“That was a good question,” I said, nodding. That was a good question. I love those words. I’m also frequently stumped in the moments that follow those words because, to me, a good question is one that makes me both excited and a little curious.
Recently, while teaching a communication class in the MBA program at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, I got a good question like this. As we talked about delivering presentations, two students mentioned a very specific challenge: delivering the same speech over and over again with conviction (one was in sales, the other was responsible for employee trainings). Good question.
As a keynote speaker, this is a challenge I face consistently. In fact, I’ve probably given talks based on my two books Brand Now and Get Scrappy hundreds of times. While this is a thought that shows up for me, it’s not a question I readily knew how to answer. As I’ve been working as a professional speaker for a decade and a half, I just … handle it. Instinctively.
However, as I thought about this question, my instinct for keeping a speech fresh and energetic was developed long ago.
The Answer? Acting!
When I first came to the University of Iowa as a student, I had dreams of being an actor so I majored in theatre arts. Now, as a semi-buttoned-down businessman, I satisfy this dream through my work as a speaker and college educator. As such, I’m in front of people enough that I can say that my performative itch is scratched on the regular.
I also try to get to live theatre as often as a busy parent of five kids can. In fact, for my birthday in 2019, my wife and I were fortunate enough to see Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway. Daniels committed to the role of Atticus Finch for a full year—eight performances a week—noting, “I’m trying to give the performance of my life every night.” If that wasn’t enough, Daniels is now returning to the role again as Broadway reopens.
If anyone could identify with my students’ question it would be someone like Jeff Daniels. Specifically, an actor. And that’s when it hit me. The instinct that helps me out in this situation came from my own training as an actor.
But to explain how this applies, I have to take you even further back to Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.
Acting Comes from Action
When most of us think of acting, we think of BIG performances. Brando screaming, “Stella!!” Or Meryl Streep doing … well, anything in any Meryl Streep movie. While we tend to think about these big emotional, external behaviors, the secret to acting is hidden in the word itself. That’s because modern acting is built around the concept of action. Doing something.
Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski sought to simulate real behavior on stage using conscious techniques in his work in the early 1900s. To do this, he built a system based on action. “Action is the very basis of our art,” said Stanislavski, “And with it our creative work must begin.” This system prescribes that an actor’s performance is animated by the pursuit of tasks. What do I need to make the other person do? Or, What do I want?
Brando isn’t trying to scream and cry on cue. Meryl Streep isn’t trying to be icy to Anne Hathaway while explaining the importance of the color cerulean. Both are trying to do something very specific at that moment within the given circumstances of those movies. It’s the same thing Jeff Daniels did for over 400 performances as Atticus Finch in 2019. When faced with his eighth show after a long week, Daniels can simply focus on what Atticus is trying to do at that moment.
And guess what? You can do this too in your public speaking and presentations. Here’s how …
Start with Why
Damn it. Simon Sinek is right. Again. That’s because the big answer to all of this lies in starting with why. Like Sinek’s book of the same name, starting with why is the key to consistently delivering your speech or presentation with “first-time” energy.
For Jeff Daniels playing Atticus Finch, his why is grounded in defending Tom Robinson or explaining a complex world to his young daughter, Scout. You can use this same action-based system to ground and focus your presentation—even and especially if you have to deliver your talk several times in a row.
Ask yourself: Why are you in front of these people today? For me, when I’m delivering my Brand Now talk, I remind myself that these people I’m in front of need help standing out in today’s crowded, distracted world. Instead of stressing about giving the same speech that I’ve given time and again, all of a sudden, I have a very specific action to undertake that involves these other people. I’m here to help them do something.
Why are you in front of your audience? Are you bringing them news of a product that could change their lives and work? Are you helping them solve a problem? Are you closing a gap in their knowledge? This action can animate your speaking and can continue to serve you as you deliver your talk time after time.
Of course, this big question of why and action-framing can also help you plan an engaging talk for your audience as well. Coincidentally, Stanislavski’s first book detailing his acting system is titled An Actor Prepares. This thinking—focusing on what you’re there to do at the moment—can help you prepare for your presentations at work.
When it comes to the presentations that you have to give—especially those you give over and over again—remember to prepare like an actor. Focus on your action and start with your why and your audience will give you rave reviews over and over again.