Roleplaying: The Key To Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

“Do you know what I found?”
“No, what did you find?”
“Don’t blink.”
Tommy puts his hand into the bag and gets ready to surprise his brother with…


Roleplaying is one of the easiest ways to get people to overcome their fears of public speaking.

Theoretically, this is because you are playing another character. And when you are playing X, you are non-X. If you are playing Romeo, you cannot be yourself (Tommy). If you are playing yourself (Tommy), then your own insecurities will show up and you become more self-conscious of who you are, rather than trying to engage your audiences with your message.

When you play another character (or if you put on a role), you avoid the fear of being judged and criticised as you are. For example, if you were acting a timid character and you were seen shaking (even if it was a real visible nervousness on stage), it is interpreted by your audience as you playing that timid character. If you are being loud and boisterous on stage, you are only seen as a character and not yourself (thus get away with ridiculousness and even the occasional rudeness). Again, roleplaying helps the audience to see you as a character, and so you avoid the harsh judgements and criticisms as who “you” are. They could only “judge” your character’s actions, unless, of course, the character is so famous (e.g. Hamlet) that when an actor who plays him badly, it will be seen as an actor not clearly fleshing out Hamlet’s desire for revenge.

Putting on a character is like putting on the Emperor’s new clothes. You become bolder. You become stronger. You become whoever you want to be, conjured from your imagination. These could be stereotypes from fiction (e.g. evil stepmother, big fat pig, cunning wolf, the magician, Prince Charming, damsel in distress, hunchback), but they give you the permission to “play” a new role and be comfortable in a different skin, in a different voice.

But this is only the process.

This means that this is a process during the rehearsal phase, not the performance phase. You don’t “act” when you are on stage as you do not want to lose that sense of authenticity as a speaker. You don’t want to appear unnatural because the sense of flakiness can be seen from miles away, and unless you are a professional entertainer, you will appear gimmicky and unreal. So, how do you act and not-act at the same time?

On performance day, you would need to be vulnerable and honest as yourself. But in order to do so, a long process of discovery has to take place. Lee Strasberg, a famous American director born in Hungary-Austria (now Ukraine), who was most known for his Method Acting once said:

“The human being who acts is the human being who lives.”

But the one who acts is also the one who does, and feels. In other words, before an actor could play a role so well, he would need to understand the character’s strengths, flaws, motivations, desires, and all the back-story needed to flesh out a most convincing portrayal. But to be convincing requires personal work, a deep intense excavation and exploration of your own inner world, your own demons and angels. It is a process of stripping  away those layers of fears, of insecurities, of judgement, and allowing your body to feel free again, for your voice to express again. And this can only be done through drama games and activities that open up different senses: the kinesthetic, the auditory, the visual, the olfactory, the gustatory, the vestibular.

Through drama exercises, a trained drama educator or theatre director would help you to discover these:

  • find the ‘true’ intention of your character
  • express and emote the appropriate feeling
  • be playful and vulnerable
  • work as an ensemble, in collaboration with other actors and technicians

I remember performing in a piece of theatre once, titled ‘The Other Me’, where I was literally stripped to my underwear, with pieces of fabric tied around me as the co-actors walked in a circumference, almost mummifying myself in a push-pull constricted way. I had to deliver a painfully honest monologue. During the rehearsal, I tried different methods to portray that character, through various ways of crying, shouting, whispering, but my director did not like the portrayals. He didn’t feel it was authentic enough. I was probably too self-conscious of being scrutinised in the buff, hence the lines that I had delivered were stilted.

Even on the actual day of the performance itself, the last rehearsal was “barely average”; my character’s monologue did not have enough impact on the audience. Quietly, my director stopped all the activities, took me aside privately and told me to go into MY own inner recesses, to tap into my very dark place, a place that had a mix of horrifying and desirous images, fearful and liberating feelings. I was there in the imaginative world for a few minutes which seemed like Hell forever. He turned off all the lights and told the co-actors to wait for the cue. Blindfolded, I was ushered back to the stage (during the rehearsal – which was just 2 hours before showtime. Just imagine the stress!) and I delivered my lines from that emotionally complex world. Convoluted images of imprisonment, bondage, lust, sex, desire, pain, death, hell, judgement day, intimacy, freedom and confusion oozed out effortlessly from my mouth.

And then I felt it.

A hushed silence.
I knew my audience (my co-actors and directors) felt it too.

I opened my blindfold and cried.
We knew the impact of those words of self-condemnation as spouted by that character. He became believable, finally.

And I had to recreate that memory 2 hours later for an actual paying audience, to make them feel the same way my ensemble felt in the rehearsal room.

That’s “peeling away”. I had to peel away “myself” to reach my core before I could put on that character’s story. And when I did that, I became authentic both in role, and in person.

After that intense process as an actor, there was nothing else I might fear. I had, ironically, become so true and vulnerable as a person that if I were to stand naked on stage, those vulnerabilities I had would have transmuted into other forms of energy needed to create an impactful delivery.

Public speakers, of course, do not need to go through an acting process. But there are processes that are less frightening than what I had gone through. Here are some of the photographs from a masterclass I facilitated to teach entrepreneurs to embody authenticity and structure their stories from a truthful and engaging place.

It was serious fun, seriously.


Masterclass (Pair Activity)Masterclass (Pair Work)Group ImprovisationGamesSleeping ExerciseBag Exercise

George Bernard Shaw once said:

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”


Some of the participants shared their testimonials with me after the masterclass:

“Thank you, Ed. You have something, Ed, it’s not a skill set; it’s more than that. I don’t know. I can’t put a finger on it. Perhaps it’s what shines through when something is done with passion.”

“It was an amazing experience. I’ve been to workshops for public speaking in the past but THIS really makes a change in me. Its about taking stories like when we are kids […]”

“Before the workshop, my confidence […] was around 20 percent. But after today’s workshop, I can say with confidence that my ability and skill to share my story has increased to 65 percent.”

“I really recommend that if you want to learn some strategies that will help you take your presentation to a higher level, I would recommend come to see Ed. It’s been a worthwhile experience. It’s brilliant. Ed knows what he’s doing.”

“The training is key. Everything we learned today, the drama, the character, how to engage with the audience are very vital for my business.”

“To be honest, before I came, I was a bit anxious and afraid because I was not very comfortable sharing my story […] I was scared. I didn’t know what to say. But finally […] I’m very happy that I did it because I realised that drama and acting is very important when you’re doing public speaking. Because […] I have to do many presentations for my business, I realised that I really needed this session. Thank you, Edmund.”


This very powerful, experiential Masterclass will take place in Manchester on 30 August (Sunday) from 9am to 5.30pm.  Register now to secure a place. Only limited to 10 spaces.

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