Build Audience Belief The Way Actors Do

(1,413 words)

To enhance your credibility when speaking for business, you can borrow a technique that actors use to build belief within the listening audience.

Why use an acting technique?  The reason is simple:  Persuasive and influential business speakers have a lot in common with actors.  They all know that the key to successful speaking is to inspire belief in the hearts and minds of the audience.

The most important belief-building technique for actors is the use of what we call Acting Objectives.  You can apply this technique to the rehearsal and delivery of your business talks (formal or informal), so that you will speak with the greatest power:  power that comes from a complete commitment that is visible on your body and audible in your voice.

When actors are preparing a role, they make careful choices about what actions to take, to help the audience believe that the make believe situation is real.  For actors, it’s all about actions; actions speak louder than words.  So, actors examine each script and create acting objectives:  actions that lie underneath the words – actions to take toward the listeners.  This helps actors become motivated to speak the words that the playwright or screenwriter wrote and speak them truthfully, authentically, and conversationally.

In rehearsal and performance, actors pursue their acting objectives as if their lives depended on it.  This helps the audience believe that the actor and the character are one and the same:  that the actor IS the character.

This process is useful to business speakers for two important reasons:

  • When you’re speaking in business, you want your listeners to believe something (believe that you have solution to their problems, for example).  The more rigorously you pursue your actions (your acting objectives), the more completely your listeners will believe that you and your message are one and the same: believe that you are your message.
  • As a business speaker or presenter, when you make your audience believe, they are likely to overlook minor shortcomings or mistakes you might make.  Once you’ve made your listeners believe, you’ve won them over to your side.  After that, your audience will forgive you almost anything!

In order to make choices about actions (to identify acting objectives), actors divide the script – and you should divide your notes for a business talk — into units.  Actors call them BEATS.  Each beat is a separate topic, smaller than the overall subject of the message.  It is a topic of conversation: what the speaker is talking about:  a simple noun or noun phrase.

Here is an example:  an excerpt from the “Greed Is Good” speech, delivered by Michael Douglas’s character in the film Wall Street.

“Our company, Teldar Paper, has 33 different vice presidents each earning over $200,000 a year.  Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out.  One thing  I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent on all the paperwork going back and forth between all the these VP’s.  The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the UN-fittest.  Well, in my book, you either do it right, or you get eliminated.”

In this excerpt, there are two beats.  Beat one ends with the phrase “all these VP’s”; it is about waste within the company.  The second beat begins with “The new…” and ends with the word “eliminated”; this beat is about the survival of dysfunctional companies in America.

Take a deep dive into the notes you have for a business talk, and divide it into beats, separating the beats with small dividing marks.  Consider what each beat is about, and where it begins and ends. Then, in the left hand margin, identify what the beat is about.  Express this as a simple noun or noun phrase.


When you know what each beat is about, you are ready to identify an acting objective for each beat (an action that lies underneath the words you speak).  This should be a specific, active verb expressing what you wish to do to your listeners as you speak; what you want to make them feel or do.

Choose objectives that are personally appealing and attractive to pursue, so that you’ll be motivated and project energy.  There are three ingredients for an effective acting objective, and these are the very same ingredients for an effective speaker objective.  Each objective should have the following qualities.  It should be

  1. A specific, active verb, Directed toward the listener
  2. Personal and appropriate to the spoken message and the listener’s situation
  3. Truthful  (for our purposes, truthful doesn’t mean actual; it means believable)

Pursuing an objective (the simple, active verb) gives you energy and focus as you speak.  Studies show that listeners pay the most attention to the actions underneath the words we speak – the vocal tone and demeanor of the speaker.  Consider how a person’s tone/demeanor (not words alone) reveal sincerity, evasiveness, or sarcasm, for example.


Let’s imagine that in one beat of your business talk, you wish to be powerful.

Verb:  to be powerful

Problem:  the verb “to be” is static.  It doesn’t contain active energy.

Better choice:  you wish to obtain power 

Problem:  the verb is too general.

Ask yourself:  “What must I wish to DO in order to obtain power?”

Now you can plan specific actions to take towards the audience – in order to obtain power.  Possible verbs/objectives:

  • I wish to impress the audience
  • I wish to instill confidence
  • I wish to earn their affection

Is the purpose of your presentation to move the listeners to give you money or provide funding for a project?  Here are some objectives that may apply during your presentation:

  • I wish to persuade the audience to make a sacrifice
  • I wish to direct them on a noble/moral path (for PR purposes!)
  • I wish to illustrate the joy that comes from sacrifice to others
  • I wish to save them from their misguided ways

If these power verbs seem overly-dramatic to you, know that these objectives are for the purpose of strengthening your delivery and should remain your secrets.  Keep your acting objectives private.  Have you ever noticed that your secrets hold great power for you — the longer you keep a secret, the more power it holds for you?  Have you noticed that when you let a secret out, tell it to someone, it loses some of its power over you?  We want our acting objectives to have great power to affect our delivery!  So, keep your acting objectives private; this will strengthen your motivation to speak and galvanize the commitment and passion in your voice and your gestures.

Actors write their acting objectives in the margin of the script, right next to the dialogue.  In your speaking notes, in the right hand margin next to each beat, write one simple acting objective.

Rehearse By Pursuing Your Acting Objectives:

Actors rehearse aloud, rehearse often, and rehearse at performance level energy.  Rehearse improvisationally from your notes; do not memorize or speak from rote memory.  Internalize your ideas.  As you speak the words of the beat,

  • Focus on the underlying acting objective
  • Keep it at the forefront of your mind
  • Pursue the objective as if your life depended on it

Over time, as you rehearse, you should begin to notice that you are communicating your joy in sharing ideas.  Always be sure you are communicating:  “My message is important for you, so I love being here with you.

Benefits of Using Objectives:

Pursuing acting objectives holds three powerful benefits for you as a speaker:

Benefit #1:  It gives you laser-beam focus and simplifies your process, because it gives you just ONE thing to think about as you speak each beat.

Benefit #2:  It galvanizes your energy toward what you are doing with your words.  It’s the quickest and most powerful way to project energy, commitment, passion, and poise.

Benefit #3:  It’s a completely organic way to make your voice and physical demeanor support your content.  It turns your voice, body language, and content into one seamless, unified message.

When you are pitching to clients, making presentations, speaking with senior management, or even delivering an elevator speech, the pursuit of acting objectives will give you maximum power and deliver to your audience maximum impact.

Copyright © 2013-2015 Maria Guida

Maria Guida  is an executive speaking coach/trainer, professional speaker, and Broadway actress.  With her experience on stage, TV and film (working with Paul Newman, James Earl Jones, and  Kevin Kline), she helps savvy executives in all industries enhance their credibility and generate business by speaking with poise, passion, and persuasive power.  Delighted clients include American Express, JPMorgan Chase, and Johnson & Johnson.  Maria travels extensively to deliver interactive and entertaining keynotes and workshops.  She can be reached at 718-884-2282 and; or visit

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