John Havens


Practice Like A Pro: Tips from a Veteran Actor and Professional Speaker

Key Takeaways

On building a presentation:

First of all, obviously, it depends on the audience I'm speaking to, what content they want, but I like to build my decks by going to Google and I type in the words. I have sort of a theme for each slide and I'll just type in the words. Maybe it's the word "wellbeing."

I've been speaking about happiness a lot. And just see what images come up. Of course, sometimes I don't seek permission for the images, but I'm only using them for talks. I'm not selling. Those images, if they are evocative to me and they inspire me and they're also very simple, meaning a simple image. Then what I love is the image comes up and I can kind of riff on certain content, but the image keeps me aligned with the essential hypothesis of my story. It's very visual. It's kind of artistic and it's also very theatrical.

Yeah, I actually don't write out my scripts, where I know some people do and that's fine, if that's your thing. I find I have to have a narrative and I put all my slides together first, and I always start long. If I'm supposed to do a 20- minute talk, I'll oftentimes have 42 slides and I'm like, "There's no way I'm going to get 42 slides done in 20 minutes."

Then I start rehearsing it. For me, I can tell when a narrative gets too long at a certain point or where it feels broken or it's not compelling for that content, so I'll keep slides for another talk. But it really has to feel like I have a flow. Then when I know I have the flow down, then I'll rehearse it two or three more times and get the sound bites and stuff for each slide.

The importance of images:

I think if you aren't compelled by what's up on screen as a speaker, your audience is probably not going to be compelled either. There are so many great pictures, where if you get this really arresting image, then you don't have to work so hard to have—maybe once in a while I'll have one or two bullets or maybe one title slide, but I find more when you put an image up there, then you and whoever else in the audience, it evokes their own inner story when they see that image. My narrative accompanies it, but it doesn't dictate it.

On nerves and diction:

One thing I do is I blow up my lips, so that type of stuff. Because I think most of us don't think about our diction. I find that I have to, like I am now, over pronounce when I'm rehearsing and it will feel stupid. It's supposed to. But if you rehearse a couple of times like this and really pronounce each word, then when you get in the moment, you're going to talk faster, at least I do. The adrenaline is going to be pumping, but you've already got the physicality of those words in your mouth and in your body.

There are words you should punch. When you're speaking, I don't want to manufacture it too much, but you do have to know where you're going to pause for effect. In that sense, diction is always critical. Another thing I always do is I shake out my hands. I do deep breathing through my nose and out through my mouth, because I think you should be, no matter—I was on NPR today. You should be a little nervous, like butterfly nervous, because that little adrenaline rush means you're really present in the moment.

It's better to acknowledge that you're nervous and excited, but then also that's where the training and especially the craft or the technical side of your body, warming up means then the nerves won't keep you from communicating the way you need to. That's why it doesn't make a difference.

I think there's always that misconception that it's like, "Wow! He's such a good speaker." It's like no, you have to rehearse. You have to warm up your body or you risk always not being able to communicate.

On radio speaking:

On radio, if you can sort of put your energy into your voice, then you're still trying to have eye contact with the host, but you really are focusing on trying to be a motive with your voice, because that's the primary way people are hearing you. So there is a difference.

On body awareness:

One piece of advice I'd recommend and I should do it more often, but I've done it in the past and it's really hard the first couple times you do it is videotape yourself giving a talk. What you'll probably find, most people have some part of their body. For me, it's typically my hands, that you will distract yourself and don't be upset at yourself. What that means is there's energy that you need to kind of bring back in and just be aware of.

All you have to do is during one of your rehearsals go, "I know that my hands are always doing this. It distracts me in my video." Then you do a whole talk where the only thing you're focusing on is kind of stepping outside yourself and watching yourself or videotaping yourself again and saying, "Okay, I'm now choosing and being choiceful with my gestures." It's the same as your words.

On stage, the things that you may not realize you're doing, like I just touched my face, just because I did. If it's natural and in the moment, it's not that it may be distracting to the audience, but when you watch in the video, you can see it's when there's energy that's kind of doing something that you're not obviously cogent or aware of. That's the stuff that you need to—that's a tip, is you want to be on stage and be very centered and present so your body doesn't distract from your talk.

When things go wrong:

I like to make jokes, as you know. I think the thing that will kill a live audience, I mean a live event, is if you don't acknowledge what's going on. I think one thing that I still have to be careful of is to get sort of self- deprecating when there's a mistake.

For instance, one that happens a lot because you can't control sometimes the tech side of—a projector. You're at the whim of the place where you're doing your performance and I speak about technology a lot. When a video doesn't work in a PowerPoint presentation and you're sitting there like this, you feel like an idiot.

I'll just say how I'm feeling. I'm like, "Hey, the tech guy can't get this video to play in PowerPoint," and try to make a joke about it. Then you should just move on, but again, there's a difference between acknowledging the reality that everybody knows and just kind of laughing about it. Frankly, it's also a  filler. It's a technical way like, "I can't get this thing to play. All right, now it's second two where I can't get this thing to play. If it doesn't play now, it will distract the audience." That's my inner monologue.

By second three and it's not working, I look up, make the joke, and then make a decision, because then I'm giving myself four or five seconds in the mistake, as it were, to know what to do next. Worst-case scenario, sometimes I'll just do the rest of the presentation without slides, for instance.

What does it mean to speak like a pro?

I think you have to be genuine. You have to be honest. By genuine, I mean in a moment, if you're genuinely affected emotionally, if you can stay within what you're doing and not necessarily stop because you're having a rough day, but it's, I think sometimes people are thinking they have to be sort of formal on stage. Again, if that's their style, that's fine, but for me, I can't do that. I find people like when I speak and you were very kind in what you said at the beginning, because I try to be real.

I think the other thing is stories. I have to get better at the stories. I always remind myself teaching is great. Futuristic stuff is great, but stories are really what draw people in.

Top Tips and Resources:

TED, I'm always watching different TED talks. TED is interesting because having done a TEDx now, they have coaches, even with TEDx, not just with TED, and they have a very kind of branded way that you're supposed to speak. But in the midst of that, still, there are speakers, who besides their content, they're just riveting to watch as speakers. You can watch it once for enjoyment, but then break it down and say, "Where was it that this person compelled me so much that I looked up from email and why? Was it they paused? Was it a word?" TED is a great thing.

The third thing would be to take an improv class. There are a lot of them usually wherever you are. That's then that you don't get terrified when you're speaking or certainly in interviews, like NPR today. A lot of improv—there's the cardinal rule of improv, which is, "Yes, and," which you've probably heard. Which means if you're in an improv sketch, really the one thing that will always keep any vignette or sketch going is no matter what you might say to me, I go, "Yeah, yeah. Well, the donkey, he did have spots." Versus if you said, "Hey, I'm here in Canada and I just ate an ice cream cone that was the size of a Buick," and I go, "No, you didn't." The scene is over. So I would say take an improv class.

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