant to encourage people to turn to vegetarianism, then ask yourself why saving the lives of animals is important. What will happen to our earth, future generations, or to humankind, if we continue to let animals suffer?
Finding out the stakes drives you to work better on your material.
What is the heart of the speech?
If your speech had to be reduced to just one line, what will that line be? Once you have figured out what this line is, feel free to improvise the rest of the text but keep to this one line. This is the heart of your speech.
Use the script in your everyday dialogue.
Most beginner actors (and public speakers) speak as though they are narrating from a given script. This takes away from the believability of what they are saying. Instead, make every line sound spontaneous. Nobody likes to interact with someone who sounds like a robot – all interesting conversations are born out of immediacy.
To work on this, simply see if you can use lines from your script in everyday dialogue. For example, when you are talking to a friend. Sneak a line or two in and see if they call it out. If they don’t – excellent. It means that the line sounds spontaneous enough. If they do detect something wrong, then work on the line (changing the text or your delivery) until it sounds more organic.
THE SPIRITUAL PREPARATION
“Personalize it” as my acting teacher would so often say in his classes. In other words, why does it matter to you?
Most public speakers go onto stage speaking as if they would like to be done and over with a household chore. Truly caring about the speech you are giving will accentuate your delivery, making it more engaging and meaningful. And, when it holds value to you, it can, and will, affect your audience.
People react and respond better to the personal touch. Just recounting a personal incident that has happened to you will make your speech more engaging.
Anyway, I figured that since we are on the topic of personalizing your speech, here’s a personal story on public speaking to wrap up the article:
Several weeks ago, I had just completed the run of a month-long theatre show. Suffering from a severe post-show hangover, I met with one of my fellow cast mates for dinner, and we started talking about how we came into acting. The conversation grew into something like this:
“Actually, I’m not sure if I want to act.”
“Oh. Then what do you want to do?”
“Well, I want to be a politician.”
Of course, she hadn’t said anything like this before and I’ve always assumed that she wanted to become an actress. There was a moment of silence at the dining table as she continued chewing on her linguine.
“And how did that dream come about? Politics?”
“Well, you see, I never spoke very well as a kid. Kept stammering. Couldn’t complete a sentence without repeating myself. Then, in Secondary 3, there was this debating competition that I tried for. Maybe the teacher-in-charge saw something in me because I never for the life of me knew why I was chosen back then. We had to go through this intensive period of debate training. But during the competition…there was this moment.…”
She took a sip of tea and continued.
“Standing on stage and realizing that I could speak to people and they would listen – that changed me.”
“And that made you go into theatre too.”
“Yeah. There’s really not much of a difference, acting or performing or public speaking, whatever we call it. But it’s a responsibility, you know. Standing up there with a message. You could change someone’s mind forever.”