Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about speaking to a large audience

Published on 23/05/2018

Why are people so afraid of public speaking?  What is it about standing in front of a group of people that terrifies some and excites others? In this Five Good Ideas, Ravi Jain, artistic director of Why Not Theatre, and Dan Watson, artistic producer of Ahuri Theatre, helped us to think about a few ways we can create the circumstances for us to feel comfortable when speaking to large groups.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Smell: Know who is in the room (sniff out your audience).
  2. Touch: Make a connection with your audience.
  3. Sight: Allow yourself to be seen and be present; don’t hide.
  4. Hearing: It’s not just about talking; listen to your audience.
  5. Taste: Do it your way! Get it wrong!


  1. Go see local independent theatre – The Theatre Centre, Why Not Theatre, Ahuri Theatre
  2. Tongue twister-practice articulation.
  3. Reggie Watts Ted Talk. Absurdity of how these speeches actually sound – the content is irrelevant, we listen to language and ridicule the “public speech.”
  4. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”- Samuel Beckett
  5. You are the resource: Tell a story to a stranger at a party, just do it. Observe people tell stories at parties, steal from them.

Full session transcript

[Ravi]: Hello. Thank you, thank you for having us. Thank you for taking your lunch hours to come and hang out with us.

[Dan]: Yeah, it’s great to be here. So as was mentioned, Ravi and I, we are theatre artists. We make theatre. And our approach to making theatre is very much rooted in the physical body. So we will start by looking at what happens before we speak. How do our bodies communicate, and what are we saying, and what can we use to communicate with our bodies?

And so we thought that this is something that maybe when you’re thinking about public speaking, that oftentimes we think about the ideas or the words, and maybe we don’t pay enough attention to what our body is doing in the space as well. So today we’re going to be looking at the idea of speaking to a large crowd through a physical approach. And since we are actors, we thought we would do some actor training. So today, you get to be actors.

[Ravi]: All right! That’s exciting, yes? It’s that easy!

[Dan]: Everybody’s so excited about this idea. I can see it, you’re jumping out of your seats.

So the first thing that actors do when they’re getting ready is they warm up. So we’re going to do a little quick warm-up right now. So if you can, if you feel like it, you can stand up. If you prefer to sit down, that’s fine too.

All right, look at these guys. You’re already getting up, everybody’s eager and you’re still eating, that’s good.

Okay, so first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to work on our breath. So stick your tongue out like this. And everybody’s going to pant like a dog. Good. And breathe in again. Some of you still have food in your mouth, that’s fine. You’re still chewing, that’s okay. Good, now I’m going to count in on five. So you’re going to breathe in on five, and then you’re going to breathe out on five. So here we go, breathe in. One, two, three, four, five. And breathe out on five. One, two, three, four, five. And we’re even going to do this with our bodies. So we’re going to breathe in with a gesture like this. One, two, three, four, five. And out, one, two, three, four, five.

Good. Okay now you take your hands. And you’re just going to lightly tap your chest with a vocalization, so you go, ahhhh. Like you’re Tarzan. Ahhh. Good. And you can try that on your arms too. Ahhh. And on your other arm. Ahhh. And on your legs. Ahhh. And on your bum. Ahhh. You say bum and everybody laughs. It’s a universal thing. Bum. Good. And now everybody give a little shake with your chest and a vocalization. Good!

[Ravi]: All right, now let’s just warm up our articulators and our voice. So we’re going to try to make your face as big as possible, like a big ah! Eyes as wide as possible. And then as small as possible, like you’ve eaten a lemon. And big, and small, and big, and small. And big, small, big, small, big, small. Shake it out a bit. Now you’ve had some food. This helps if you just lick your lips a little bit. And we’re just going to – [flutters lips]. Just flutter your lips. May feel silly, but we’re warming up our articulators. We’ll do this.

So it needs a certain amount of energy to do that. Now we’re going to add some voice here. We’re going to go — [demonstrates by fluttering lips]. All right? Like a waterfall of sound. And let’s go up. The car is starting. Waterfall. Rev up the motor. And again. You get it.

Great, let’s try just counting. So sometimes when we play with acting, modulating your pitch is really important. So we’ll try this. Just wait and I’ll go. So we’ll go, one, two, three, four, five, six. And we’ll just count to ten. Ready? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Great, amazing, let’s do it again. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Awesome!

Okay, another one. Imagine that your tongue is a pencil, and you’re going to spell your name out here in front of you. So I’m going to go R, A, V, I. Make sure you dot those I’s and cross those T’s. Try to spell your name as best as you can, really like a fine pencil. Spell your name. That’s great.

Okay, last one. This is more advanced. It’s going to get a little messy. So what you want to do is hold your tongue. I’ll demonstrate and you’re going to say just the days of the week. And the trick is you really want to hold your tongue out there. And you’re going to go, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And now, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Do you feel the difference? Just bring the sound forward in the mouth.

And by just making these little adjustments, putting energy into parts of our mouths – just the body is an instrument. This is why we warm up. The body is like a guitar. If you don’t tune the guitar, the musician can’t play the notes right. So for us, in actor training, training the body, it’s so important to bring awareness and attention to our articulators in order to get our ideas across to the end of the room. So that’s really why we warm up. Great induction into actor training, introduction to actor training. You’re all in, you can all stay. This is great.

[Dan]: Yeah, you’ve all passed.  Passed level one.

[Ravi]: So you can have a seat again if you want. I should say too. Often when people are about to give a speech or speak publicly, we get very nervous and anxious. And to warm up, to stretch, to put your attention into articulators, it’s a great way to just relax and just realize get in your body, don’t stress about what you have to do. And put your attention and energy into yourself.

[Dan]: So, as we mentioned, we have a physical approach. So we thought we would frame this discussion through the five senses that we have in our bodies as a way to structure what we’re going to talk about.

Idea number one: Smell (sniff out your audience)

So the first sense we’re going to talk about is smell. Scent. And what I’ll say is you have to “nose” [knows] your audience.

So one thing that actors do —acting 101 — is, we have to find out who is in the scene with us. Who are we acting with? We ask ourselves, “Who am I speaking to? What do they want, and what do I want from them?” This is essential. Because it changes the way that you are going to communicate with them.

So we’re going to play a little game right now to give you that —it’s research that we have to do and we’re going to do some research together. So, here’s what I want you to do. Everybody can make this sound. “Ooh.” Good, good. And you can wave your arms. Ooh. So you’re the wind, that’s what you are.

So we’re going to play a game called The Wind Blows. And how it works is, I will say, “The wind blows for anyone who,” and then I will say a statement. And if it’s true of you, you can go “ooh.” Okay? So you’re the wind.
For example, I might say, “The wind blows for anyone who is attending the Maytree Five Good Ideas session today.” Great. And if you’re not doing this you might be in a different place, a different dimension; that’s okay too.

So now we can use this as research. So some of the things we could say. The wind blows for anyone who works in the public sector. Okay. The wind blows for anyone who works in the private sector.

[Ravi]: It’s a really quiet wind. It’s just a breeze. It was just a breeze. Very private, that was a private wind.

[Dan]: And the wind blows for anyone who works in the not-for-profit sector. Okay.

[Ravi]: Loud and proud, there it is.

[Dan]: So already I know some information about who’s in the room. And I could continue asking some questions. I could start to find out who you work for, maybe who pays your salary. Maybe I want to find out how much you make. But I’m not going to ask those questions right now. We’re not going to ask those questions. But that’s where you work. There could also be, I want to find out some information about what you like personally, what you like as a human being. So I might say, the wind blows for anyone who is a parent. The wind blows for anyone who likes dogs. Most of the room.

The wind blows for anyone who is not from Toronto. Okay. And maybe people online too, I don’t know. And the wind blows for anyone who likes public speaking. That’s more than I thought. That’s great. That’s wonderful. The wind blows for anyone who thinks that Maytree does exceptional work. See that? That’s information there. That’s good to know.

This is information that we’re finding out. It’s research. And why do we want to know this? It will change the way that we are communicating. It will change how we present our ideas. In acting we call these tactics. So I use different tactics depending on who I’m speaking to and what the situation might be.

So in this case we’re finding it out physically in the room but of course you can do it ahead of time. Of course you have this thing called the internet. Of course you have friends and colleagues that might know who is going to be in the room that you’re talking to. What do they want? What are they concerned about? And how can I tailor my message to communicate to them?

Idea number two: Touch (Connect with your audience)

[Ravi]: Great. Thank you, Dan. The second sense we’re going to talk about is touch. So in the theatre, a lot of what we do is about creating connections, building relationships onstage. And one of the most important ones for us in the work that we do is, how do we connect to our audience? What is that connection? How do I establish a connection?

So this little exercise is a way to kind of take a connection and a greeting that you know and try to think about how space, the bigger space gets. How we can adapt our thinking about how we connect to a larger room. So could I ask for two volunteers? Could I steal you as a volunteer? Would you be up for that? Or maybe Mona and Richard? Great, there we go. Let’s have applause for our two volunteers. Very brave here.

Richard and Mona, thank you so much. So we’re just going to do a standard greeting which is, let’s just shake hands and say hi. Great. Very simple hello. They made eye contact, they shook each other’s hands. They just somehow determined the appropriate amount of energy for the hello. Too much, too enthusiastic is a bit extreme. Not enough feels maybe under-energized. So we know how to introduce ourselves.

Here’s what we’re going to try to do. We’re going to say hello. We’ll just add a little text for fun. So it’d be hello, hello. How are you? Or how are you today, let’s say. I’m well, thanks for asking. We’ll just do that. And we’ll just do the handshake again with the greeting.

[Richard]: Hello.

[Mona]: Hello.

[Richard]: How are you today?

[Mona]: I’m well.

[Ravi]:  Great. So now we’re going to take three steps backwards. One, two, three. And now we’ll do the same exercise. We want to greet each other and try the text.

[Richard]: Hello.

[Mona]: Hi.

[Richard]: How are you?

[Mona]: I’m well.

[Ravi]: Yeah, okay. We’re improvising this text, fantastic. So, small changes, right? We change the text. Hi. Our energy changes a little bit. The volume changed a little bit. Now let’s take another three steps back. One, two, three. Nothing’s behind you, we’re good. And now let’s try the same thing.

[Richard]: [Raises hand] Hey! How are you?

[Mona]: I’m good, thanks.

[Ravi]: Fantastic, fantastic! Amazing! So right away, the further we got a gesture emerged. Hey! [raises hand] Right? So the same connection that we had this way horizontally, vertically. Hey! Because I’m further away, my presence gets bigger. Volume obviously increased. Energy, more energy. Let’s try taking another three steps back. And one, two, three. Just to see. So, yeah. So let’s just review the text. Hello, hello. How are you today? I’m well, thanks for asking.

[Richard]: Hello.

[Mona]: Hello.

[Richard, speaking slower]: How are you today?

[Mona, also speaking slower]: I’m great, thanks for asking.

[Ravi]: Nice. So another thing that happened, that happens with distance is we slowed down. The bigger the crowd, ideas take time to travel through space. So whereas before we had hello, hi, how are you today? I’m well, thanks. Now with space and time. Hello…[and then] listening. How are you today? Gestures came, and we amplified.

Thank you, you can sit down. Thank you very much.

Something just to take away I think from that is, if you ever have to speak publicly, you’re in a big crowd, don’t do it alone. You can get a partner and do a little exercise like that just to get a sense of the size of the room. I’m over here, Monica’s over there, and I’m just getting a sense to remind myself of the size and scope of this entire room.

And my next point on that was, don’t do it alone…and I’ve gone blank. There you go. How’s that? That’s a good way to demonstrate public speaking.

[Dan]: It just made me think of something.

[Ravi]: Save your partner.

[Dan]: Yes.

Also you might have a microphone when you’re public speaking. But it’s not about volume. It’s about intention. What I mean by that is, it’s not about me shouting to the end of the room. But me with an idea that I want to send my voice back to Tina who’s back there. So it requires you to be conscious of where you are in the space and where everybody is in the space so that you’re playing to the whole room.

And the bigger the size of the space, the more people just bringing attention to energy, gestures and the amount of space you take really helps you to take in the whole crowd and make everybody feel like they’re part of this experience that we’re all part of, which is this speech.

Idea number three: Sight (Allow yourself to be seen)

[Dan]: Sense number three. Sight. We have a saying in theatre where we say, “Allow yourself to be seen.” Now what does that mean? It means allowing yourself to be vulnerable – and that can be really hard sometimes. We don’t want to be vulnerable. We don’t want to be exposed. Especially in public speaking sometimes we might hide behind things, we might hide behind a podium or we might have a PowerPoint that we’re just going to cling to that PowerPoint. Or that we might have the script and I’m only going to say the script, the things on the script. No matter what happens in the room, I’m just going to keep saying these words. Sometimes that happens, we have these things we cling to.

So as actors, it means that we’re not present in the room, we’re not listening to what is happening. We’re not allowing ourselves to be seen. As actors we do a lot of training to try to be more present, to try to strip away the things that stop us from being present. So we’re going to do a little exercise right now. A physical exercise that will get at this idea.

Ravi, can I have you for a second? It’s called the mirror game. I’m going to be the leader and Ravi is going to be my mirror. I’m going to keep my eye contact with Ravi and I’m going to try to move and Ravi is going to try to follow along with me. And the idea is that I’m not trying to trick Ravi, I’m not trying to move really quickly so that he can’t follow that, I’m leading him. I have a responsibility as a speaker to lead the audience and in this game I’m leading Ravi in different ways. I might want to challenge Ravi and try to make him go all the way down or pull him back up. I can play around with him, that’s part of the fun. But I’m taking care of Ravi.

If you can find a partner beside you — you can do this sitting or standing as you wish. If you’re doing it sitting just put your chairs so they’re close, they’re facing one another. Good. And once you have a partner you decide, we’ll start with one person is leading. So you decide who is leading. And if you don’t have a partner or you don’t want to participate, that’s all good too. Decide who is leading. And yeah, if you need more space, come on out here too, there’s lots of space. And you can engage both hands. And you’re taking care of each other, yeah. Good.

So now, attention for a second. One of you has been leading, now we’re going to switch. So the other person that was following is now leading. Okay, fantastic. So now… Attention. We’re going to do it one more time here. But this time you’re going to trade off as you wish. So sometimes you’ll be leading and when you feel like the time is right, that the follower wants to start to take the lead, then the follower can start to be the leader. And you’ll trade off without saying, “Okay, now, it’s me.” You’re going to find it in the space between you. Try it one more time. Okay, very good.

[Two audience members high five at the end of the exercise]

[Dan]: I like that, that’s a good way to end. Double high five. Perfect. That was really great. Great. That’s great, you’re all naturals. I think we’ve got the cream of the crop acting class here, this is great.

When we are communicating, communication is a two-way street. So oftentimes we think of making a speech and it’s all going out this way but there’s this give and take, there’s this reaction that we have to keep in mind. We’re not doing this just to hear the sound of our own voices in the space. We’re doing it to connect and to offer it to people. And so sometimes we need to be present, so that we can adapt, we can change tactics.

Ravi had a great example as he lost a line. So admit that I lost my line. I don’t know what’s coming next. And everybody laughs and forgives. That’s that vulnerability. And that’s way more relatable than somebody going up and just talking, reading a speech. Being vulnerable is relatable. We see that. And so you want to let people see who you are not just what you’re saying.

Idea number four: Hearing (Listen to your audience)

[Ravi]: That’s great. So building on this, we’re on the fourth sense which is hearing. Sound. And so as Dan said, speaking is, it’s two-way communication. Listening is a huge part of how we — the phrase that my mom loves is, “You have two ears and one mouth, so put more time in listening.” How do we get better listeners? How can we become better listeners? And as actors we have tons of games that are a lot of fun to play with. Practicing listening, getting better at listening.

So I’m going to come on over here and we are going to play a little listening game at this table. You’re going to be our example. If you don’t mind standing up. And then we’ll go around, the tables can play as well. So here’s what we’re going to do as a group. As a group, we are going to count to twenty. But here’s the thing. We don’t know who’s going to say a number and we don’t know when they’re going to  say a number. So, only one person can speak a number at a time. If more than one person speaks, we have to start over again. Let’s just try and as we try we’re going to learn how this goes.

So it begins.

[Audience members at table counting]: – One. – Two. – Three. – Four. – Five. – Six. – Seven. – Eight. – Nine. [Two participants speak at the same time]

[Ravi]:  Not bad, you got to nine. And start over.

[Table starts counting again]: – One. – Two. – Three. – Four. – Five. – Six. – Seven. – Eight. – Nine.

[Ravi]: Nine again. All right, all right. One more time, it’s good. So we can say something happens around that nine that we panic. It’s great and again one more time.

[Table counts again]: – One. – Two. – Three. – Four. – Five. – Six. – Seven. – Eight. – Nine. – Ten. – Eleven. – Twelve. – Thirteen.

[Ravi]: Nice, now you got to thirteen, it’s good. Any quick little feedback of what’s the experience of that?

[Participant]: You go faster.

[Another participant]: You want to start saying it quickly so no-one else could get the pause. I’m going to go right away.

[Ravi]: You’re trying to rush, get in there. So you’re listening to that empty space to find your moment to get in. Any other thoughts?

[Ravi summarizing a participant’s comment]: You’re finding other parts of yourself that are listening or deeper listening was your words? Okay, so there’s a deeper kind of listening. Any other comments?

You could have finished. But it’s nice to keep the exercise is really about trying to listen. Because it’s true, Rosalyn is mentioning that we could create a system if we just go in a circle and achieve the task of counting to twenty.

Even I saw people’s bodies change of like, “I’m listening, when do I go? Oh, the agony.” The human body, we’re animals and we start to listen with many different parts not just our ears.

So let’s try this. Everybody get up in your tables and we’ll try this game out. And when you get to twenty, if you get to twenty, just give a big cheer and then we’ll know. Just a reminder, the game is, trying to count to twenty as a table. If more than one person speaks, you have to start over. Okay. And go.

[Tables try the exercise]

[Ravi]: We got a winner over there. Now try to count down from twenty to one.

Let’s just try another adaptation here because we got two tables of one. Let’s try playing the game now with your eyes closed. Does that change how we listen? Again, we’re trying to train how we listen. And try with your eyes closed.

[Tables try the exercise]

Pros. Okay, great. Thank you so much, you can have a seat. Thank you very much for playing. That was great, that was great. We have the pro table over there. They’re going to take that on the road.

So this is really about training our ability to listen. And it is a practice that you can do to really train to listen. One of the things I love about it is it also reminds us when we’re speaking we’re creating something with the audience. We’re not just alone there, we’re in this circle of people. As a speaker, we are all creating this experience together so that heightening that listening is so important to remember that we’re not alone up here. Because a lot of the anxiety sometimes comes from the fact that I’m carrying the load of running this room.

One practical way to help you with public speaking for listening is to build in a check-in. Every so often maybe five minutes, depending on how long your speech is. Just a check-in that says, “How’s everybody doing? Do you understand what I’m saying? Am I going too fast? Am I going too slow? Is it too complicated?” Building a check-in is just a really simple practical way to create an invitation to the audience for feedback, to make sure that we’re all listening. We’re rounding it up.

Idea number five: Taste (Bring in your own unique tastes and sensibilities)

[Dan]: And our final sense, which is taste. And that is — use your own taste, bring it in. Bring in your own ideas, the things that you are interested, your own individuality. There’s no one right way to do this. But what I am certain of is that we want to see you up here. And we want to see your taste for better, for worse.

[Ravi]: Be creative, have fun. Sometimes we feel a pressure that there’s a certain way to do this speech or I have to speak this way, I have to use this formalized greeting. Really, it’s really just you and to have the freedom to take the risk to just do it your way.

And fundamentally for us in the theatre, there’s always two. There’s the actor and the audience. And in a rehearsal process we don’t have audiences all the time, so we have someone like a director. So a buddy, get a buddy. Practice in front of a friend. Go with that friend to the space to test how big the space is, how many people will be there. Be in a dialogue with someone, so it’s not just all on you. And you can find with that friend, the comfort of your own way of how to do it, how to say what you want to say.

[Dan]: And if you don’t have that friend too. I think the thing that I really want everybody to take away is, you have to practice it, you have to rehearse it. Saying it in your head is all well and good but you have to get up. You might even be able to just read out loud. Whether it’s the speech or if you’re in your office or wherever you work and you want to, and you have a document, try reading it out loud instead of reading it in your head. Just to train those muscles to speak. To hear your own voice in the space as well is super, super important and it will let you know. That’s the best way to learn I think.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ravi Jain

Artistic Director, Why Not Theatre

Toronto-based stage director Ravi Jain is a multi-award-winning artist known for making politically bold and accessible theatrical experiences in both small indie productions and large theatres. As the founding artistic director of Why Not Theatre, Ravi has established himself as an artistic leader for his inventive productions, international producing/collaborations and innovative producing models which are aimed to better support emerging artists to make money from their art. In 10 years, Why Not has become synonymous with innovative theatrical experiences which have toured the world. In recent years their RISER project, a unique producing model, has had a significant impact on the Toronto independent community. Why Not has created over 20 collaborations performing on five continents, including the smash hit A Brimful of Asha, which stars Ravi and his real-life mother (non-actor). Collaborations Ravi has fostered with Why Not Theatre include festivals such as Harbourfront’s World Stage Festival, Luminato Festival and The Pan Am Games Toronto2015 and international companies like The Tricycle Theatre (UK), Complicite (UK) and The SITI company (USA). Ravi was shortlisted for the 2016 Siminovitch Prize and won the 2012 Pauline McGibbon Award for Emerging Director and the 2016 Canada Council John Hirsch Prize for direction. He is a graduate of the two-year program at École Jacques Lecoq and he was the inaugural artistic-director-in-residence at The Theatre Centre.

Dan Watson

Artistic Producer, Ahuri Theatre

Dan Watson is an award-winning creator and producer of theatre and events. He is Artistic Producer of Ahuri Theatre (This is the Point, What Dream it Was) and founder of Edge of the Woods Theatre (Nuit Blanche North, Ralph + Lina) in his home town of Huntsville. Dan also works in community engaged arts with a particular focus on collaborations with people of different abilities. Most importantly, he is a proud papa of three awesome kids, Bruno, Ralph and Simone, and partners with one incredible human being, Christina.