Pronuntiatio, the fourth of the five canons of rhetoric set out by Latin scholars in 1 BC, advised that acting techniques should be assimilated by academics in order that information could be more clearly imparted to an audience. Here is the historic precedent for instilling the skills of acting in the scholar of today.
Performance is submission to the scrutiny and judgement of others. To do that takes courage and brings fear. That fear is a necessary item in an actor's toolkit, but the rush of adrenaline which is necessary for any good performance can either enable or disable so it must be kept under control. Visualisation is the tool to use to gain that control. Just as the New Zealand All Blacks take on warrior personae before their games to intimidate their opponents, so a performer needs to inhibit any idea of failure. Go through the whole lecture visualising only a perfect performance. Should too much adrenaline be sloshing around the body, concentrating for a few moments on a calming image of, say, moonlight on still water will ease the tension. Take your pulse before and after these momentary visualisations and feel for yourself how readily your body responds to this mechanism. The dry mouth which usually accompanies the rush of fear can be alleviated by rubbing the underside of the tongue over the bottom teeth. This stimulates the saliva glands.
Learning from acute observation is another of the tools in an actor's kit.Attend as many lecturers as you can. Take notes. Incorporate the good points into your own work, honing them to fit your own style. Be aware of bad habits and avoid those. Actors work with directors who watch them and help them to shape their roles.
Academics have no such mentors but they do usually have access to a video.Use one if you can, otherwise practise in front of a long mirror. You will learn so quickly from seeing yourself in action.
Sufficient rehearsal is the safety net of performance. As long as you have prepared well, should some unexpected disturbance occur you will take it in your stride, feel secure in doing so and make your audience feel secure too. Know what you want to say and be aware of the group that you want to say it to. The character of each audience will elicit material differently from the alert, aware speaker.
Do you need to build knowledge for them or are you presenting ideas to an informed group in order to pool and gain knowledge? Write your lecture notes as a script. Mark moments of silence boldly in your script. Do not leave them out in your performance.
Actors know well the crucial importance of a good entrance. The power you hold over that moment and which that moment will be able to exert over the whole of your time in front of your audience is enormous. What you look like, how you deport yourself will be assimilated in the blink if an eye, so don't blow it. Take centre stage. Take in your audience benignly. Make them feel welcome and at ease - they are your invited guests. Be glad that they are there. Smile with your eyes. Then take in the space you are about to fill with your words. Focus on an imaginary horizon beyond the back row and keep catching sight of that horizon at various points throughout your interaction with your audience. Words projected beyond it will carry to your listeners without fail.
Start your lecturer with a sentence which is pithy and relevant to your topic then dive into your subject with an elegant far-reaching dive so that people can perceive your trajectory. Do not immediately disappear down in to the deep end before they have had chance to take stock of you. Believe that what makes sense in your mind will make sense in your mouth and make an impact on your listeners. Intend to be heard and you will be heard.
Speaking and standing for long periods are both unusual muscular activities. No good actor would take on a strenuous role without fitness training, neither should a lecturer. It takes practice to stand speaking for long periods so do not be surprised if your throat, back and legs ache.Sustained speaking is a muscular activity and the muscles which hold us upright are always having to combat gravity. Build up to the hour-long lecture by degrees. Relax between training sessions and if your throat feels dry, drink.
Voice is powered by controlled use of breath and it is you who must learn to be the controller. When you are speaking companionably, looking at and taking in a group of friends, you are animated and, even in a crowded pub, you make yourself heard. Being heard in performance is an extension of that principle. But delivering your sound to distant horizons needs practice. Humming into the area of the mouth behind the top teeth will focus your voice forward and is something you can do while walking along corridors without being thought too mad. Repetition of the words "tuneful" and "yeast" with strong emphasis on the "yu" sound in both those words will also propel your sound to the front of the mouth and help your muscles to get used to their unusual task.
If a song has a good melody the words are easy to recall. If you vary the tune of your message it will be easier to recall. No subject can be dry if it is delivered in a lively and varied way. Remember it is the consonants of English which carry meaning so, literally, get your tongue round your words. Speaking out strongly may seem very false to you but so is pumping weights, if you have never attempted that before. The loudness of the voice you will hear may surprise you but do not hold back. Just get on and train. Your muscles will learn very fast if you give them the chance.
Actors have to learn to use and be at ease with a variety of props. So has a lecturer when using visual aids. Spend time making sure that they add to rather than detract from your message. Prepared overheads should display key words or concepts only. Notes made on overheads during the lecture should be written clearly. A lecture is not a slide show but a few sharp, relevant slides do offer variety. Do not put out the lights. Human beings tend to sleep when it is dark. Good actors always check their own props. So should academics. Hands are in-built props. Use them to emphasise a point, to implore, to deny, to refer to things or people but do not let them sabotage your message by flailing aimlessly about.
When stillness is required actors learn to find their centre of gravity and look purposeful under all circumstances. They know that to stand head supported by the shoulders, feet apart, one foot slightly in front of the other, knees slack will keep them balanced. There are many actors who are very glad to have learned that technique when they start their careers as third spear carrier from the right in a Shakespearean production. You too may find that posture helpful. Knowing your centre of gravity will help you to obtain the scholarly requisites of gravitas and balance in the performance of your lectures, and by following the precepts of Pronuntiatio you will have forged a link with academics who strove to perfect their teaching skills two millennia ago.
Janet Howd is a freelance voice consultant and concert singer.
* Star lecturer, page viii