On the Paradox of Rehearsal: why preparation is the best way to make it look natural
Confession: In addition to being a voice coach, I’m also a musical theater actor.
Yep - an all-singing, all-dancing, bringing the ballad when you fall in love, popping a high note at the most dramatic moment, 4+ different men dying in my arms onstage, period costume-wearing, applause-loving musical theater actor - and I’m here to talk to you about rehearsal. Specifically, the concept of rehearsed spontaneity, and to give you a framework of how to do it.
In most situations in life, you are living in a world of improvisation. And here you thought you could NEVER take an improv class . . . guess what, you’re already doing it all the time! Just without Michael Scott always adding a fake gun to the scenario. (That said - take an improv class.)
However, there are moments in communication that do require some rehearsal, and that’s where most people don’t quite know how to prepare. They think “winging it” is the way to go - that rehearsal might make them look stiff and formal - or they simply don’t know HOW to rehearse.
The best actors in the world make their words look spontaneous and natural and in the moment. The best musical theater actors in the world manage to do that with words that have been rhythmically dictated to them--can you imagine how you might sound if you had to speak certain words on certain beats? (Maybe a little bit like a robot.) And they have rehearsed and said and sung those words dozens or even hundreds of times before you see them say them. Now, professional actors usually have years of training in HOW to do this backing them up in the endeavor of sounding natural after rehearsal, but I’m going to break down the basics for you right here. You may not be performing on Broadway any time soon, but you can take this into your next presentation with you. I won’t promise you a standing ovation, but I will promise that rehearsal will help with nerves!
1. KNOW WHO YOU ARE TALKING TO. No, I’m not asking you to memorize names (especially for that TED Talk. Congrats, you have a huge crowd!). But do ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is this audience? (Think demographic, psychographic, status, etc.)
- What is the context and environment of the speech? (Wedding toast? Board meeting? They require different styles of delivery!)
- What do they want from me practically (stats and information, a road map for an action, etc.)
- What do they want from me emotionally (reassurance, inspiration, etc.)
These answers can be incredibly specific or incredibly broad depending on the situation, but familiarizing yourself with what your audience wants from you and from your speech is a great way to both formulate and edit your material and focus your work through the next steps.
2. KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SAYING. In some cases (your 15-minute TED Talk?), you might have an actual word-for-word script that you want to learn, so that you know EXACTLY what to say and when to say it. In some cases, it's about memorizing your outline, so you can extemporize on each topic. One of the most frequent questions actors get is “how do you memorize your lines?” That’s different for every actor--some need to do it on their feet and put physical actions to the words. Some need to physically write it out over and over. Some simply read it or speak it out loud over and over. Some record themselves saying it out loud and listen to it over and over. It takes some investigation, but knowing how you learn is a good place to start. Are you a visual learner? Aural learner? Kinetic learner? Experiment with different methods until you find what clicks for you.
3. KNOW HOW TO GET FROM POINT A TO POINT B - TO POINT Q. What trips up a lot of speakers? Transitions. Especially if you are working from an outline and not a full script, have a solid concept of what leads from A to B. And have a clear picture of the full “map” of your speech, so that if you lose yourself somewhere between Thought L and Thought M, you can get back on track. And if you are using power-point, build those transition moments in to both your spoken and screen presentation - nothing throws off your rhythm like wrestling with slides!
And here's the "secret sauce"--the thing that most preparation misses:
4. KNOW WHY YOU ARE SAYING IT. This is the key to managing that fear of being stiff and boring and “over-prepared”--what kills rehearsed speeches is the feeling of roteness and monotone and pretty words with nothing behind them. This crucial step takes all that valuable information from steps 1-3 and infuses it with magnetism and purpose. Actors call this your "objective", and it's Acting 101 for a reason--it's the most fundamental way to connect with your fellow actors and keep your audience with you. If you know WHY you are speaking--if you can connect that viscerally to both your brain and your gut--and most important if you can connect that WHY to your audience, you can animate your words with real energy and vibrance, whether it’s the 5th or 50th time you’ve said them.
About a year and a half ago, I had a client come to me for help with a best man toast. He had written a speech, which we edited and refined for content and tone after some conversation about the bride and groom (both his best friends), the type of wedding (super formal venue, huge crowd), a few acknowledgements of the challenges inherent (and I quote: “Yeah, I’ll probably be really tipsy by the time I have to speak”). He spent five hour-long sessions over a week and a half getting this speech polished to perfection - we discussed great speeches and speechmakers from Martin Luthor King to Steve Jobs - we built in pauses to let the jokes land and talked about the places he thought he might get a little choked up. And in his final session, we talked about releasing all of that amazing preparation and letting his love for his friends infuse through every moment.
And that's the last and hardest part of rehearsed spontaneity . . .
5. KNOW WHEN TO LET IT GO. The final step. After you do all that hard work, you have to let go of the outcome and all those lovely, perfect moments you've created in your head and that your cat may or may not have witnessed you nailing for the last few nights in your living room during the commercial breaks of Scandal.
You trust that your body and your brain got the information they needed, and that now the "big why" and your connection with your subject matter and audience get to shine.
My best man client emailed me after the wedding, confirmed that he was more than a little drunk when the speech started and couldn’t remember a moment of it, but that several people had come up to him afterwards and said it was the best toast they’d ever heard.
I won’t promise that rehearsing in this way means that you’ll never flub a word or bomb an important moment (remind me to tell you about the time I went onstage for approximately my 279th show of Les Mis and lost my lyrics in front of a sold-out crowd), but I will promise that the opportunity for great preparation is a gift that we don't always get. Use it . . . and let us know how it goes!