By Lydia Wilkinson
Oral presentations can strike fear into the hearts of many an engineer. This discomfort is something all actors have had to deal with at some point, and that the discipline has developed strategies to address. Performers think of their body and voices as instruments that are used and manipulated to send particular messages to their audience. Their training techniques can help us to develop and improve our own performance effectiveness, by actively considering how we plan to convey our message, and developing the tools to support our approach. For example, experimenting with creative physical and vocal exercises, such as finding your neutral stance, understanding your physicality, and enacting different emotions through physical gesture, can help you to develop confidence and an awareness of performance as a skill you can master. Below are five performance based techniques for improving your oral presentations. You can read more about these in the ProComm 2018 Proceedings!
Neutral Performance Stance
Actors are taught to assume a neutral stance before adopting the physical characteristics of a character. Neutral stance does not always feel natural, as it forces performers to become aware of and purposefully eliminate their normal posture and physical tension. Performers first loosen up their bodies by shaking out these tensions, before rolling up from a loose bent position one vertebrae at a time—the idea here is to pay careful attention to spots of tension in the spine. Performers should have a flat back by the time they arrive at standing, with loose, slightly bent knees, relaxed shoulders, feet shoulder length apart and their weight on the balls of the feet. Take a moment to try out this stance and you will probably be surprised at how animated you feel; from this position you can move seamlessly into the performance stance you wish to adopt, including a straighter and more confident version of yourself, with a new awareness of the tension and weight in your body that may lead you to slouch as a speaker or to favor certain types of movements.
Feedback on Physicality
Another way to gain an awareness of your physicality is to ask for feedback from your audience. One useful exercise that could be used in a training setting involves a facilitator. A group of speakers stand at the front of the room, and take turns to deliver short (1-2 lines) memorized speeches to their audience. (The script for the speech should require very little thought, allowing the presenters to focus only on their physical delivery.) Before they begin, the facilitator selects and shares a body part with the audience that they should focus on through these speeches; this could be the speakers’ hands, jaw, shoulders, legs, head, mouth or eyes, but the speaker will not be aware of the subject of this focus. After all the presenters have delivered the speech, the audience has an opportunity to provide feedback on the physicality of the speakers. This audience feedback can make you more aware of physical characteristics or ways of movement that you may have been unaware of.
You can explore the impact of voice on message by enacting different emotions for an audience, who analyze and identify the emotion that underpins your speech. Like the physicality exercise above, this activity is supported by a facilitator, but could be adapted for independent practice as well. A facilitator provides the speaker with an emotional prompt, for example, happy, sad, frustrated, nervous, excited, rushed or confused. The presenter performs this emotion using a simple memorized speech as above. The speech should have nothing to do with the emotion performed, as the focus is entirely on how voice and physicality convey emotion. If the audience misidentifies the emotion, the speaker is required to present the speech again until the group can correctly identify the original prompt. This exercise also emphasizes the interplay between physical and verbal expression—if the presenter remained in neutral stance through this exercise, would they make the same emotional impact?
Tongue twisters provide an excellent tool for warming up the vocal muscles. There are so many different tongue twisters to choose from, but it’s best to select one that helps you to focus attention on the verbal combinations that give you the most trouble. So, if you tend to get tongue tied on your “S”s—“She sells seashells by the seashore,” may be the way to go; if hard consonants are a challenge, “A hot cup of coffee from a proper copper coffee pot’ may be most useful. Think back on your childhood favorites to select the ones you’ll use. A useful modification here is to increase and decrease your pitch and tone as you say the lines, to limber up your breathing and vocal support.
Filming yourself can provide a fresh perspective on your presentation skills. It’s really most useful to film yourself in front of an audience, as this will provide you with a more accurate sense of how you typically present when others are watching you; but even filming yourself individually will give you new insight into speech patterns, physical stance and other issues. When viewing your video, it can be useful to watch the same clip multiple times, paying attention first to physicality and next to speech, to get a clear sense of your presentation style in both these categories.
Lydia Wilkinson coordinates communication in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Toronto. She regularly contributes to annual conferences of the Canadian Engineering Education Association, the American Society for Engineering Education and the IEEE Professional Communication Society on topics including curriculum design and assessment, interdisciplinary opportunities for engineers and student-centred learning. She is currently working on a qualitative study at the University of Toronto that examines student experience at the Intersection of the Humanities and Engineering.