Connecting with your audience

Similar techniques are used when performing Shakespeare as for pitching a business venture. Both require presentation skills, strong connections with an audience and self-confidence. While it’s a given that actors receive basic training in body language and projection, it’s rarely the case for those studying business.

At a recent Creative Careers session, held at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Emily Berrington from Guildhall’s Creative Entrepreneurs programme blended drama and business. Through a range of exercises and games, they shared a series of techniques that can help young entrepreneurs make a good first impression.

The intention in these lessons is not to learn how to change yourself, but rather to enhance your presentation through self-confidence. These key tips for posture, eye contact and speech, Emily suggested, “help to find the best version of yourself.”

 

Introducing yourself

One of the first things you’ll do when meeting a potential client is introduce yourself. Practice introducing yourself to new people so that you don’t stumble over your own name when you’re introduced to someone you find intimidating.

It is often easier to talk about other people than yourself, so if you find that more comfortable, be prepared to ask questions and listen actively.

 

Body language: posture, eye contact, walking, breathing

 

Posture

Good posture can make you seem open and confident, rather than shy and reserved. For strong posture, place your feet shoulder width apart, facing forwards, and release your knees from a locked position so that they bounce a little.

Imagine a string pulling upwards from the centre of your head like a puppet. This will pull your shoulders back and prevent you from hunching over. Keep your eyes up rather than looking down at the ground.

Eye contact

Eye contact is key for connecting with your audiences. “Embrace the fact that it can feel slightly odd,” Emily says. Be brave with it.

“If you can make eye contact with everyone in the room, you’ve done half the work without even having to open your mouth,” Ben notes. “It can be a very powerful thing.”

Ben passes on a lesson from one of his teachers at Guildhall. “If you’re nervous and intimidated by someone, think about looking between their eyes and seeing behind them. Look at the person they are – someone just as scared, vulnerable and human as you are, who likes cats or leek and potato soup just like you.” This is a good technique for humanising your audience. “They’re not others. They’re just like us.”

Another trick is to try to memorise something about their face that you’d remember in a year’s time.

Walking

Walk with an objective or intention, Ben and Emily suggest. Remember the string holding your head up so that your shoulders are back. Keep your strides confident and steady.

Breathing

If you get nervous before a presentation or meeting, take a few moments to still your breathing. Standing up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart, put your hand on your diaphragm and breathe into the palm. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Slowly count to 4 on the in breath, 5 on the out breath. Focus on each breath. This can alleviate the pressure of the situation and get rid of some of the stress.

Another way to get rid of excess nervous energy is to bounce your knees and shake your hands. If you’re in a private space, make noises as you do so. This can help ground you. Feeling silly will also help calm you down and make the nerves seem less important.

 

Energy and vocals: Voice, jaw, drive, energy

 

Voice animation exercises

For a warm up, massage your face with your fingertips. Scrunch your face up and make it really small, then open your mouth wide and stretch your face out. Repeat this several times, then shake it out.

When giving a presentation, varying your tone and pitch can be a good way of keeping your audience engaged. Yet when you’re nervous, it can be easy to fall into a monotonous tone. To conquer this, practice animating your face and opening your mouth very wide when you talk.

It’s good to practice this with a friend to tell the difference in tone. Ben and Emily tested this with the participants: In pairs, explain your journey twice. The first time, use no facial expressions or modulations. You’ll likely find it repetitive, quiet and dreary to listen to.

The second time, tell the story massively over the top, using your face as much as you can.
This time you’ll find there’s more vocal range and more energy. You’ll probably engage the body more and use the hands a lot. It might sound silly, but it’s far closer to what you want to be aiming for in a presentation than the first version.

Relax your jaw

When you’re nervous it is easy for your jaw to clench. A good trick is to take two fingers (or a wine cork) and put them between your teeth. Relax your jaw around them. Make vowel sounds. aaaeeeiiiiooouuuuu. As you take your fingers away, allow the space to stay there. Imagine the air filling it. You’ll find it makes you open your mouth more as you speak, which will help you project better.

Drive through to the end of the sentence

It’s easy to let your voice fade away at the end of a line. Push the energy through the line, sustaining it from the first to last word. It’s fine to take a breath – this can sometimes be very powerful.

Focusing energy

“If you’re worrying about yourself, you put all your energy into your own body, and put pressure on yourself,” Emily explains. “You’ll look nervous, your audience will pick up on that and it will suck some of the energy out of the room.”

Instead, focus your energy out onto the other person.

To demonstrate this, participants had a conversation with a partner twice. The first time they focused on their own speech and how they were presenting themselves. The second time, they focused on the other person. The second time round, one participant noted, “we had a real conversation.”

Ben and Emily explain that there are two types of energy: underarm energy and overarm energy. The latter is what you should be aiming for.

Scoop your arms and introduce yourself, and then throw them over the head and do the same. Feel the difference in the energy. Overarm, it’s hyper, aggressive and tiring. If you do it for a long time it’s exhausting both for the person speaking and the person listening. “It’s stressful, can be intimidating, and I think people often stop listening,” Ben notes, and Emily adds: “You lose your status.”

Underarm energy feels far more relaxed, and more open to listening to another person. “If you feel stressed, remember to bring your energy back down,” Emily suggests. While it might look odd to continually scoop your arms as you talk to someone, gently shrugging your shoulders in a miniscule version of the motion can remind you to relax and focus your attention on the other person.

Confidence and authenticity

When putting all of this together, Ben says: “Half of the challenge is how you say it, not what you say.” When you’ve conquered these skills, the easy bit is talking. “When connecting with an audience, it’s about authenticity,” Ben notes. When someone speaks from the heart, it’s immediately engaging. “You and your ideas are enough,” Emily adds. You just have to speak about what you’re passionate about and people will listen.”

You can give yourself strength by owning the moment you hate the most in a presentation. If you despise the moment you walk into a room, make this the bit to celebrate. Then once you’ve done it, it’s over, and you’ll feel as though you can achieve anything.

Repetition

“We can all be the best singers in the world in our bathrooms,” Ben says, “the tough bit is keeping that confidence in public.” Repetition is key, so if you can flex those muscles and practice in front of an audience, it can be really beneficial. Walk down the street and pull the string, or make eye contact with the woman in Tesco.

Before they finish the session, Ben and Emily set a task. Pret a Manger are known for sometimes giving out a free filter coffee to people who engage with them, are kind and friendly. So, their gentle challenge: see if you can use all of these skills to get a free coffee.

Find out about upcoming Creative Career sessions here.

Blog post by Kate Wyver