I am delighted to post a guest blog today. I met Denise earlier this year when we both attended a comedy workshop. She is a very funny lady and knows a thing or two about performing. Enjoy her blog about nerves, the stage and giving presentations!
A friend’s Facebook status today read ‘I’m an actor, so I don’t know who I am.’
I’m not sure I concur with the sentiment but I know what he was getting at. An actor dons the persona of someone else and speaks through them. What a luxury to adopt the status of a monarch, a showgirl, a psychopath… and to know that you are confidently presenting them the voice of a person with a totally different life experience to yours. That’s not to say actors don’t suffer from anxiety when they perform. Plenty do. Indeed Sir Lawrence Olivier was plagued by stage fright throughout his career. In 1995 Stephen Fry fled a performance of a new West End show and it was 17 years before he appeared on stage again. Perhaps the skill and curse of these great actors lies in their very strong connection to their sense of self, so that even inhabiting another persona cannot divest them of their own vulnerabilities. This is probably what makes them so riveting to watch.
Many actors tell me that once they are on stage and channelling their character, the adrenalin overrides fear and they can give themselves over to the performance. This was certainly my experience- the playwright presents you with solid content, the director ensures your every move is designed to share each moment in the best way possible, a thorough rehearsal process makes the delivery second nature and you are held within the safe arms of another character. You are not expected to present yourself. So what happens when the actor is asked to strip away the character, become the scriptwriter and director and present their own naked truth? What happens? We become just like anyone else who is asked to stand in front of an expectant audience and allow ourselves to be seen and heard. There are actors who are confident public speakers and actors who are not. The difference may lie in the fact that the actor has been trained to prepare, but this preparation will serve the public speaker and the actor equally well.
Like the trained actor we can give ourselves a great headstart when it comes to presenting! Make sure you know your audience and craft your ‘script’ to give them a message that will be meaningful to them. Like the actor who falls passionately in love with the character (yes, even the psychopath) you must feel passionate about your message. Find its heart and deliver it with infectious enthusiasm and most importantly, commit to the rehearsal process- in other words practise, practise, practise… know your message so well that, like the accomplished actor, you can vary your performance. If the technology fails you on the day you have your raw material so honed that it need not throw you. If the audience throws an unexpected question at you, you are so familiar with your message that you can comfortably go off-piste and then steer the presentation back on course. I concede this is a high bar, recalling now an incident on stage when I was in a scene with an actor who had forgotten his words, stared blankly for a moment, turned to me and said, ‘What say you on this matter, madam?’ We took a few deep breaths, spoke a few lines of utter nonsense and eventually got the scene back on track and apparently the audience were none the wiser (or just very kind!)
I have left the most important parallel between the actor and the public speaker to last. Having traversed both paths for several years there is one unifying element that will serve you: your breath. Whether you speak or act or sing or sit in front of a computer all day… if you can master the art of deep diaphragmatic breathing you will reduce the effects of anxiety and give your natural voice a chance to be heard. Here’s what Harvard Medical School has to say about it
“Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm’s range of motion. The lowest part of the lungs doesn’t get a full share of oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious… Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.”
Sounds like a no brainer to me. So whether you’re a veteran actor or newbie public speaker it seems to me that the trick is to keep breathing!
After completing an honours degree in drama, English and psychology from Natal University in South Africa Denise performed in over 30 professional theatre productions from Shakespeare to pantomime. She was a member of the Theatre Sports Improvisation Company at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg for several years before founding and teaching at The Actors Centre in Johannesburg. She moved into a corporate theatre environment performing in role play, forum theatre, cabaret, corporate in-house videos and radio. She has worked for more than twenty production companies doing communication training, role play, directing and scriptwriting for a variety of clients from financial to pharmaceutical incorporating a vast range of projects from a Ferrari launch to chicken diseases! Her website is http://www.denise-cassar.com