Lesson 1: Learn Your Lines

I listen as often as I can to Fresh Air, the superb radio program with host Terry Gross. On one program, she interviewed actor Charles Grodin, also a personal favorite. She asked if it was any different working with younger actors. Grodin said yes, they don’t learn their lines. As a consequence, he continued, it was not only more difficult working with them, it was also more difficult for them to find their character and the meaning in their words.

In a scene from Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, actor Dennis Hopper defends as his purposeful artistic process not learning his lines so he can keep greater degrees of artistic freedom in his portrayal. The film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, reminds him that he needs to know his lines first for him to have even the barest glimmer of hope of exploring the character’s full intention and place in the story.

In my professional life, I’ve worked with many leaders to help them communicate more effectively. Many have been giving talks and presentations for years and express to me a sincere desire to branch out, get more creative, be more physically demonstrative. All well and good, I frequently respond, but first, know your material.

It’s only by having the confidence of being the complete master of content that a speaker can fully realize their potential connection to an audience.

2 thoughts on “Lesson 1: Learn Your Lines”

  1. Absolutely right, Brent. I speak frequently in front of audiences large and small, and there is a tremendous difference in the way I prepare depending on whether it is new material or things that I have done many times over. New material requires tremendous focus, practice and a conscious plan for how I will chain my ideas together logically so the audience follows and (hopefully) agrees. My tried and true stuff is where I can let myself loose and have fun – the connections are there, the standard turns of a phrase too. But I can also let my freak flag fly and try new stuff, secure in the knowledge that if I start heading off a cliff I can quickly scurry back to the safety of my standard lines. But DON’T stray too close to the cliff if you don’t have a solid trail to run back to!

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