Good books/sites on acting/public speaking?
January 28, 2007 4:04 PM   Subscribe

Are there any pro or amateur actors out there who can recommend some good books (or sites) on acting or public speaking?

I'm a college instructor getting my PhD in literature, and I'm just looking for some books or advice on improving my ability to speak in public (prepared speeches and improvising), both in front of classes and at professional meetings and conferences. I have fairly bad posture and a tendency to start doing repetitive physical movements because of nervous energy, so any help on that would be great.

Also, since one of my main foci is Renaissance drama (Shakespeare et al), I'm interested in learning a bit more about the interior workings of acting and the stage and how to bring that to life in the classroom. Anything from the performance standpoint (rather than an academic standpoint) would be helpful. Books on acting methods, on stagecraft, on how to make the transition from text to speech & motion, uses of physical space in the theater, etc. etc. Anything on how to improve ability to memorize large pieces of text would be excellent as well; I'm always awed by my mentors who can belt out soliloquies in the midst of any conversation. Are there any acting "bibles" out there that address these issues in a definitive way?
posted by papakwanz to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You already know about (group, not book) Toastmasters?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 4:14 PM on January 28, 2007

I'm reading a book right now called How to Stop Acting which addresses many of your questions very directly -- how to take the words off the page, how to use movement to give life to the script, how to work a text so that you memorize it organically -- it even has an interesting bit on the "Great Roles" (Shakespeare, Chekhov, the like).

As an amateur actor coming from a writing background, I often find that working with scripts (rather than improv) puts me in a nervous, bookish, analytical mode. This book is giving me some good ideas for breaking out of that -- sounds like it might be helpful for you, too.
posted by ourobouros at 4:18 PM on January 28, 2007

Given your academic focus, you might really like Cicely Berry's The Actor and the Text (and maybe also Voice and the Actor). Berry was the Voice Director for the Royal Shakespeare Company. We used both books in a Shakespearean acting workshop I did, and they're amazingly good at both helping translate the words to the stage and really understanding what Shakespeare was doing (that is, in reading the plays not as literature, but as something to be performed, and how his writing actually facilitates that). Shakespeare includes so many clues for actors in his writing, and Berry seemed pretty good at identifying and making sense of those.
posted by occhiblu at 4:53 PM on January 28, 2007

The classic acting texts are Stanislavsky and Uta Hagen. It is worth noting that contemporary acting techinique is quite different from that which would have been employed in Shakespeare's day.
posted by YoungAmerican at 4:54 PM on January 28, 2007

David Mamet's True and False and A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder.
posted by dobbs at 5:15 PM on January 28, 2007

Best answer: i like david mamet's true and false: heresy and common sense for the actor, and keith johnstone's impro.

also, check out philippe gaulier, the genius french clown teacher who trained sacha baron cohen (borat), helena bonham carter, and others. gaulier is brilliant, perceptive, and f*ing charming-- the videos on his site don't even *begin* to convey his insane intellience. he's well worth reading about, or training with, if possible- he travels. he teaches various disciplines, including clown (which may or may not involve a red nose) and bouffon (a form wherein a charming outcast delivers veiled social commentary-- borat, ali g, and stephen colbert are the preeminent examples of bouffon in pop culture).

of particular note is the discipline called le jeu, literally "the game"- the way of finding joy and fun from being onstage and playfully interacting with the audience, showing your true inner light while dong whatever mundane task you're being paid to do in public. i think reading up on le jeu would be a good starting point for you. try this article for starters.

gaulier himself was taught by the late master teacher jacques lecoq, who founded a school in paris. between them, they have a vast diaspora of great teachers- maybe you can find someone who teaches these disciplines in your area. search around for people teaching clown, bouffon, or physical theatre, especially instructors who went to school at l'ecole philippe gaulier, l'ecole jacques lecoq, california's dell'arte school, or trained with richard pochinko, mump & smoot, or sue morrison.

you should keep in mind that clown, as a discipline, is a bit weird to non-clowns- it's a very serious subculture with lots of rabid devotees. kind of like star trek- you can be a casual fan, or an insane convention costumed devotee, you know? i am speaking as someone who's studied clown and finds the pure form too weird for me- but i now extract the principles of what i learned into my work as a teacher/lecturer/event host, with *amazing* results. i highly recommend a quick dip into clown and le jeu to ANYONE who wants to be a good public communicator.
posted by twistofrhyme at 5:35 PM on January 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

There are many books out there, but there's no beating learning by doing. Not to say books are entirely useless - they help a lot!

If you don't mind being lowered to student level, you could sign up for or sit in on public speaking courses at your college. I believe college instructors are entitled to free enrollment in a course or two at their college? I took one class as a lark, thinking that I was a pretty good public speaker to begin with. Surprise surprise, I learnt that I had a lot of bad habits (public speaking-wise).
posted by Xere at 5:45 PM on January 28, 2007

I second the recommendations for Toastmasters and Stanislavsky. I'd start with An Actor Prepares.
posted by rikhei at 8:01 PM on January 28, 2007

You might enjoy Impro by Keith Johnstone
posted by w_boodle at 4:07 AM on January 29, 2007

Best answer: I'm going to advise Toastmasters alongside everybody else and I'm going to try and explain why. You can read a book, and there are a lot of good books out there but it's the preparation for and delivery of speeches that will help you become a better speaker and overcome at least some of your anxiety. There are other speaking courses as well, such as Dale Carnegie, many of which are excellent and they only cost you anywhere from 50 to 200 times the cost of a Toastmasters membership. The one thing that none of the expensive courses provide you is a long term commitment. You pay your money, you give 5 or 6 speeches, the course adjourns and you're sent off on your own. I know Toastmasters who've been in the organization for longer than I've been alive and who still feel that they get enough out of it to justify remaining a member. What I've seen first hand about public speaking is that it's a use it or lose it skill. An excellent professional speaker I know took about two years off from speaking due to illness. He lost a lot of the polish that us neophyte speakers knew him for. It came back, but only after he had given a handful of speeches. Our club meets twice a month, another local club meets weekly and between the two he was back on his feet in a little over a month.

I'm currently an Area Governor for Toastmasters and I've had a lot of opportunities to talk with people who've been through both Toastmasters and Dale Carnegie or other speaking programs. I've never had anybody give anything but praise for Toastmasters. The initial program is based around 10 basic speeches, each speech introduces standard techniques and skills for you to work on and also builds on the previous skills. The first speech is an Ice Breaker, where you introduce yourself to the group. The reason for this is that it's probably the subject that you have more expertise on than anybody else. The subsequent speeches are open subject matter, speak about whatever interests you. Each speech is evaluated, the depth of the evaluations grow as you grow as a speaker. The purpose of Toastmasters is to be a supportive environment, not to knock people down. The evaluations will be fact based but also based around helping you improve, not cause you to never want to stand up in public again.

A few years ago if I were to get up in small uncontrolled settings, even 5 or 6 people I'd have melted, I would look for any excuse to avoid it. Now I speak to anywhere from 10 to 30 strangers (doing club visits, training sessions and so on) on a fairly regular basis and have very little anxiety.
posted by substrate at 7:29 AM on January 29, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks all...
I've heard about/known some people who were involved in Toastmasters and I've thought about joinging it many times. In the past, the toastmasters people that I knew were also involved in Amway-type pyramid schemes, so I always associated the two together. The responses of people here have made me much more comfortable with the idea of joining, so I will definitely find out about local clubs. Any advice I should keep in mind when picking a local club, or are they all basically the same?
posted by papakwanz at 7:37 AM on January 29, 2007

papakwanz, each club is different, they take on the personalities of their members. My home club is small and supportive, everybody who's attended a meeting has described it as friendly and that seems like as good an adjective as any. It's not superbly organized and that puts some people off. I also belong to an advanced club (some of my talks run 30 minutes now, that's stretching it for a club with new members you want to support and encourage to speak and maintain a one hour meeting). It's a bit more business like though it's still very supportive. Roughly half the members are professional speakers, a couple of others are management consultants. I'm the neophyte of the group. I'm also helping another club start right now, the club president and motivational force behind it is ex-military and you can tell. Meetings are detailed down to the minute, it's terribly well organized but still manages to be supportive.

If you'd like, email me and I can see if I can find something about clubs in your area (Area governors visit all the area clubs so we get a good idea of what each club is like), my email should be in my profile.
posted by substrate at 9:36 AM on January 29, 2007

Best answer: In this day & age, teachers need to be edutainers. (educators & entertainers) Your question is excellent and you are looking exactly in the right direction.

I agree with others above. Find a community of like minded people to study & improve with. Then practice, practice, practice. The learning will come in the doing. Get guidance anywhere you can. The internet is an amazing resource. So is toastmasters, you local community center or get training by performing in an amateur theatrical production in your geographic area.

As a private coach and guest lecturer for educators in the US & Asia, I have been working with people like you in this area for 17 years. Improving your public speaking, voice, self expression & acting ability will make you better at the important job of educating others. The best reason to improve these areas is actually that you will have more fun, dramatically boost your teacher ratings and be a more powerful contributor in your area of expertise. You will stand out from the crowd and shine as a beacon of light. You will contribute to society profoundly by sharing yourself and your wisdom with others.

I recently lead a 14 hour workshop for educators at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore exactly addressing your questions. We distilled the information into a DVD training series called Presentation Power - Bringing Your Message To Life. It's not yet available online but you can view some sample videos on this webpage

Of course, for the message to come alive, the messenger must be alive. I believe that your presentation, public speaking or acting can be broken down into the following 5 parts.

1. Bringing Your Body to Life – How to Massage, Stretch, Release Tension & Energize your Body.
2. Bringing Your Voice to Life - Vocal technique, vocal care & consistently warming up before you teach.
3. Bringing Your Language to Life - Connecting with meaning of words and visualizing one word or one sound at a time to make you a more exciting & engaging speaker.
4. Bringing Your Presentation to Life – Material you are presenting, personal branding tips & how to communicate authentically - including dressing with a personal fashion style.

A personal fashion style can easily differentiate you from others. The fact is a positive impression can be generated even if you aren't feeling particularly charming. As long as you have a sense of who you are and wear what mirrors your native coloring and looks great on you, you'll convey a comfortable self-assurance and natural charisma.

5. Bringing Your Audience to Life – Tips to plan, practice, prepare and present. Also includes suggestions to overcome stage fright and the fear of public speaking & how to connect with people being yourself.

There are lots of free resources on I suggest that you sign up for ongoing tips & sign up for complimentary online training on that website.

If you have any issues relating to fear of public speaking I recommend

You will get free online training on both sites.

If you have any questions, you can email me personally. Contact information can be found on this webpage

Good luck & enjoy the exciting journey to Expressing You!
posted by Deborah Torres Patel at 5:44 PM on January 29, 2007

A good book:

Freeing the Natural Voice by Kristin Linklater
posted by bokinney at 9:09 PM on January 29, 2007

I studied acting in college. Here are my answers to you questions based on my experiences.
I'm just looking for some books or advice on improving my ability to speak in public (prepared speeches and improvising), both in front of classes and at professional meetings and conferences.
I am not sure acting will help you with this. Make an outline of what you plan to go over in class. Come up with some open ended questions for the class to discuss in case you get stuck. Do not feel you must "entertain" your class. The one piece of acting advice that's pertinent may be that you should have a superobjective, that is, you should know why you are teaching the class, and that reason should be important to you.
I have fairly bad posture and a tendency to start doing repetitive physical movements because of nervous energy, so any help on that would be great.
Exercise. In particular Yoga or the Alexander technique. You would not believe the amount of time spent doing this stuff in acting classes. It will really help.
I'm interested in learning a bit more about the interior workings of acting and the stage and how to bring that to life in the classroom. Anything from the performance standpoint (rather than an academic standpoint) would be helpful.
Stanislavsky - What are your objectives in the scene, and what are your obstacles? The scene is a series of strategies by the character to achieve that objective.

Brechtian - What is being exchanged between the characters in the scene? What physical qualities do the characters possess, and what's a good metaphor for those qualities?

Method - What personal memories and experiences translate to the scene (for instance, remembering taking a great shower when acting out a seduction scene - it doesn't have to be a big painful experience).

Me - Go somewhere where you can really be alone and play with it over and over again. Make sure you understand what you are saying - paraphrase until you do. Bring some kind of prop with you to play with (like a ball to bounce) so you don't feel self conscious about what your body is doing for a while. Then drop the prop, say your lines, and be aware.
Books on acting methods, on stagecraft, on how to make the transition from text to speech & motion, uses of physical space in the theater, etc. etc.
This is really directing.
Anything on how to improve ability to memorize large pieces of text would be excellent as well.
There is absolutely no secret to doing this. I took a lot of acting classes in a lot of professional theatres, and never, ever, did they present any secrets on learning lines. Sorry.
posted by xammerboy at 10:48 PM on January 29, 2007

Response by poster: Xammerboy:
I am not sure acting will help you with this. Make an outline...

The problem isn't so much my preparation for class or constructing effective lesson plans, etc., but more my ability to present them in a way that engages the class. I don't want to get caught up in trying to be "entertaining" but I do want to make sure that I capture students' attention and can present sometimes tedious or dull material in an engaging way. I think to a certain extent my presentation style -- rather than the content -- could use some work, and I think that the kind of presence a good actor brings with him/her may be helpful for me.

This is really directing.

You're right. I guess the unspoken corollary to my initial question is that I'd like to help my students (and myself) understand the kind of options for visually representing a dramatic text. Film is to a certain extent useful, but it is still very different from live theater, and I live somewhere where there isn't a lot of theater, and especially not a lot that's affordable on a student budget.
posted by papakwanz at 2:42 PM on January 30, 2007

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