Dare to Be Different
Experimenting with creative speaking styles.
By Birgit Starmanns
As a veteran of the theater, and a seasoned presenter at technical conferences, I embrace being in the spotlight. Which is why my friends still wonder about my Toastmasters membership, saying, “You don’t need it!”
My reason: Continual practice is important. Dancers and actors take classes throughout their careers to maintain their craft and learn new techniques. I had reached the point where I needed to stretch myself – get outside of my comfort zone. I was used to memorizing theater dialogue and being narrowly focused on the material I produced for conferences. My goal with Toastmasters is to experiment with different speaking styles and formats, especially impromptu speaking.
In Toastmasters, I have a safe, supportive environment where I can try out a variety of strategies and receive honest feedback. Standing before a large audience of, say, computer programmers – who often pay a hefty fee to attend conferences – is not the place to experiment.
In a theater production, actors play particular roles, and even small differences in intonation and movement can confuse fellow performers, throwing off the timing of the entire play. Again, not the best place to experiment.
But the theater is a great source of inspiration for creative approaches to speech-making. When I began my Ice Breaker, I turned to the audience on one side of the room and used a typical catchphrase from my technical presentations. Then I turned to the audience on the other side to sing a line from Memory, the famous song from the musical Cats:
“Welcome to my dual personalities: business and the arts.” They loved it.
Just as you have personal preferences in clothing, food and cars, you also likely prefer a particular speaking style. But before settling on one method just because you’re afraid to try something new, use your Toastmasters experiences to experiment with the unknown. You may discover another style that brings something new and valuable to the table. And while you’re at it, you might try dipping into the world of theater for some ideas.
The legendary acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski, in his book An Actor Prepares, writes about the importance of being convincing and emotionally truthful, allowing the audience to feel what the actors feel. If you apply that concept to speech-making, think of each speech as a performance: Your purpose may be to entertain, to convince or impart information – any of these is a performance!
If you fail to know your topic intimately, believe in it or present it in a compelling way, you won’t have a successful performance or achieve your objectives.
Here are some theater techniques that can improve your creativity as a speaker:
• Use quotes. Presenting quotes in a speech in an unexpected way – either by adopting the voice of a character, or even breaking into song – makes them more memorable. But don’t use just any quote. In a good musical, the song moves the story forward, by giving you insight into the thoughts of a character or by creating a dialogue or action scene. Think of the rumble scene in West Side Story, or Sandy and Danny in Grease finally committing to each other in a song. The quote is like a song in that way: It should serve a strong purpose or advance your ideas.
• Play a role. Your message can have more impact when it is told through a character. When playing a role, you need to adopt specific characteristics, and you can do that with the pitch and intensity of your voice, and a different way of walking and using hand gestures.
If you do change roles mid-speech, make sure it is obvious, using either an extensive pause or a dramatic change in personas. The president of my Toastmasters club – a man – recently gave a well-received humorous speech in which he took on the persona of a woman.
• Use props. In the theater, a kitchen scene typically requires a mock stove as well as pots and pans. Props can help your speeches too. But by props, I do not mean typical visual aides such as slides or maps: Sometimes pantomiming a prop – think air guitar – can serve you well.
To be truly creative, take it a step further. If you are speaking about your favorite recipe, bring samples to pass around. If you are speaking about tennis, bring a racquet and demonstrate some swings – just make sure you’re far enough away from your audience when showing off that wicked backhand!
• Stage your presentation. In the theater, each motion is practiced. In Grease, I had to duck a flying baton, so timing was critical if I didn’t want to get hit in the face. When giving your speeches, move around to different areas of the stage for emphasis. If you’re presenting two sides of an argument, then don’t move around arbitrarily – stay on one side of the lectern to present one side, then move to the other when delving into the opposite viewpoint. Such movement reinforces your points visually.
• Wear costumes. In the theater, your clothing reflects your role, whether you are a 17th century character or representing a profession such as a doctor. Whether or not you wear an elaborate costume, think about your clothing for the presentation you make: Does it really represent you, and is it appropriate to the occasion? You wouldn’t wear a three-piece suit when giving a speech to miners.
• Invite audience participation. An easy way to do this is by simply asking audience members to raise their hands in response to various questions. “Who has seen that film?” “Who voted in the last election?” When you’re ready to tackle something a little trickier, ask comprehensive questions – those that require more than a yes-no answer. However, be ready for the unexpected reply.
The riskiest tactic of all is pulling someone up from the audience. You can’t be sure what they’re going to do. However, if you want to demonstrate a simple technique, such as a tap step or a golf swing, try having someone come up and follow along with you; you’re not only drawing that person closer into your talk but making the entire crowd more curious.
In his book Acting One, drama professor Robert Cohen emphasizes the importance of making choices. Bad choices are the safe, run-of-the-mill ones; good choices are exciting, daring and involve others.
Experimenting with my speeches allows me to find my own voice. After only three weeks as a Toastmaster, I competed in the divisional Table Topics competition. Maybe it was because I was the only competitor who paused, planning what to say next; perhaps it was because I got out from behind the lectern and walked around; or maybe it was due to the confidence I have built up by honing my acting skills. But the result was: I won!
Still, there’s a time and a place for everything. I doubt that I’ll sing at the next technical conference I speak at…but who knows?
Birgit Starmanns, CC, is VPPR for SAP Toastmasters in Palo Alto, California.