How to Infuse Acting into Your Speech
Read earlier posts in the How to Create the Best-Speech-of-Your-Life series.
You have a first draft.
You’re meeting with a mentor to gather feedback.
Add a little acting flair to your speech.
Do you ever watch a movie like a zombie in a trance?
Is it the story, the actors, the scenery?
Maybe all three. For your speech, you control at least two – the story and the actor/actress. The story is your written draft. You’ve got that…or you’re on your way. Now it’s time to sharpen the instrument – you. Your body, your voice, your gestures, your movement.
Want a preview? Learn these techniques first.
- Eye Contact – Look at one person when asking questions, speaking dialogue, or telling a joke.
- Movement – Start your speech in the middle, then move from your right to left (audience’s left to right) for each of your main points (point 1 right, point 2 middle, point 3 left).
- Pace – Speak at a moderate pace aiming for 120 – 150 words per minute. Take deep breaths to calm your nerves. When in doubt, speak slower.
- Power – Use your abs to project your voice. Speak louder than feels comfortable. You sound louder to yourself than your audience.
- Pause – Take a deep breath between major sections of your speech and before your most impactful sentences. Pauses feel longer to you than your audience.
- Gestures – Use simple, natural gestures like showing “1” finger, “2” fingers, “3” fingers to introduce each of the main points in your speech.
Practice eye contact
Write eye contact cues
Add cues in your speech text to look at specific places in the audience. Here are a few easy examples (M=middle, L=left, R=right). All examples assume you look at one person-only in that section.
- Introduction – (ask question directly @1st row)
- Body – (tell joke directly @2nd-row R-side)
- Conclusion – (look L, R, M for ‘triad finale’)
- Note – a triad is also called ‘the rule of three’ and is my go-to technique for the end of a speech.
- “Today we’re going to do x.”
- “Tomorrow we’re going to do y.”
- “Every day we’re going to do z.”
- Who’s ready to do x, y, and z with me?!?
Adding notes on where you’re going to look may feel like cheating. You can skip the cues when you’re an eye-contact-Jedi-master.
Look at one person
Every time I miss an opportunity to wring the maximum effect from part of a speech my mentor says, “You left a little ‘meat-on-the-bone’.” When mastering eye contact, don’t ever leave ‘meat-on-the-bone’ in these scenarios. Always looks directly at one audience member.
- When asking a question
- When saying dialogue
- When telling a joke
Why? If you look at one person, many people in the audience (subconsciously) will imagine themselves as that person. The person you engage gets a special moment that’s easier to remember. You look confident. What’s not to like?
Practice eye contact live
You MUST have your speech memorized to practice eye contact live. It’s frustrating to practice eye contact when reading. Also, hilarious for someone watching you look down, look up, look down, look up over and over again.
Close your eyes (after you read this). Imagine your stage. Where will people sit?
Imagine these spaces:
- First row
- Middle row
- Last row
Use the ‘rule of thirds’ to break your room into nine quadrants, like the image below. You don’t need to make eye contact with each quadrant. Target the green areas to give the appearance of making eye contact with everyone.
Now open your eyes and say your speech looking at these different locations throughout. Remember to hit the back row, far-left, and far-right sides. The front should be easy.
Finally, practice in a room resembling the room you’ll speak in. Take a picture of the space so you can refer back to it. Whenever you practice, take a moment to visualize this space beforehand.
Movement for a three-part speech
No one likes watching a tree. Okay, maybe monks but most people want action. Start simple. Imagine your stage. Cut it into three sections – left, right middle. If your speech has three main points, assign each a section.
- Introduction – Start in the middle.
- First point – Walk to the right.
- Second point – Walk to the middle.
- Third point – Walk to the left.
- Conclusion – Walk back to the middle.
Like the image above start on your right for the first point because it looks like the left to the audience (invert your perspective) and makes your speech read like a book “left-to-right”.
More movement options
If you have more sections or want another option, you could:
- cut into more than three sections but you’ll hit a limit quickly
- reuse spaces (ex. go back in time by walking right-to-left “left-to-right” from your audience’s view)
- assign each space meaning and occupy that area when that happens
- Right = failure
- Middle = learning
- Left = success
- * Bonus = ‘announce the space name’
- Get a laugh when you announce the space name. “This (motions to area) part of my life I like to call ‘failure’. Whenever I’m here, you know life isn’t going well.”
- At the end of your speech right before your big success, run back to your ‘failure’ space when you make a big final mistake. “(runs back to ‘failure space’) Remember my failures. Well, I’m back. Here’s what happened…”
Combine movement and eye contact
When using the eye contact techniques in this article, add movement to amplify the effect.
- Take one or a few steps towards the one person you’re engaging.
- When walking left or right from another space, walk towards one person in that area.
Walking towards one person from a distance might feel creepy but it’s highly engaging when done right. It makes your movement look more natural. When it doesn’t feel right, keep practicing.
Eliminate purposeless movement
When you’re walking back and forth, side to side, over and over again just to move, that’s purposeless. Don’t move just to move. Move because it helps tell the story. Videotape yourself practicing if you want to check yourself before you wreck yourself live.
Vary your voice
Voices are fun. Voices are scary. Use different voices to entertain your audience. When you tell a story and only use your voice, I’m bored. Make an effort. Give me a high treble for that female voice. You don’t do this for normal storytelling. I get it. We tell those parts of the story as a narrative “so my wife said something about something and something” or we say it in our voice. That’s fine in most situations, but this is the best speech of your life. Watch your favorite Saturday Night Live characters. Take a chance.
Learn and use the four ‘p’s.
Have you ever heard someone drone on — speaking – at – the – same – flat – pace – second – by – second – minute – by – minute – hour – by – hour – over – anndddd – ovveeerrrr – again? Maybe that teacher who always lulled you to sleep? A boring voice normally comes from an unvarying pace and/or pitch. To avoid watching your audience drift off to sleep, throw two change-up pitches.
Increase your pace to add excitement
Read your speech and add an ‘E’ when you want to add excitement. Maybe a story. Maybe the build to the conclusion. Should a character be excited? Can he or she speak a line or two quickly? Are you excited as the speaker? Can you show that by speaking more quickly?
Most people speak at 120 – 150 words per minute. Audiences can’t absorb much more than that except for a few brief moments when an audience notices you’ve sped up. We notice your excitement. We pay more attention. This is like time slowing down in a car crash. Your senses heighten and store more information. Use the force wisely.
Slow your pace to draw people in
Read that speech again add a ‘D’ when you want to draw people in. Maybe a question. Maybe when you’re speaking softly. Maybe the last few lines of the conclusion. Do — you — want — to — remember — to — slow — down? Yes, of course. Again this only works for a line or two. Audiences bore quickly, but a well-placed slowdown perks our ears.
Target 100-150 words-per-minute budget for a normal pace
Besides the change-ups, use a moderate pace for normal speaking. You might get nervous or speak fast naturally. Not good. We can’t keep up. You might speak slow by default. Not good. We’re bored. Slightly better than too fast. Ask someone new to listen to a minute of your speech. Ask if it sounds fast or slow. Often we speak at the pace of people from our family or hometown. In the US we assume that Southern people speak a little slow and New Yorkers a little too fast. Know your natural tendency and adjust to a moderate pace. Aim for 100-150 words per minute maximum. If you’re saying less than 100 words, it’s likely too slow. More than 150, too fast. When in doubt, speak slower.
You sound louder in your head than you do to your audience. There’s probably a scientific reason for this. No matter. However loud you are in your head, you don’t sound that loud to us. When in doubt, speak louder.
Use your abs to project your voice
What’s that? What did you say? Can you speak up? Has anyone ever said this to you? Or worse yet, have you ever had that eerie feeling that everyone is staring at you but no one understands what you’re saying? Speak louder, PLEASE. I’m an introvert. It’s hard to overcome speaking softly. I still mumble but when speaking to a group I use my abs.
I work with many soft speakers. While I’m desperately trying to hear what they’re saying I watch their abs or lack of abs. If you’re not speaking loud regularly, your abdomen will be sore when you start. I’ve felt it. It hurts. You don’t need a six-pack, but you need to use what core strength you have to project your voice like the stick figure in the image above practicing opera to hit the back of the audience.
To learn to use your abs, hold a plank (like a push-up position) for sixty seconds. The part of your abs you use during this exercise is what you want to engage when projecting your voice. Then, try breathing hard. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Now forcefully expel all the air out through your mouth until you’re gasping for air. Now you’re using your abs. Repeat that five times. Practice that technique before you read your speech and your abs will get stronger for speaking and you’ll train your mind to engage them at the right time.
Practice reading a sentence with a single breath
Take a deep breath and read a sentence loudly using your abs all while expelling one breath. You should be able to deliver most of your sentences in a single breath. If you’re not using your abs and breathing correctly, it’s a challenge. Keep practicing. Keep planking.
Speak in a whisper to draw people in
The contrast between your normal speaking voice or a loud volume voice and a low, soft voice gets people to re-engage even if they’re tuned out. Why is he speaking quietly? Is she telling us a secret? When slowing down your pace, take your volume down a notch. This works well when revealing a secret, a key piece of information, or when speaking in an aside (like this is the special part I’m just telling you). To speak softly and ensure everyone hears you, use your abs again with even more force.
Varying your pitch may be the scariest speaking technique when you’re inexperienced. I’m barely comfortable with my own voice and you want me to pretend to be the opposite sex? Yes. I do. Listen to your favorite characters from movies or tv, people in your life, anyone you can remember for inspiration. If you have audio or a video of them, even better. Learn a voice. Practice it. Write it in your own words or use their phrases. Practice in their voice.
Use a deep voice or a high voice for fear
When you’re afraid, use a high voice. When you want to scare someone, use a deep voice. You can experiment with more situations. Varying your pitch quickly conveys emotion and adds to your story.
Use an opposing voice to differentiate characters
If you have both sexes in your dialogue, make it clear. If you’re a man speak like a woman and if you’re a woman speak like a man. Imagine you’re both the man and woman in the image below. This is a corollary to the deep/high voice. Males, use a high treble for a female voice. Females, add a low bass for a male voice. You can write in male or female language to add to this effect (ex. a man says “you catch that new Rami Malek, bro?” or a woman might say, “as if I’d be caught dead watching that Queen movie”). Just a line of female dialogue from a man brings a smile to everyone’s face and vice versa. Don’t leave any meat on the bone.
Add character voices
Do you have dialogue from someone you know in the speech? What’s distinctive about their voice? Do they have any funny speaking habits you could amplify? My dad used to repeat everything we said to him as if asking a question – “used to repeat everything we said to him???” He’d speed up the pace at the end – “we said to him???” You have no idea what this sounds like but if you heard me do it in a conversation you’d laugh or want to kill me or both. My family uses this technique whenever we reminisce about my dad, magnifying it for maximum laughs. Look for these habits in anyone you’re impersonating.
The easiest way I’ve found to add a character voice is to assign a character to a well-known actor, comedian, or celebrity. Watch a video of the famous person before reading your lines for that character and impersonate their voice. This also works for prototypical voices like a scientist, a priest, or a blonde. Scientists are high and nasally. Priests are calm, loud, and expansive. Blondes are — well, I don’t want to offend blondes but the point is you can apply stereotypical voices to your characters whether it’s an exact match or not. The point is to differentiate people to make your story easier to follow. Not accuracy. The truth bends in the eye of a great story. Ask your audience. We prefer entertainment over facts. Permission to distort reality granted.
Add pauses so we remember
Most speakers have a tendency to jam as many words as possible in their speech. Remember, you understand your speech much better than your audience. I struggle with this. I wish you knew what I knew about my subject. I could cover so much more in less time. But if I add more, you remember less. Audiences need time to catch up. Your speech is like a movie everyone starts watching at the exact same time in different locations. But your internet is fast and mine is slow. After a minute you’ve seen all sixty seconds. My video of your speech is buffering from my slow internet so I’m only at fifty-seven second, three seconds behind. Can you pause for three seconds so I can catch up and we’re in sync?
So we remember what you say next.Matt Dever
The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to add the word “pause” or “PAUSE” right into your speech text. This reminds you when you want to take longer pauses. Sometimes, I use ellipses “…” to indicate a one-second pause, doubles “… …” for two seconds, triples “… … …” for three or dashes for the same effect “—“. This helps me see visually when I want to pause and how long.
Wait, why pause?
Maybe you’ll remember to pause
if I just pause long enough
for you to remember
to pause.Matt Dever
Use natural gestures
If you’re stiff as a tree when speaking, we notice. If you’re as flamboyant as a peacock, we notice. Not in a good way. Target the middle. Not a tree, not a peacock, maybe DiCaprio or Portman.
Start with simple gestures
It’s easy to say “move naturally” but hard to execute when you’re frozen with fear. Start with simple gestures like raising one, two, and three fingers to indicate when you’re speaking about each of the three main points in your speech. Easy gesture. Easy win. Once you’re more comfortable, use gestures to highlight key points but only when it looks and feels natural.
Make small gestures bigger
If you’re raising your index finger to indicate “#1”, your first point, it shouldn’t be in front of your abdomen, chest, or shoulder. Stretch way up high to bring that index finger to the sky like Speaker B in the image below. That’s a big gesture. It signifies confidence. Even if you don’t have confidence now, you’ll have more later from these big gestures. Plus, it’s easier for your audience to see.
Replace poor hand positions with stronger ones
Holding your hands in your pockets or folding your arms does not look good. Use stronger positions like clasping touching your fingertips in front of your belly or holding one hand across your abdomen. Practice these default positions until they become automatic. I practice when someone is speaking to me. It helps to have two defaults so you don’t look awkward from standing in the same position for so long. To take it up a notch, watch film of presidents or even good actors playing presidents. My favorite is Martin Sheen in the West Wing. Watch his hand positions like the stick figures below. Mimic them and you’ll look “presidential”. You can’t beat that.
The actor has to develop his body.
The actor has to work on his voice.
But the most important thing the actor has to work on is his mind.Stella Adler
Use the techniques above to learn to deliver a great speech like an actor honing his craft. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Start with practicing one of the ideas in the summary at the beginning of this post. Use it. Then practice another.
We are actors every day in the play of life. Might as well be good at it.
Read other posts in the How to Create the Best-Speech-of-Your-Life series.