A recent question by pal John Keating reminded me that I had been meaning to do a blog post on the subject for some time.  Here goes:  what is the difference between acting and public speaking?  Let’s address the basics first, and then get into a few of the subtleties.

Actors generally speak someone else’s lines; speakers generally speak their own.  You’ll note that I’ve hedged this most basic of differences with qualifying language.  That’s because there are exceptions.  Sometimes actors are improvising, perhaps in character, but creating their own lines as expansions or additions to the original text, usually written by someone else.  The distinction is further blurred when an actor does a one-man or one-woman show, perhaps about their own life.  And of course sometimes speakers are working from scripts that others have created.  You can be certified to deliver someone else’s IP, for example.  Or, if you’re a high-level executive you might have a script written by someone else.

But on the whole, actors deliver lines written by a playwright or scriptwriter, as they fill a role of some character in a play, or in a movie.  Speakers usually are speaking their own material.

Now, we can argue the metaphysics of role-playing forever.  Of course all of us play many roles; public speaker is one.  Actors are perhaps simply more aware and more expert in playing roles that are partly derived from their own authentic selves and partly created.

Actors generally observe “The Fourth Wall”; speakers don’t.  This observation is also fraught with exceptions.  Sometimes actors directly address the audience.  Most of the time, their performances are meant to be observed by audiences – and everyone engages in the pretense that the audience isn’t there.  But think of Shakespeare’s villain, Richard III, who talks to the audience from the beginning of the play, letting it in on his plotting and scheming.  The actor does that in character, as Richard III.  Sometimes actors go further, addressing the audience as ‘themselves’, or commenting on the fact of the play or movie as a work of art.  Speakers almost always directly address the audience as themselves.  In addition, speakers spend more or less time interacting with their audiences directly.  Actors occasionally do so.

A subtlety for speakers in this regard is commenting on the speech as it’s happening; in effect, drawing attention to the convention of speaking.  This meta-commentary has the effect of highlighting the art or performance aspect of the speech.  Use it carefully, because it does invite the audience to evaluate the speech as an artistic convention rather than simply participate in it.   The latter is usually preferable.

Acting is reacting; speaking is a conversation.  Once again, there are many exceptions to this broad generalization.  Some theorists on acting say that great actors are always aware of the ‘conversation’ they are having with the audience.  In other words, they are simultaneously playing a role as a character in a story and also watching the interaction between the character and the audience.

But on the whole, what actors do is react to the other actors on stage.  Actors are listeners.  That’s how they become so adept at creating the illusion that they are being spontaneous in the moment when in fact they repeat the same show eight times a week.  Speakers, on the other hand, are best served thinking of what they do as a conversation with the audience.  Now, of course, as soon as I say that you should be thinking, ‘but any good conversation involves listening.’  Exactly.

A few subtleties.  Speakers have more to learn from actors than vice-versa.  That’s because actors are professionally expert in experiencing and displaying emotions.  Typically speakers are much less adept; the great speakers are wonderful exceptions.  But one way in which actors can learn from speakers is in thinking about the whole story, show, play, or speech.  A good speaker is always aware of the arc of the speech.  Actors can get caught up in the moment and forget about the other thing they’re supposed to be working on: the through-line of character, the arc of that character if you will.  But because a speaker has charge of the whole play, in essence, and an actor doesn’t so much, actors can learn from speakers in their responsibility for the whole.

Both actors and speakers must learn the basics of communication and body language.  These are essentially the same for both; just put to different use.  An actor may exhibit defensive or hostile body language in order to reveal a character; speakers are generally ill-advised to do so even if they feel defensive or hostile.  I worked a while back with a highly intelligent and articulate professional speaker who was also arrogant and competitive.  He saw a speech as a chance to prove to the audience that he was smarter than they were.  It usually didn’t end well.

There are many more subtleties; let’s hear from both actors and speakers.  What do you see as the essential similarities and differences?

And John, you owe me a drink.





  1. Good morning Nick

    That was excellent- Thank you.

    My one acting experience highlighted for me, my focus, my audience was the two other actors. I quite enjoyed not considering the audience for once.

    I will gladly buy you that drink- considering coming to Boston in November- a city I have not visted. A city with very strong Irish connections.

    Is it a pint of Guinness?

    Kindest regards John

    1. Your welcome — in Boston, there’s an Irish pub on every corner, and Guinness is always to be had. And yet, it’s Guinness. Let me know when you’re in town.

  2. When you speak, you are also your own director. You can be coached, and it’s recommended to get experts’ advices, but at the end of the day – it’s your message from your heart that resonates with the audience.

  3. From what I’ve seen speakers often think of just delivering their lines while actors, at least the ones I’ve worked with, think of delivering a performance. The lines are part of an emotional package that, as you say, includes body language but also includes pacing, volume, intonation, and other ingredients that make it very clear how they feel. We speakers have much to learn from actors yet there seems to be a bias against doing so. Actors can by artistic design be inauthentic. That’s their art. But we speakers cannot act without risk of being perceived as phony. Sometimes I wonder, are we truly being inauthentic or are we just bad actors? You’ve really got me thinking. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Michael — great points, and let me know how you end up. Certainly many speakers could benefit from delivering a performance. It’s one of the things I focus on in coaching a speaker — to work on the emotions, the body language, and all the rest of it as part of a whole performance, in addition to the content.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.