7 Lessons Public Speakers Can Learn From Pantomime Actors

I have just seen my very first proper British pantomime (‘Sleeping Beauty’ if you’re wondering). Growing up in Australia, I didn’t have the opportunity to see a traditional full-blown pantomime the way they're produced in the UK but I had a fairly good idea of what to expect and I wasn’t disappointed. The outlandish story, costumes and performances as well as the silly humour and audience participation ensured a fun afternoon’s entertainment. And despite it being a completely different form of communication to public speaking, as speakers we can learn a lot of lessons from pantomime.

Lesson Number 1 – Know your audience and tailor your material accordingly

A pantomime uses the classic storytelling structure with an attention grabbing opening and a story encompassing good versus evil, a conflict and a ‘happily-ever-after’ ending. The pantomime audience expects family entertainment so the shows include a mix of music, vaudeville, slapstick, contemporary references and humorous innuendos as well as a good dose of audience participation. When crafting a presentation it is crucial to understand who your audience is and what frame of mind they will be in to ensure that your content is relevant and interesting to them.

Lesson Number 2 – Use your body effectively to engage your audience

Good pantomime actors bring an energy to their performance that truly engages and connects with their audience. From the moment they step on stage they use large gestures and open body language to invite the audience into their world. Unlike some forms of theatre where a ‘fourth wall’ exists between the actors and the audience, in pantomime the actors speak directly to the audience making eye contact with as many individuals as possible. Sometimes speakers feel awkward using large gestures; however, most times what feels like over-exaggeration looks quite normal when standing on a stage giving a presentation. And making eye contact with your audience when speaking is essential to really connect with them.

Lesson Number 3 – Commit to delivering your message

Pantomime actors commit fully to their characters and their task to entertain the audience. If they didn’t, the dodgy jokes would fall flat, the songs would bomb and the audience would not be interested in sitting through the show. The whole purpose of pantomime is to provide family entertainment. Think about the objective of your presentation and commit fully to communicating that in the most effective way.

Lesson Number 4 – Ensure you are heard

There is no point preparing an entertaining show or a moving speech if no one can hear or understand you. Just as pantomime actors train their voices and warm up before a show, so should presenters. Learn to breathe effectively so that you can project well, exercise your voice to extend the range so that you can express with greater vocal variety and practice tongue twisters and other exercises to improve your diction.

Lesson Number 5 – Involve the audience

One of the wonderful parts of pantomime is the opportunity for the audience to interact with the actors. Throughout the show performers will ask the audience questions (to which the crowd usually enthusiastically respond), as well as getting them to clap along or even on their feet dancing. Whilst the dancing might be a little too much for most of the audiences you present to, getting people involved by asking questions, even rhetorical questions, will help to ensure they are engaging with your speech material.

Lesson Number 6 – Think on your feet

When presenting or performing things don’t always go to plan and with audience interaction there are bound to be some interesting moments and unexpected comments. Therefore, it is crucial to be able to think quickly and adapt to accommodate any unforeseen circumstances or incorporate them into your presentation.

Lesson Number 7 – Work the room

Rather than focus on a few people or a specific part of the room, pantomime actors involve everyone in the audience to ensure that everybody is engaged and entertained. As a presenter it can give you confidence if you only engage with familiar faces or those that look friendly and interested; however, it is important to connect with everyone in the audience, or if it is a larger audience, certainly ensure that you speak to all areas of the room to ensure that you have their attention. And if all else fails, the old tradition of throwing some sweets into the audience might just get their attention!

Incorporate these seven lessons when preparing and delivering your next speech and you’ll engage and entertain your audience with the finesse of a great pantomime actor!

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Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist who prepares ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to take centre stage, embrace the spotlight and present with more confidence, credibility and conviction.

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