Acting & Public Speaking Same Difference?

Tell a story to make a point

What’s the difference between Acting and Public Speaking? Actors perform –  Speakers speak to be heard, understood, and repeated. They are different disciplines, but they have a lot in common. They both strive to achieve the same goals – communicating with their audience. However, some may ask, if 90 percent of all communication is nonverbal, shouldn’t public speakers include some acting when they are presenting?  And who determines if a speaker is acting or public speaking? Unfortunately for many speakers, when they don’t address those questions with their coaches and evaluators, audiences will walk away with the answers to those critical questions, and the speaker will be none the wiser. Actors perform, and public speakers use language to make their connection.

Speakers speak to inform, persuade, entertain and inspire. Storytelling is a critical skill all speakers use to achieve those goals. However, a fine line divides both lanes. Some speakers drift in and out of the acting lane with success. However, they must be reminded that speakers speak and actors perform. Acting is unnecessary when speakers use different figures of speech to tell stories. Dr. Randy Harvey, the 2004 World Champion of Public Speaking, uses the acronym SCREAM as a reminder to include Similes, Contrast, Rhyme, Echo, Alliteration, and Metaphors when storytelling. Speakers should also have a basic understanding of what is acting and what is public speaking.

Storytelling is the act of telling stories. They are narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. Webster defines acting as the act of presenting a character on stage or camera. The definition of Public Speaking is the act or process of making speeches in public. They all have a common purpose – the art of effectively communicating with an audience. And although the word act is present in all three instances, how the actor or speaker chooses to perform those acts makes all the difference.  Adding gestures, vocal variety, and eye contact when delivering a speech is not acting. All speakers must develop those essential skills to enhance their ability to connect with audiences. Your body speaks even louder than what you are saying; however, your words and actions must be in sync. You may very well be in the wrong lane when they are not.

A public speaker’s primary objective is maintaining contact with their audience throughout their delivery. Conversely, actors create an imaginary wall on stage between themselves and their audience as part of their act. In theatre, it is referred to as the fourth wall. Actors create an imaginary invisible wall to separate themselves from the audience. The audience fully views the actors communicating with each other on stage as if they are in private, which is quite the opposite of what public speakers strive to achieve.  I can remember observing Derek Walcott back in the 1970s while working on two of his plays – the Joker of Seville and O’Babylon. He would spend hours directing seasoned actors to break down that fourth wall when he wanted them to make a connection with the audience. Yes, actors do change lanes also.  

All speakers realize that maintaining a connection with audiences depends on their approach to Public Speaking. When speaking one-to-one in conversations, we all talk naturally. Speakers who take that same approach to the speaking platform communicate more effectively with audiences. When a speaker can build trust by speaking naturally from the heart, audiences will listen, regardless of size.  However, speakers must give their audience something to remember. Speakers must silence the questions that creep into the minds of their audience during a presentation. When an audience is watching and listening to a speaker, they are processing what they heard and interpreting what they saw and felt. When they like what they hear, you are connected. When they don’t, you lose them.    

I will never forget one of my dad’s favorite sayings, and he had many: – son, there’s nothing new under the sun. Dear to be different. Always give your audience something old, something new, something borrowed, and wear something blue for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. As always, papa was right, so I made those words of wisdom my secret to connecting with audiences. But finding and developing your unique style that interests audiences is always challenging. I would later discover the key is how the speaker chooses to deliver their message. Good speakers deliver their message as if it were served in fine China, while others will offer that same message as if it were on a garbage cover. Delivery makes all the difference.  

David Brooks, the 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking, has often said in his coaching sessions that the secret to Public Speaking is simple when you break it all down.  You tell a story to make a point, or you make a point, then tell a story. It is that simple. Then you repeat that process over and over. Give your audience something to think, feel, talk about or take some action after hearing your presentation. Leave the acting to the actors. They are performers. Use the SCREAM method when presenting. And when you speak to be heard, understood, and repeated, there would be no question in the minds of your audience about if you were acting or public speaking long after you have departed the platform.  

Author: HenryOMiller

Henry joined Toastmaster in 1997. He is presently a member of 4 Toastmasters clubs; two in Santa Cruz and two in San Jose. He is a DTM-4. Henry is an executive speech coach, humorist, and speechwriter. He is also a musician and a lyricist​ whose speechwriting approach is similar to his approach to songwriting.

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