5 acting lessons to level-up your public speaking skills
Have you ever been part of a school drama production, performed on-stage, or starred in an epic feature film?
If you have, that’s fantastic! Though if you haven’t, well, it probably doesn’t affect your researcher profile that much! 🤔
… but could these experiences possibly add so much more to your public speaking skills?
It’s a common perception that acting is a gig that’s reserved for trained actors and performers, and you probably think it’s a profession that scientists wouldn’t tap into. However, some scientists have, and they’ve made it BIG out there in the world of film and science communication. Take Dr. Randy Olson for example, marine biologist-turned-Hollywood filmmaker and founder of the ABT Framework, who beautifully weaved together the worlds of science and acting.
In fact, as a PhD student and aspiring pharmaceutical scientist myself, I never thought acting would be in my cards at all. Ever. That was, until I saw an open casting call on Facebook one day, and by some miracle, ended up on the big screen alongside George Clooney and Julia Roberts in the Hollywood rom-com, Ticket to Paradise (2022). The whole experience ignited a passion for acting within me that I never even knew existed, and I’ve been taking acting classes ever since.
As a researcher, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between my time on set with my experience presenting at conferences. It was then that I realised: acting skills are life skills. So, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned from my acting experience so far, and how I’ve used it in my research to elevate my public speaking. And show you that you can, too.
That big podium at your next conference? That’s YOUR stage.
Lights, camera, action! 🎥
Have you ever:
▢ Tried to commit every word of your presentation script to memory?
▢ Tried to predict what kinds of questions you’d get?
▢ Perhaps you’ve even tried to memorise some responses?
You can likely tick at least one of those boxes… if not all three. 😅
But what often happens is that as soon as you’re a single word off script — you freeze in a panic, and need to reboot your brain to remember what comes next. Or worse, the questions you’ve prepared for are never asked. Instead, you’re hit with questions you had never thought you would get.
So how do we unfreeze the situation? 🧊
Improvisation, or “improv”, is about continuing a train of thought and building momentum based on what you’re currently saying or presenting, or what your audience is saying.
Here’s a breakdown of some improv skills in action at different points in your presentation:
Comic relief 😂
You’re knee-deep into your data and are now explaining an experiment that you know is infamously difficult, complex, or uses notoriously outdated equipment in your field. Play along with that idea, and try out a little in-joke, funny analogy, or a laughably bad pun to rile up the crowd a little with some comic relief. In moderation, of course!
Active listening 🎧
It’s question time and at least five hands are up in the crowd. Your mind has been completely disconnected from everything besides your PowerPoint for the past 30 minutes, but now it’s time to reconnect with the fact there are REAL people right in front of you.
The first question comes out, and you have but one job: to listen. 👂
Listen well, and in your mind start breaking apart the key words, then further break apart the multiple questions they may be shooting at you. This is called active listening.
And if you miss a word or two from their questions, no problem! Simply clarify with that audience member again, as you would any conversation.
Sometimes, you might get questions that are super long winded, to the point where you’re not even sure that there was a question, or you’re not sure what was being asked. In this situation, don’t be afraid to ask the question back to them to help clarify!
“Yes, and” 👍
Think about which parts of your listener’s question you agree with. Once you find one, you can use this to expand on the point further. This is called the “Yes, and” rule of thumb which helps you to formulate your answer by building on an existing statement.
Conversely, if you completely disagree with everything they’ve said, try to keep an open mind and redirect the question to be answered outside of question time.
This is but a taste of how going off-script can help you to better navigate your talk. Though, it takes more than just improv to get through a whole presentation from start to finish.
While improv certainly makes for natural and organic public speaking, there are times when it can be more beneficial to memorise a script, or at least part of it. For instance, during a research talk like the 3MT or for a flash poster presentation. Having a speech memorised, without needing to rack your brain mid-presentation, allows you to devote more energy into your delivery and connecting with your audience. 🧠
When it comes to the world of memorisation, there’s no one better at learning scripts than — you guessed it — actors. 🎭 Luckily for us, the tools that actors use to memorise lines are the same ones that we can use to help us learn speeches for public speaking. In this section, we’re going to cover some tried-and-tested techniques that you can use to help commit a presentation to memory, even if you’re not on the big screen. 🍿
Repeat, repeat, repeat 🔁
Repetition is one of the most powerful tools to help improve memory retention. It’s thought to promote long-term memory by triggering chemical interactions in the brain. Like many things in life, the more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll feel when it comes to the real deal.
Acting and public speaking are no different.
So if you want to memorise your script, the first step is simple: repeat it over and over. Most people practice until they get it right, you should repeat it until you can’t get it wrong.
Practice out loud 📣
In the world of acting, it’s common to rehearse a scene out loud with your scene partner(s). Both the act of physically saying the words and hearing yourself say them can help you commit the speech to memory. Not only that, but it will give you an idea about how it actually feels and sounds coming out of your mouth, which are important aspects of your vocal delivery.
So whether it’s in front of a mock-audience, or simply to yourself in front of the mirror, practice out loud. Let it be heard!
Speed read 💨
Speed reading is a tip I got from one of my acting teachers in class. Like the name suggests, this technique simply involves rehearsing the entire script out loud as fast as you can. There’s less emphasis on being emotive here, and more focus on speed; almost like committing the speech to your muscle memory. It’s thought to train your brain to absorb information at a faster rate.
Write it down ✍️
There’s a reason we had to write down our times tables in primary school: There’s an established link between writing and memory. Researchers think this is partly because of the tactile information that’s associated with writing, which turns on specific parts of the brain linked with learning and memory.
So if there’s a particular part of a speech you’re struggling with, try physically writing it on a piece of paper. Typing is cheating!
Don’t cram 🙇♂️
You might remember cramming for your high school or undergraduate exams, trying to learn as much information as possible the night before. While this may have worked in the short term, cramming can actually lead to more stress and anxiety, which is exactly what you DON’T need before a presentation.
If you have time, try to practice your speech over the span of several days or weeks. Not only will this help to reduce these negative emotions, but it can also help promote the information to your long term-memory.
Take a break 😴
Finally, when you’ve done all the practice you can, make sure to take a break. Go for a walk, have a well-deserved rest, and most importantly, get some sleep. Sleep has been shown to have an extremely important role in the formation of memories, so it’s no surprise that catching some Z’s can help you consolidate your script.
But memorising your speech is only one piece of the public speaking puzzle — you’ll also need to deliver said speech in an effective and captivating way.
Well, start your facial warmups, because we’re about to tell you.
3. Vocal delivery
Your voice is your main communication tool during your presentation. Otherwise it wouldn’t be called public speaking, or a talk for that matter. 📣
And while some may think simply spitting out words is enough, how you deliver those words can drastically affect how it’s understood and appreciated by your audience. After all, a dull delivery is likely to cause a few professors to have a power nap.
So, what can you do to shake up your delivery?
Imagine you’ve just dropped a BOMB statistic during your intro. Perhaps over a million people are at risk of contracting a disease? Or you’ve got some insights on what the global climate will look like over the next 30 years? Or maybe sea turtle populations are at an all-time low?!
The audience will need to process what you’ve just said. So, give them some relief with a solid pause. You know, to let the facts sink in.
No, not the kind of stress you feel when Microsoft Word has a seizure when you move a table (been there, done that). We’re talking about the stress and emphasis you place in singular words that you want to stand out during your talk.
We’ve written a few examples of this before. Though to give you an idea, can you imagine how much stronger these statements sound when you emphasise the capitalised words?
Varying your pace 🏃🏻
One trap many researchers fall into, not only in their writing but also in spoken word, is extremely lengthy sentences. This sets a very monotonous pace, unless it’s broken down with a good amount of punctuation or into smaller and more manageable statements.
Commas and full-stops are your best friends.
So now that you know how to maximise your vocal talents, how can we make the rest of our body act and do work onstage?
4. Body language
Acting is about more than just what you say, it’s about what you do with your whole body. So, whether you’re behind a lectern, or in front of a camera, body language is an extremely important aspect of your public speaking.
Actors are the masters of body language, and thankfully, we can borrow some tips from them to make our public speaking more effective.
Understand the space 🎤
Consider your space – are you on a stage, or behind a lectern? Is there anything you can interact with? How you use the space around you can have a profound impact on how the audience perceives you. For instance, slowly walking around while giving your talk can often give a perception of confidence (i.e., how much you ‘own’ the room).
In comparison, meekly standing to the side with your shoulders hunched can make you appear more scared or nervous. Even if there’s a lectern or a stationary microphone set up, try to ask for a wireless mic so you can better use the space around you.
Walk the walk 🚶♀️
If you do intend to walk around while you present, it’s important to keep in mind how you do it. Just as a character’s gait in a TV show speaks volumes about their persona, the way you walk can change the way the audience perceives you. To exude an air of confidence, try to take relaxed, purposeful steps and keep your posture straight and tall. Even if you’re nervous, try to avoid quickly pacing back and forth around the room, as this can be distracting for the audience.
Eye contact 👀
Purposeful gazing is an important principle in acting to connect with your scene partner, and it’s directly translatable to public speaking! As tempting as it might seem to stare mindlessly into the distance as you give your presentation, maintaining eye contact helps you connect with your audience and appear more confident. While this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have a full-blown stare-off with an audience member, a little eye contact will make it feel like you’re talking with them, rather than at them.
But how long is too long? Too short a time can sometimes make you appear shifty or dishonest, while staring too long can make the viewer uncomfortable. While there’s no hard and fast rule for how long to meet someone’s gaze, one useful tip is to look at a different member of the audience each time you finish a sentence.
Hand gestures 🙌
Hand gestures are a “hand-y” tool that can lead to more conversational and interesting body language. Use hand movements to emphasise important points, or to help visualise size and scale. In fact, there’s lots of different hand gestures you can use to give different impressions, such as the open triangle and open palm gestures, which are summarised really nicely in this video.
Try to keep it natural though – too much flailing about and it will end up detracting attention from your talk rather than enhancing it.
Finally, now that you have some ideas about what you can do to improve your body language for a public speaking event, we have one final tip to help you deliver a fantastic presentation.
5. And relax!
You’ve made it to the end of the post!
And as a reward, you can relax and unwind to take in everything you’ve learned. But don’t forget the sensation you’re feeling right now, because it’s an extremely valuable one.
Many actors, just like scientists, can get very nervous before they’re up in front of the microphone. Everyone relaxes in different ways, so you’ll need a method that works best for you. Though as a starter, we universally recommend these to everyone:
Deep breaths 😮💨
Deliberately taking deep breaths has an incredibly calming effect, and there’s good physiological reasons for it: it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn lowers blood pressure, lowers heart rate, and even reduces stress hormones in your blood.
Muscle tension can really stiffen you up during a presentation, which affects your posture and overall energy levels. Give yourself a good stretch before you start — it’s even known to increase your serotonin levels to help tone down those anxious feelings.
The take-away message
Annnnd… CUT! 🎬
Hopefully we’ve been able to convince you that you don’t have to be an actor to be an awesome public speaker. But by adding these acting skills to your tool belt, you’ll be able to take your presentations to the next level.
Don’t be afraid to improvise
Commit your script to memory
Perfect your vocal delivery
Take charge of your body language
Relax, sleep, and unwind
We’ve shown you 5 ways to improve your public speaking skills, but is there anything else we can do to make them even better? The answer is YES! We’d love to show you how in one of our online or in-person science communication workshops.
Get in touch with us here to find out how we can bring science communication training to you! 🌟
Dr Juan Miguel Balbin
Dr Khatora Opperman
Dr Tullio Rossi