How to Wow an Audience – Every Time

If you want to capture people’s attention — during a presentation or while chatting on a plane — you have to give a great performance. Actress Martha Burgess teaches theater techniques to businesspeople.

On a warm night in suburban Atlanta, in a rather ordinary building, 15 businesspeople have come together to learn how to be a bit more extraordinary. A framed collage of their new role models is on the wall. But instead of images of Bill Gates or Jack Welch, there are pictures of Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and Whoopi Goldberg.


The men and women in tonight’s class don’t want to become actors. They want to borrow some of acting’s best practices so they can inject more energy and flair into their professional lives. It’s a worthwhile goal: In an economy of more – more ads, more email, more meetings – the only scarce commodity is attention. If you want to get people’s attention, whether during a formal presentation, a casual conversation, or a chance meeting on an airplane, you have to offer a compelling performance.

“If you want to be persuasive,” argues Martha Burgess, “you have to generate a high level of energy, without all the anxiety. It’s energy that makes you visible, that gives you presence. I call it ‘performance energy,’ and it’s the basis of dynamic leadership.”

Burgess, 51, is the cofounder of Theatre Techniques for Business People Inc., which is the company that hosts the class. In small groups, in individual coachings, and in group seminars for as many as 5,000 people, Burgess and her colleague, Jennifer Scott, 27, help clients communicate effectively by teaching them how to communicate purposefully. They’ve worked with AT&T, Avery Dennison, Georgia Power, and Coca-Cola. “When you, as a speaker, fail to raise your energy level – when you just ‘speak’ – you’re relying on the audience to be aware of all your words,” says Burgess. “But you’re responsible for persuading the audience to hear what you want them to hear.”

Burgess has been persuading audiences for nearly her entire life. At 3 years old, she started acting in musicals in New York and Atlanta. In her 20s, she began directing theater. She continues to act occasionally (she’s appeared in such television shows as In the Heat of the Night and I’ll Fly Away).

These days, her primary audience is businesspeople. She and Scott believe that they can train clients to summon performance energy on command. It’s the feeling that you have when you’re “on.” Of course, many professionals (actors, musicians, and trial lawyers) have to be “on” all the time. “We teach you how to call up the best you for a specific situation,” says Burgess. “There is nothing artificial about it. Performance energy is an authentic part of who you are. You just have to access it.”

To do that, Burgess uses a trigger exercise. First, choose an image, such as a mountain- top or a rising thermometer, as a trigger – your personal stimulus. Then, five times a day for six weeks, physically raise your energy level by, for example, running in place until you’re breathing heavily. At that point, stop abruptly, shut your eyes, and focus on your trigger. After six weeks, Burgess promises that this response will be so ingrained that you’ll be able to energize yourself by simply focusing on the trigger image.


Leigh Warwick, 41, an account manager at BellSouth Mobility, enrolled in Theatre Techniques because she was having trouble chatting with clients. To become more at ease in those situations, Warwick chose as her trigger image a car tachometer reaching the red zone. The exercise has become so effective that “I’ve been thinking about calling Theatre Techniques and asking how to turn it off,” she jokes.

Besides giving clients an energy boost, Theatre Techniques teaches them an underappreciated skill: the ability to read an audience. Everyone, Burgess contends, has three “learning lines” (mental, emotional, and physical) – ways in which people receive information. People possess all three to different degrees. Why do learning lines matter? Because if you speak to people in their own language, they’re more likely to understand and to respond to your message.

For example, if you’re addressing people whose primary learning line is mental, you should speak with a clear argument and plenty of facts. Emotionals free-associate and thus are receptive to storytelling. Appealing to them means making them feel personally involved. If you want to engage physicals, you need to get them out of their chairs and involved in an activity. In most situations, group members whom you’re trying to reach won’t all have the same learning line. Which means that recognizing what charges up an audience helps, but does not replace, recognizing what gets you charged up and makes you feel compelling.

“People come here with a lot of tricks up their sleeves, and they wonder why those tricks are ineffective,” says Jennifer Scott. “They’re assigning power to external things: the audience, their appearance. But true power comes from within. You need to live up to your potential instead of imitating someone else’s.”

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Sidebar: Made in the Shade

Most presentation coaches agree that audiences remember less than 10% of what they hear – and more of what they see and do. That doesn’t mean that presentations require over-the-top performances. Instead, argue Martha Burgess (above) and Jennifer Scott, presentations require effective nonverbal language.


One way to convey information nonverbally is by “shading” – that is, by augmenting a spoken sentence with an internal dialogue. Scott, for example, might introduce herself by saying, “Hi, my name is Jennifer Scott.” At which point she pauses and says silently to herself, “and I’m warm and friendly,” then out loud: “and I work for a company called Theatre Techniques for Business People.” At which point she might say to herself, “and I love what I do.”

It seems silly at first, but Burgess says that you have these internal dialogues all the time – so you might as well put them to work: “Many people feel so vulnerable in public situations. When they’re saying, ‘Hi, my name is Joe Smith,’ they’re thinking, ‘And I’m scared to death.’ That’s not said aloud, but it comes through.”

In addition to shading, Burgess and Scott advocate “pre-editing.” Write out what you’re going to say, or know it thoroughly. Then choose key words – no more than two or three in a sentence – and attach emotion and pictures to them. Pause either before or after those key words, but not both before and after. “That way, the audience is not swamped with words,” Burgess says. “You’re doing the work for their ears. You’re saying, ‘This is what I want you to remember.'”