After one of my recent public webinars, an attendee named Shelby sent me an interesting question. She said that she has a degree in Music Theatre and was wondering whether experience in stage acting and voice could carry over to webinar presentations.
That struck home with me, as musical theater was a hobby of mine from third grade right up until Webinar Success used up all the time I used to spend in rehearsals and shows! That’s more decades on stage than I like to think about at this point.
I started thinking about the things I consciously and instinctively do as a webinar presenter that carry over from stage acting. Here’s what I came up with (please note that I am specifically referring to large-audience webinars, not intimate small group web meetings):
- You need to be ready, willing, and able to “go big” in front of an audience. Webinar presenters need to think like stage actors rather than movie actors. In a movie, you internalize your thoughts and emotions and let the camera closeups bring them to the audience. But stage actors need to “play to the back row.” My presentation voice on a webinar is like my acting voice on stage. I need to make sure that everyone can hear me, that my diction is as clear as possible, and that I am overemphasizing brightness and emotional content as I speak. As a matter of fact, a typical slides and narration webinar requires even more vocal prominence. You don’t have the assistance you would normally get from props, body language, movement, and reactions from other characters. It’s just you performing a monologue in front of the slides acting as your “set.”
- You need to work at building an empathetic or emotional connection with the audience. Yes, this applies to professional, technical, and factual presentations too! Delivering a flat recitation of facts is utterly useless. Your audience can read a book, white paper (or script!) if they just need to ingest raw information. Your job is to make them care about the subject, make them believe it applies to them, create a bond between your experiences and their own. That is why you so often hear presentation advice of “tell your audience a story.”
- You need to make the script sound extemporaneous. I like writing down my opening and closing in a webinar. It helps me start and end strong, sounding confident, poised, and knowledgeable for my audience. Sometimes I will even write a sentence or two related to a particular slide when I know I want to say something in a certain exact way. But in all these cases, I then practice saying the lines out loud, over and over again, until they sound like me truly saying them from my heart rather than reading words off a piece of paper. There is a world of difference, and your audience can spot it instantly. You don’t have to memorize your script word for word as a stage actor would. But you should be intimately familiar with it, having practiced different cadences and emphasis of key phrases so that you know it sounds like your own conversational (or presentational) voice. Having something written down does NOT relieve you of the responsibility to rehearse out loud! It requires just as much preparation and practice as off-the-cuff speaking.
If you want a delightful example of building an emotional reaction with your audience, preparing it thoroughly, and making words sound extemporaneous rather than scripted, I recommend renting the classic 1937 comedy/drama “Stage Door.” This is a film about the world of stage acting and a group of women trying to make it in the theater. The script is razor-sharp. Great actresses abound: Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden…
But the thing EVERYBODY remembers is Hepburn’s character reciting a short monologue about calla lillies. It stayed with her the rest of her life (and beyond). Her character starts out terrible, delivering the lines flatly and matter of factly, as if she is reading a script out loud. Then on opening night she finds an emotional context and makes the words her own, bringing the audience with her into the meaning of the monologue and making herself a star. (Admittedly, there is a cheat here… Since you are watching a movie rather than a real stage play, Katharine can speak MUCH more quietly than she could have gotten away with on an unmiked Broadway theater stage. But we have to make allowances.)
If you want an edgier, more modern example, watch Naomi Watts do the same thing in her character’s audition in “Mulholland Drive.” But note… This David Lynch movie is not for everyone’s tastes!