Good presentation does not require acting ability

When I’m working with delegates in my presentation workshops or online courses, one of the concerns usually raised at some point is ‘I don’t want to be an actor’. This concern typically surfaces as people start to move further out of their comfort zone. My response: ‘I’m not asking you to be an actor, but I am asking you to be a performer’. 

Presentation is high on people's list of fears

Being asked to present; standing up in front of people and speaking is high on the list of many people’s pet hates. The mere thought of it is enough to give them palpitations and a racing heart beat. Ironically, that very fact means that many people do think they have to start acting – playing a role – if they are to get through their presentation. So what’s the difference between acting and performing? The difference may well be smaller than you might think, but none the less it is a critical difference from a presenting perspective.

Acting is really about playing a character. Being someone other than yourself; possibly radically different.  Acting, in its purest form, is really an internal process. It’s about having a relationship with, and understanding of the character you are playing.

Good presenters connect with their audience

Performance is an external experience. It is all about engaging and connecting with your audience. A performer is aware of the audience presence and acknowledges the audience. A performer is being him or herself. They are not being a different character. When you are giving a performance you may do things that you don’t normally do, say things differently to the everyday day you, yet you are still you; the real, authentic you.

I’m sure the debate around the differences of acting and performing is a hot one with many different perspectives. Interestingly, we often refer to, and even award, a great acting performance. This suggests the two elements are one and the same, but they are not. As I have already intimated, acting is really the internal process of becoming a character. It’s a real skill, much of which remains unrecognised by the audience. There is a phrase used in acting circles known as ‘the fourth wall’, a virtual barrier that exists between actors and their audience. There is also a format sometimes called ‘presentational acting’. This is where an actor (or character) acknowledges and even interacts with the audience. Shakespeare often has some characters that connect directly with the audience whilst others are oblivious to their presence.

As a presenter, do I want you to be an actor? No. I want you to be a performer; someone who acknowledges your audience and connects with them at an emotional level. To make that connection authenticity is important. This does not mean your presentation has to be interactive; that carries its own risks unless you are also a skilled facilitator. As a performer you make those connections through your content, your supporting visuals, specific use of language, looks and gestures. That is the art of performance

A common experience may not be a good one

So why do I think that my students who are saying they don’t want to become actors are actually acting? Well Stanislavski, the Russian actor and theatre director describes many different approaches to acting. Three of those are:

·       Forced acting

·       Over acting

·       Mechanical acting

Now think of many of the presentations you have experienced. It’s not hard to identify the acting approaches. We experience presenters who are speaking in an unnatural way, using a strange vocabulary, using strange or stretched examples; presenters who appear to be high on some sort of substance abuse, leaping about like a mad thing or, possibly most commonly, presenters who are simply going through the motions with little or no variety or emotion.

I was recently watching a talk by a university communications professor about spontaneous presentation – the art of presenting on the spot. The professor argued that presenting is not a performance, it is just a conversation. I have a lot of sympathy for that view. In a one on one situation it can be relatively straightforward to achieve. In a group situation, which is the normal format, it is harder to reach that goal. I agree that a good presentation leaves audience members feeling relaxed and comfortable, as if they have had a personal conversation with the presenter. However, achieving that personal connection is all about your language choices, vocal tone, looks, body language and gestures. In essence, that is the art of performance.