It's All About Stage Time

Using theater techniques for fun club meetings.

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"Theater techniques are far from sacred. The techniques of the theater are the techniques of communicating."

- VIOLA SPOLIN

Although most business presentations don't require the talent or skill of a Robin Williams or Gilda Radner, we can learn much from actors and their craft. If you're skeptical about this idea - I was too, at first. But, when a friend and mentor suggested I take an improvisational theater class to add more punch to my presentations, I agreed and enrolled in a class given by Jack Rushen, a New York City actor and playwright.

I was nervous about performing, since an intimidating stage appearance had rattled me in third grade. But I reminded myself that I was now an adult, took a deep breath and sauntered into the room. I looked at the other students, all seated quietly, and we introduced ourselves. I was relieved to note that they represented a range of professions and had no particular advantage over me. Within eight weeks my nervousness disappeared and other members of the group told me how much more natural and spontaneous I seemed in front of the audience.

Since I took that class, I've introduced many theater exercises at our Toastmasters meetings and even held a special "improvisational theater evening." I've been amazed at how confident and creative our members can be. Improv exercises are now a club favorite.

Speakers at Norwalk Toastmasters range from beginners, afraid to stand in front of the room, to seasoned businesspeople and public speakers. We all have one thing in common: We want to sharpen our communication and presentation skills. What are the keys to a memorable performance? My acting teacher Rushen says it's "energy, confidence and clarity of communication."

It takes most actors years to be really compelling and it takes a lot of practice to become an accomplished speaker. Here are a few acting exercises, many by Viola Spolin, the author of Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director's Handbook, that you can try in your Toastmasters group. Incorporate them into the meeting as part of Table Topics, as a transition between different sections of the meeting, or as a special events evening.

How to Prepare Before You Speak

According to Rushen, the first moments of a performance are important and set the tone, so it is vital that you are relaxed. Consider using exercises that actors do to warm up:

How to Boost Your Vocal Variety

One speech in the Competent Communication manual is dedicated to vocal variety and the importance of pitch, rate and tone of voice. Actors also use vocal exercises to enliven their performances. Try the following exercises during the Table Topics portion of the meeting:

How to Improve Your Gestures and Body Language

Actors work on a stage or a set and business presentations take place both behind a lectern and without one. In either case, the actor or presenter must feel comfortable and use some kind of physical movement. Try practicing these exercises with other people from your Toastmasters group to make your gestures more natural:

How to Stimulate Quick Thinking

A question-and-answer session usually follows business presentations. While there's no substitute for knowing your material, improvisational theater experience improves your ability to think on your feet in a fun and playful environment. It's challenging and exercises your funny bone. Try these:

Toastmasters is all about stage time. The more frequently you stand up in front of the room, the more confident you'll feel. Take an acting or improvisational theater class at a college or continuing education program near your home. You'll improve your skills and have fun at the same time. You don't have to be Al Pacino to be a successful presenter at work, but learning some of these techniques will put you ahead of the game.

Carolyn Collen is a Toastmaster in California.

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