All the World’s a Stage: Tips for Public Speaking

first-5-icon-07People usually tell me I’m a pretty strong presenter, and I can attribute a lot of that to my choir and theater days. Before becoming interested in government, I was the typical theater and choir geek. In college, I even studied vocal performance in the hopes of becoming an opera star – a modern day Renée Fleming.

During high school and college, I learned to project my voice, show enthusiasm and, most importantly, convey a story. When it comes down to it, public speaking in any professional manner is really about engaging your audience.

In this two-part series, I’m going to share with fellow millennials what I learned from performing and how it has helped me immensely in the professional world. This week will be about valuable lessons I’ve drawn from acting and singing while next week will cover concrete techniques that you can practice for public speaking.

What Acting Taught Me
These are the lessons I learned from my performing days:

  • Portray confidence. This seems like an obvious one, but I can’t stress its importance enough. There’s nothing more painful than watching someone on stage who shows lack of confidence and serious nerves. While it’s natural to be nervous when presenting, it’s important to find ways to use your nerves to your advantage. Inside, you may be a can of butterflies but that doesn’t mean you have to show it to your audience.

In the singing world, we always use the metaphor of a duck. Above the water, you make the performance look effortless and display poise, grace, and confidence. Meanwhile, under the water (what your audience doesn’t see) your feet are paddling like hell. You’re working your diaphragm to project, you’re thinking about all the notes you need to sing next, and you’re concentrating on your delivery. But the audience never has to know about all the work you put into it.

  • Take it up a notch. I remember when I was at a music camp and auditioned for a main part. It was a comedic role in a Gilbert and Sullivan production. I managed to make the panel laugh and they seemed impressed when I sang for them. But I still didn’t get the part.

 When I later talked to my instructors about why I didn’t receive the role, they said they liked me but they just wanted a little more from me. It turned out even though I thought I was giving it my all, I was still holding back. I learned that when it comes to performing or presenting, you have to take it up a notch.

So, a few months later, when I tried out for a leading role in my high school’s musical, I didn’t hold anything back. I took it up a notch and had the audition panel rolling with laughter. I got the part and that was one of the most fundamental performing experiences in my life.

Let’s apply this to a professional setting: Maybe you’re a soft speaker and you think you’re projecting when you deliver a speech. Sometimes, however, your loud is really not loud enough. Take it Up a Notch. Dial the volume up another level, even if you already think you’re speaking loudly. Chances are your interpretation of loud is probably not as loud as you could be for your audience.

This can work in the reverse as well. Maybe you tend to speak fast -like me – when you present. You think you’ve slowed it down, but to really ensure good delivery, take it down a notch, and really talk slowly and more deliberately to be sure you’re getting your message across.

  • Know whose story you’re telling. Get into Character. This is one of the most important pieces in engaging your audience. In every TedTalk, the speaker always tells a story. That’s why TedTalks are so engaging. Storytelling is the key to getting people to listen. It helps people to connect with what you’re trying to tell them.

Whenever I was playing a role or singing, my instructors would always remind me to ask myself: “Who am I? What story am I telling?” Sometimes I would imagine myself as a woman with unrequited love, an overly doting mother, or even an evil queen. Playing characters I didn’t necessarily relate with personally helped improve my storytelling skills as well as empathy. One of my greatest personal strengths is empathy because I now find it easy to picture myself in the other person’s shoes.

Practicing empathy and picturing yourself as someone else can help immensely with your storytelling and overall speaking skills. So before you get on that stage, get into character and know whose story you’re going to tell.


Stay tuned for next week’s part two blog for concrete tips on public speaking! Please feel free to include your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below!


For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial

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Denise Wolff

You may be planning to address this, but the most applicable skill I took to public speaking from theater was improvisation, because you never know what will happen and how people will respond when you are presenting. The ability to stay centered and respond quickly can be a real presentation saver!

Francesca El-Attrash

Hey Denise, I’m really glad you brought that up! Some GovLoopies here have actually taken improv classes and they said it definitely improved their public speaking skills. Being able to think and respond quickly as you said is so key in public speaking. They say in government that even with answering questions, there’s never extemporaneous speech. Thanks for your thoughts!