We've all been there: stuck in an awful Zoom Meeting secretly playing chess in the background, or back in the days before COVID-19 forced to sit through a presentation that could have been an email. Public Speaking has been around for a long, long time. Aristotle published his treatise on the perfect public presentation nearly 2355 years ago. So what gives? Why are we still so bad at performing?
The problem, more often than not, is that we begin with a logical fallacy. We believe the audience already understands us. We think they can see into our mind, follow our points precisely, and give nuance to our quirks and personalities. But they can't.
The exciting thing about any form of public dialogue is that there are certain expectations. It is almost as if these expectations are universal because of their cross-cultural and political boundaries. This is what separates dramatic story telling from something like a novel. Can the two borrow elements from each other, absolutely, but a novel can never be transposed to the screen correctly. After all, what would the internet have to argue about if the movie and book were equally good?
For example, every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is where the classic Three Act structure comes from, and whether we choose to break it or not is up to us, but we must do so willingly. To disobey the rules simply because we do not know them is a cardinal sin.
Whether it's a speech or a play, if it is performed in public, it needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The tips below are based on the works of Robert McKee's Story, Aristotle's Poetics, Syd Field's book Screenplay, and Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing, as well as ideas by Dan Harmon and Joseph Campbell.
"Every sensible invention must have a purpose, every planned sprint a destination." - Lajos Egri
What is your story about? What is its theme? What is the dramatic question you are seeking to answer? A premise is the most basic form of your story. All stories are based on ideas, and there must be a thematic truth of your presentation. In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Egri urges the playwright to narrow it down to the purest form of the idea, or as Eames, Tom Hardy's character in Inception, puts it, "You need the simplest version of an idea in order for it to grow naturally."
In his book, Egri deposits something that the Premise of Macbeth is, "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction." The inspiration for Macbeth was the Biblical quote, "The sins of the fathers are visited on the children." Every bit of verse written by Shakespeare returns to ambition and destruction.
Translated literally, Premise is a proposition or a basis of argument leading to a conclusion. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis all flow out of and form the Premise. Let me translate that: the basic idea, it's counterpoint, and the merging of those two ideas to create something new.
We all had to write a thesis statement in college, summarizing our main point. We all also had to come up with arguments against our position and had to either prove or disprove its merit. Lastly, we had to come up with a resolution between these conflicting ideas. When we wrote those essays, we probably thought they were God's gift to literature; however, they're probably better left on whatever burned hard drive they died on.
Today, if you want the audition to incept your idea and walk away feeling changed, you need to understand what the fundamental version of that idea is and build it.
"O, for a Muse of Fire--" - Shakespeare
Now that you have that idea, whatever it may be, you need to create an image for it. This is where the prologue comes in.
In classic drama, the prologue was usually a speech given by the chorus to set the stage for what was to come. In Shakespeare's Henry V, an actor, thought to be Shakespeare himself, stepped on stage and laid out the scene to come for the audience with beautiful verse and intense imagery. He invoked the muses, apologized for the inadequacy of the special effects of the time, interlaced some propaganda for the warrior king, but most importantly, he sets the stage for the battles to come.
While most people consider a prologue to be a useless piece of information that hackneyed thrillers writers cram into stories because audiences expect it, the prologue is actually one of the most useful elements in a story. Today, while we do occasionally still use a text-based prologue as in Star Wars or a bit of narration before a movie, we are more likely to scene an additional scene added before the actual plot of the movie begins.
Robert McKee wrote the bible on screenwriting. Whether or not it must be adhered to is another story entirely, but Story lays out the foundations for good screenplays. In his book, McKee lays out what a good prologue is: a single event or sequence of events that encapsulates the themes of the story.
The idea of a prologue is a miniature version of your story. It works as a hook. It can be used like Shakespeare's opening scene in Romeo and Juliet, where the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets is set up with a fight, or the dramatic black and white image from Casino Royale in which we experience James Bond's first kill.
If you know what your Premise is, you can base your opening image/prologue on that theme. Go back to Egri's Premise in Macbeth, "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction." How did Shakespeare welcome us into the dark and mysterious world of the play? With witches, talk of kings, and violence.
Three Act Structure
"The gods too are fond of a joke" - Aristotle.
Joke telling is storytelling. There is a setup, a turn, and a punchline. In dramatic writing, it is known as the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution.
In 1979 Syd Field wrote his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, where he broke down the foundations of dramatic structure as he saw it. Although Field gets credit for putting it in print and detailing it so that the masses can understand it, this structure is almost innate.
Every presentation needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We need to be introduced to the world and its characters, we need to see these characters face challenges and obstacles. We want to know whether or not they succeed in the end. Every audience expects this.
Literature loves to play with the narrative. Some people argue there are five acts, others seven, and some people say there are no acts only actions one leading to the next. For our purposes here, we should honor the fact that we need the Three Act Structure to save mental space for our audience.
Like Joseph Campbell's archetypes and the hero's journey, the three-act structure gives the audience a way into the presentation. They know where they are, so they can focus on other things, namely, you.
Now, certainly, you can rearrange your presentation but do so at your own peril. Yes, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino love to play with time and cuts. Still, you don't have the power of the edit or the luxury of entertainment. Sadly, reports and presentations don't always offer the benefit of gangsters doing gangster stuff or amnesia.
It's important to note here as well that while the structure is used to give the audience a latticework to understand where they are in time and space of story, and perhaps when they can take a potty break, it is not mandatory. What is more important than hitting particular beats is capturing the flow of the narrative. Some screenwriters, like Stanley Kubrick, likened cinematic storytelling more to a mood like a piece of music. So remember use structure to your advantage, but don't cram it down people's throats.
Climax and Catharsis
What brings us back to drama again and again? Why do romance novels and thrillers hook us, or why do we still enjoy seeing the hardboiled detective catch the crook? Catharsis.
Like any good writer, Aristotle made sure not to define this word he made up anywhere in Poetics, leaving it instead up to history professors and theatre nerds to define the term.
Thanks to this, catharsis and it's meaning get bandied about a lot in writing circles, and odds are you heard your Theatre Appreciation teacher loft it about and had no idea what the hell they were talking about.
In essence, catharsis is the emotional release we feel when we watch a story. It's laughing at someone else's pain in a farce or crying during the Red Wedding. It is gasping when Juliet wakes up and feeling that emotional release when you hear, "I'm Jean-Valjean!"
The words also go hand-in-hand with a term Aristotle did define anagnorisis. This word, according to Aristotle, is when the character makes a crucial discovery. Think Oedipus when his world flips upside down, Old Boy when he finds out who his daughter is, or any Sherlock Holmes movie made within the last two decades.
It is the sudden awareness by the main character when meaning is thrown on them like a bucket of water, often reversing the understanding of the world or the antagonist.
This is the "I am your father," moment, or, in the case of Macbeth learning MacDuff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped.
When giving a presentation, how are you trying to change their minds? What are you driving at? And when do you want to hit?
A premise is meant to be understood early, so the audience knows where they are going, but catharsis and anagnorisis are meant to land like a knock-out punch in the 12th round. Save this for the end, it's your big reveal and what you want to leave the audience talking about.
Brave New World
"O brave new world, That has such people in it!" - Shakespeare
The ending. Get the ending right, and the rest doesn't matter. Think about how many movies muddled the first part or wasted your time in the middle, but as long as they stuck the ending, it was all worth it.
Like Stephen Covey noted, "Begin with the end in mind." What message do you want to leave people with? Hopefully, it's your Premise, and the question is, "How do you lead them to water?"
When giving a speech a great way to think of it is like this: here is the world as it is, here is the problem we face, this is what the world will look like after today. Steve Jobs used this model to present the iPhone.
The secret here is how you think about the presentation. When we watch something, we cast ourselves as the lead. Therefore, as you craft your narrative, remember who the hero of your story is: the audience.
The person who is going on the adventure is your audience. You are the storyteller. Keep that in mind, when creating your speech. You are not the protagonist, they are. Like a poet of old, you already know the story and how it ends. The audience is going on the journey.
Use these tools, and you will start creating better presentations today.
Soft skills are becoming more essential each day. Yes, the world is run on code, but as we continue to merge with the machines we are discovering more and more the importance of things such as writing, story, and being able to handle a crowd. Since we have been on lockdown, Zoom has emerged as the preeminent tool for businesses and auditions alike and now, more than ever, the ability to speak and have people listen is crucial.
But let’s be honest here, ever since grade school most presentations suck. TED talks had a heyday in part because it was nice to see people deliver speeches worth a damn. And although they’ve become trite now, those TED talks packed a punch.
So what separates a good speech from a bad one, besides the obvious unpreparedness and lack of confidence? In today’s blog, I will discuss eight tips culled from film, theatre and a lifetime, thus far, in front of crowds.
Now, before we begin I have a tip before the tips. The first thing you need to do is own the situation. In an audition, the casting director wants you to be the answer to their problems. In a speech, the audience wants you to be good. The audience is on your side. But before you walk on stage you need to know that you belong there. Make the choice to be in charge.
Lastly, a presentation is not a report. It is not slides or graphs. A speech is a sales pitch, and what you are selling is yourself. Your charm, your charisma, your knowledge of the topic. So whether you are an eighth grade student talking about World War 1 or a Vice President talking about sales, you must remember that this is a performance, not a test of your memorization and ability to read. Don’t be afraid to let it fly and enjoy the flow.
Head Coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide and arguably the greatest college football coach of all-time Nick Saban said about his practices that they run the play not until they get it right, but until they can’t get it wrong. Now, me personally, I like leaving a little wiggle room for improvisation, so I don’t get wooden; however, the point is the more reps you take the more confident you become. Robin Williams was known for his ability to improvise, yet, many of those “improvisations” in his stand up routines were scripted. The audience wants to believe they are experiencing a genuine moment. Even in the school of improv there is a saying, “I like my scripted material to seem improvised, and my improv to seem scripted.” Comedians know the audience loves spontaneity, but the speaker must be in control of the room, and to get that they knock out sets night after night and craft jokes every day. Hard work breeds confidence. Public speaking, acting, comedy it's all about confidence. Audiences are like a pack of wolves and they can smell blood. We don’t want our time to be wasted, especially in this day and age. So, we must be prepared when giving a speech. Know your material, know your plan, and execute. Know the material cold. Should you memorize your speech? No. It’s a speech and it's not Shakespeare. So, know your points, outline where you want to go, and practice running through it again and again.
Take a Deep Breath
Public speaking is hard. People avoid it like the plague. And of course they do. When we are in front of a crowd we get nervous. We know that we are being judged and that people are listening to us, so anxiety kicks in and we start taking short breaths. Take enough of them and your anxiety only gets worse. Catch breaths, those little breaths when you take when you don’t have enough air but you try and play it off like no one will notice, are the worse thing you can do when giving a speech. Rather than give you rehased advice like “Picture the audience naked” which is dumb and I’ve never heard of anyone actually doing, all I want you to do is to take a deep breath. I do this before every take of a scene, an audition, or any time I am going to be in front of people talking. This isn’t a casual “Let me say one more thing” breath either. This is a Wim Hof “Breath Man!” breath. If I can take one huge belly breath that fills my diaphragm, lungs, and even my head it immediately relaxes me and fills my body with oxygen. This relaxes me.
Own the Space, Win the Room
The next thing I do is I say to myself, “Win the Room.” See, speeches are not essays. They don’t work the same way as a book or a paper. The moment we change from print to speech the rules change. Think about every awful presentation you’ve seen where the person just speaks what the sides say out loud, or when you have to sit through a monotonous reader who simply says their lesson plan, verbatim, from the page. Now compare that to a comedian or an actor who steps on stage. Huge difference. One of the biggest differences is that the performer owns the room they are in. They act like they deserve to be there. They may be humble and human, but they fill the stage they are on. They’re body language is open, they make eye contact, and they probably make a joke. The point is they don’t let the room control them, they control the room. There’s a saying in casting offices, “That guy had Elvis dust.” Basically, it’s when an actor walks into a room and they’re on. Casting Directors don’t want to work with needy nervous actors any more than people want to sit through bad presentations. We want the person we’re watching to have it. The audition and the speech doesn’t start when you start speaking. It starts when you walk into the room. One more point on this, when I was in college my professors stressed the idea that, “It’s your audition.” Every time you audition it's a chance to perform. Rather than give that power to the audience or the casting director, take it back. This is your speech and your time.
Rate of Speech
We have a misconception in this country that speed equals intelligence. I want you to think right now about the smartest people you’ve ever seen on T.V. Who are they? House? Sherlock Holmes? TV likes this troupe of the fast talking genius like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, that fast computer-like sound that rattles off facts and opinions. And if you were playing Sherlock or Mark Zuckerberg, yeah it works. But presentations don’t work like that. It takes the audience time to pick up on your rhythm and cadence. We need time to adjust to the new information we are taking in. In every Shakespeare production ever, the first 15 minutes are delivered a little more slowly, even if there is a fight scene. Why? The audience’s brain needs time to adjust to the verse. They need time to pick up the speech. Also, just a practical tip, odds are you will get dry mouth. No matter how much water you drink, and you should drink a lot, when you go out there you will probably experience a little cotton mouth or have to work your way through a word. The faster you talk the more this happens.
I almost didn’t include this one because it's easy for people to put on heirs. Think about how Elizabeth Holmes looked in front of the crowd putting on that persona of confidence, or Ricky Bobby not knowing what to do with his hands. It's so easy to be super focused on gestures and posturing that we lose touch with what we are saying. Instead of saying get your shoulders back, which isn’t a bad idea, or stand still, which you should do, I want to offer you a more practical piece of advice: stay present. If you are in the moment and focusing on what you are doing, that means not thinking about the audience's opinion of you or what you’re doing after it's all over, then you will be okay. In a way, you want to reach a flowstate. All of us have different gestures and body language. Some of us talk with our hands, some of us don’t. Some of us move around kinetically others are statues. If this was theatre we would hammer out specifically how to present you as a leader, but this isn’t and people can smell when something is inauthentic (actually, they can smell authenticity in an actor too there’s just more time to iron it out). So, be mindful. In your rehearsals notice if you shift or lean and attempt to correct it where you can, but in the moment let her rip.
Know Your Shit
Again, not to hammer this home too much, but we like to think that if we can control our body and our breath, if we stand still and deliver exactly what we wrote then that equals a good speech. Nope. The golden rule when learning a character is that you leave the rehearsal room in the rehearsal room. One of my favorite sayings is “Check your training at the door.” Just like a golfer doesn’t think about his swing at the tee or a baseball player at play, don’t worry about your performance during the performance. This is suicide. It's a fast track for getting into your head and psyching yourself out. When I was a baseball player in college I got the yips. My coaches spent so much time trying to help my swing, we broke it and my confidence. Then, in games I was so focused on getting my swing right I forgot how to hit, and it snowballed. Everytime I perform or speak in public, this crosses my mind. Games are meant to be played not thought. So, play. The more you focus on what you are saying and being clear and making your points the better off you will be. If you put in the work, rehearsed, and know the points then you are good to go. Trust yourself.
Look ‘em in the eye and Tell them the truth
John Wayne once gave the greatest piece of acting advice ever. “Acting is easy you just look aman in the eye and tell him the truth.” It’s the most John Wayne thing ever. But it's true. We try to conflate all these grandiose ideas into speaking and acting, but if we simplify it down to its most quintessential essence, what is it? We are relating the truth to someone. Story is a lie that tells the truth better than the truth can. This goes doubly for public speaking. There is no fourth wall. The audience is in the room with you. Treat them as such. Don’t look at their foreheads or try and talk to the exit sign. Find the audience members, look at them as individuals, and talk to them. This is one of my favorite things to do when I deliver a Shakespearean monologue. Audiences don’t expect it. They’re so used to the Vagner idea of theatre and the Studio theatre idea of the fourth wall that when I break it, and speak to them, I don’t have to act. It’s one person talking to another person. It’s amazing how effective this is for communicating to the whole audience. By picking someone and talking to them we automatically make the rest of the audience feel more at ease; however, you don’t just talk to one person, you’ve got to spread the love. P.S. Also, the front row is a difficult place for eyeline so maybe pick people in the middle of back.
Dress Well, but Dress like You
Do the clothes make the man? No, but if you’re going to be in front of an audience you better consider what image you are putting out there. If you go onstage and look like a slub then people will discredit you. Likewise, if you overdress or wear something you’ve never worn before then you stick out like a sore thumb. People who wear suits know how a suit is supposed to fit. Just like people who know Slayer know what album is on your shirt. The point is we judge people. Our brain makes decisions quickly. We value our time. If you go in front of an audience and look like you don’t belong they will quickly write you off. The best piece of advice ever is to dress like you would on a first date. If you’re the kind of guy who wears a suit, like I am, then sure dress well. If you’re more of a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy then find a way to dress up your look so that you feel confident and casual.
All of these tips boil down to one thing: Don’t overthink the room. If acting is about action and a speech is theatre, focus on your task, which is to deliver the point. Actors talk about super objectives, desires, and wants because it helps get us out of the weeds. Rather than focusing on how you should be performing, you focus on what you’re doing. The same is true with a speech. Focus on the action at hand and deliver the information you are there to deliver. The better you know it the better you show it.
There is no single greater resource in the modern age than the ability to focus. Multitasking is a lie. We do not thrive on multiple systems running at once; therefore, we should not be striving to create a mind that does the same thing.
Creativity depends on emptiness. Man cannot create in chaos. Go ahead and tell yourself your mess is essential to your process, or that creatives are statistically more likely to work in unorganized patterns. Keep downloading more and more files into your databases.
In his book "Super Rich," Russel Simmons talks about the concept of Junk Mail. If your inbox didn't have a good junk mail filter, you couldn't even get to your essential tasks. The good information would be lost amidst the bullshit.
Now compound email with Social Media, news updates, menial work tasks, trivial websites, and any other stress we throw on top of our minds each day. Every alert is a distraction. Every time we check our inbox, we are breaking our flow.
How often do we browse the internet with a million tabs open and a hundred programs running in the background?
We must learn to find stillness. Inspiration comes through peace. Woody Allen would take hour-long showers while he daydreamed screenplays. Schopenhauer took walks you could set your clock by. Solitude is a creative's best friend.
Enter super sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote:
"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
Memory is a finite resource. Concentration is a finite resource. Willpower is a finite resource. Every time we take in something new, every time we switch tasks, we absolve a bit of our resources. Creativity thrives on deep work. Creatives do not create without empty space.
When we consistently shift tasks and add points of data to our brain, what are we actually doing? By continually checking email, texting, checking Twitter, posting to Facebook, checking Instagram, listening to podcasts, or whatever the dopamine drip may be, we lower our IQ by 15 points.
There is a time and a place for consuming information. How else does a writer know what they like to write but by reading? How does a filmmaker know what to shoot but by watching movies? The secret is that the brain oscillates.
We need moments of deep rest if we want deep concentration, and when we are off, we need to be off. This is true in sports as well. The athletes who make the most strength gains in their training are the ones who treated their recovery as seriously as they treated their training.
Think about it, when we were kids, what did our parents say to us? Could we stay up all night and watch TV, maybe hoping to catch Cinemax after midnight? Could we play video games and neglect all our homework or dinner? No. And yet, now as adults, we don't set any restrictions on the constant flow of information we allow on our phones and computers.
We fall into the trap of, "But, it's the news! I have to stay up to date," or, "I'm learning! If I want to get smarter, I have to keep learning."
Remember, the people designing these websites do not have your best interest in mind. Video games, YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, virtually every form of social media in existence, is designed to keep you coming back for more. Social media is the cigarette of this generation.
Every time you look at your phone, go to a website or buy something that data is stored. There are thousands, if not millions of designers behind that screen, you are looking at, and they are all focused on keeping you on the page for longer and longer.
The antidote for this is learning to be okay with stillness. Just as there is poetry between the lines of a play, there is beauty in the silent moments of life.
It seems counterintuitive, but as creatives we must learn to be comfortable with quiet. We must learn to enjoy moments of peace. The human body can only handle so much stress.
Just as we need ample rest, if we wish to grow our muscles, our minds need ample time to decompress. Otherwise, we tap out and fry our ability to concentrate.
Don't be afraid to take a breath. Don't be afraid to take two breaths. Inspiration loves to strike when we least expect it when we are relaxed. Gustave Flaubert, the author of "Madame Bovary," wrote, "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
One day we sync with our technology and becoming living superheroes. The deductive power of Sherlock Holmes will pale in comparison to our ability to play a video game, have sex, write a play, record a YouTube Video, and solve all our friends' political issues at the same time. But until that Dr. Manhattan moment arrives, we must work with the hardware we have, and the best thing we can do for it, right now, is to give it a goddamn break.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.