What Actors Can Teach us About Giving Presentations

We all remember our first business presentation. If you were anything like me, you probably had a well-rehearsed opening line, notecards, and a beautiful PowerPoint deck chock full of compelling facts peppered with accents of generic clipart.

The opening was a little rough, but then you found your groove. You continued in near perfect lecture form, expertly spouting off facts just like your college psychology professor. But then, about halfway through a sudden wave of realization came across you: no one is paying attention.

People don’t want to be lectured, they want to be engaged. We are a highly distracted society, and competition for attention is fierce. Every time you stand up in front of an audience, whether it’s briefing a client or presenting at a conference, you are--at a minimum--competing with bleeping BlackBerrys and pinging iPhones all calling out to their salivating owners.  Audience members have a multitude of alternative choices for focusing their attention, so it’s up to you to figure out how to be the best one.

Recently I spoke with Gary Lyons, a former stage actor turned senior coach with The TAI Group, about what people in the business world can learn from actors when it comes to making effective presentations. As someone who coaches executives on developing and delivering compelling presentations, Lyons says it all starts with telling a story.

Lyons says good story telling is about tapping into the imagination of the audience, and allowing them to connect to your message by making it their own. Here are Lyons three simple tips that every presenter should keep in mind before taking to the stage:

Know Your Audience: “What actors know is that the most important thing is the audience,” says Lyons, which is often contrary to the thinking behind many in corporate America who tend to view the message as most important.

Every presenter has to tell a story that connects with the audience, and is something they can relate to. To be clear, this isn’t about telling people what they want to hear, it’s about understanding what they need to hear from you. Lyons emphasizes that the goal of any presenter should be “to take your audience from a passive state to an active state” and connect them to the message in a way that is meaningful to them.

Taking the time to research your audience and understanding what they need and how you can deliver will ensure an attentive audience.

Before starting a presentation, Lyons recommends taking a moment to pause, look out at the audience, and breathe. This helps shift your attention away from yourself and toward the audience to create a connection. 

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse: Any actor will tell you that you have to know your lines and know them cold. Actors go through several phases of rehearsal before ever taking to the stage. Great performances don’t just happen, they are meticulously composed. Make no mistake doubt about it, presenting is performing and you have to be prepared if you want to deliver an effective presentation. Lyons advises his clients to spend time rehearsing in a venue that resembles the actual venue of the live presentation to simulate show time conditions.

Own the Stage: Lyons says one of the most common mistake business presenters make is they don’t think they are interesting, and instead focus on the content and fall into the role of lecturer, which can lead to mindless rambling.

Needless to say, the content is of course important, however, that content has to be effectively conveyed. To do so you must have a presence on stage.

Lyons cautions that just as in live theater “if the audience doesn’t get it, you have failed.” Be sure to engage your audience, know your lines, and don’t be afraid to own your moment on the stage. 

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership.Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook