Rae Dubow, Business Owner and Speaking Coach

Rae Dubow, the director of Talking Out Loud, believes everyone can be trained to communicate more effectively. Using techniques that she has taught for many years, Dubow has developed a system for public speaking that helps people create a dialogue with their audience.

A former actress, Dubow received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania. She has coached and directed actors since the late 1990s and has worked with many writers on their public presentations. She has taught in private schools and at universities, including the University of California, Riverside.

When she visited Antioch University, Los Angeles in December 2019, Dubow hosted a seminar entitled, Writers at Work: Performance Workshop for Writers, where she worked with several students to teach more effective ways for them to read their work in front of the class. Shortly after her visit, Dubow answered ten questions about her work, the art of public speaking and connecting with writers who attended and performed in the class.

  1. You mentioned in your seminar at Antioch that you used to have a lot of social anxiety. How’d you learn to get so comfortable performing in front of an audience?

Well, you know, the funny thing was that I didn’t have social anxiety as much on stage when I was an actor. Once I got on stage and got through the first line, I was fine. Something would just take over. But in social situations, parties or just hanging out with people, that was really rough for me because I just felt uncomfortable all the time. What was really interesting was once I started working with other people to get them to feel more comfortable, I realized I was using a lot of the techniques that I had been using on stage to kind of get past that first line.

I still have social anxiety almost in every situation, but you know, what I think is very helpful is if I can focus on somebody else, then I can take the anxiety off of me and put it on somebody else and it just kind of dissipates.

I think people are afraid of being judged. I think we’re all afraid of being judged. And the truth is we’re being judged all the time, so it’s good to know that’s a real thing and kind of what you’re battling against.

  1. What are some preliminary tips you like to give to someone who’s nervous about public speaking?

The first thing I would absolutely say is to put the focus on your audience, because that’s where it belongs, because you are there for them. What happens is, for me anyway, and I think a lot of my clients, you can’t hold two conversations at once. So if your brain is telling you that you suck and you sound stupid and nobody likes you, that’s all you’re going to hear. But if I start going, “Oh, what are they saying? What are they trying to get across to me? Or, what am I trying to get across to them? Or, are they listening?”—really checking in with the audience, I can’t have two conversations at once in my head. The more I can get out of the conversation about me and more into the conversation about the audience, it’s an easier conversation to have.

  1. What are people most nervous about when they come to see you?

I think people are afraid of being judged. I think we’re all afraid of being judged. And the truth is we’re being judged all the time, so it’s good to know that’s a real thing and kind of what you’re battling against. If I work with writers, I talk to them about the gift they have to give their audience, which is the reading. If you were giving a gift to somebody, you wouldn’t be like, “Oh wait, oh my God, I need to leave.” Because that’s kind of what happens—writers get on stage and the first thing they want to do is get off. It’s a disservice to them. It’s a disservice to the audience. If you were having a party, you would invite people in. Think of it like you’re the host and you want people to have a good time. When I can focus on that, when I feel like I’m the host and asking people to enjoy and have a good time, it takes the social anxiety a little bit out of the equation for me.

  1. You started Talking Out Loud in 2013. What brought you to that decision?

I was a substitute teacher. I was teaching acting and I thought, what do I really want to do with my life? I have all these skills, but I’m not really using them. Maybe I can use them to help others. I like being in the classroom, I like teaching, I love doing that kind of stuff, and I like teaching acting. I felt like I would go to these readings, because my husband’s a writer, and I would be so angry when I left because they just weren’t very interesting. It felt like they weren’t doing their work a service, they were actually doing a disservice to their work. And I just thought, what if I could help just the writers I know? Just so they could feel more comfortable and so they didn’t feel like they had to get off the stage as quick as possible. How could I help them with that? That’s kind of how it started. I was working with writers, and then I got asked to do a seminar at an MFA program and that went well and then I thought, if I can do it for writers, anybody can learn to take these skills and bring them to something, whether it’s a party or an interview or a talk or a reading.

I was helping a family acquaintance who had to give a speech somewhere and she was really freaking out, and I was like, “All right, let’s just go over this and let’s see how we can make this easier for you.” That’s kind of how it developed, wanting to take my skills to help more than just actors. I wanted to help anybody who suffers with this stuff, because it’s pretty prevalent as far as I can tell.

  1. It says on your website that you help train for things I didn’t even think of like toasts and presentations. Can you talk a little bit about the variety of people who are coming in and what they’re wanting help with?

I had a client come in. She works for a pretty big company. She said they are required to give a presentation on their work, and she doesn’t like doing that. It really freaks her out. She said, “I think my work should speak for itself, but they don’t feel the same way.” We had to come up with ways for her to feel comfortable in the meeting, including when people interrupt you or try to talk over you. How do you handle that kind of situation? We talked about ways to help you with stress but also what do you do in this situation? I mostly rely on my client and ask, what do you feel comfortable doing? Because they have better ideas about what works for them. I can give them suggestions, but I like to open it up to them. Like, if somebody tried to mansplain to you, for example, how do you handle that without making everybody feel uncomfortable, including yourself?

Then I’ve worked with people who are going on media tours, press junkets. When you’re doing all the late-night shows, and they don’t want to hear the same story over and over, what do you do? We would come up with like six stories they could talk about and craft them into a story that was funny and charming but also comes from them. I like to use people’s own words. It’s more just being a really engaged listener, figuring out what I would like to hear, what I’m interested in, and then also what they want to talk about. It’s a conversation.

But yes, it bleeds into so many different areas. I worked with girls at risk who were going to college for the first time, like the first generation in their family. How do you speak up in a classroom where people make assumptions about you? How do you show up at a party? What are things that can help you with that? It’s not just an academic exercise, it’s also how do you navigate the world around you when you’re the first person in your family to go through this? What do you do?

I just thought, what if I could help just the writers I know? Just so they could feel more comfortable and so they didn’t feel like they had to get off the stage as quick as possible. How could I help them with that? That’s kind of how it started.

  1. Your work goes into so many areas. Like, a fun one you mention on your website is toasts. Are people really concerned about such a light form of public speaking?

Yeah. I had somebody who at his wife’s fiftieth birthday, he had to give a toast, and he’s completely losing his mind because he was afraid of being judged. He didn’t want her to judge him and the family. It was a big deal, and he’s not a public speaker. He was really freaking out, so we just talked about why he loves his wife. Let’s just get to that. I said to him, talk to your wife the whole time. Maybe check in with the rest of the people, but talk to your wife, tell us how you really feel. Just having that little bit of direction helped him to organize his thoughts and to also feel less unsure about giving them in front of other people.

  1. Can you tell me a little bit about your acting history?

I wanted to be an actor my whole life, and I studied, and I worked, and I worked in theater in New York. Then I decided to come out here because I wanted to work in film and television. And the industry had other ideas for me. I would get something, but I couldn’t get traction. Then once I had kids, it became, like financially, not doable. Because I had to pay to have somebody watch my kids to audition. If I got something, then I had to pay to have someone babysit while I went to rehearsal. It was getting to be financially crippling, and so I couldn’t do it any longer. But I knew I needed to make money, I knew I wanted to work with my kids, and I started contacting schools and places where they went to camp and started teaching in the camps and after school programs at school. I loved it, but it wasn’t using all my skills, and I really do prefer working with adults. I enjoy working with kids, just, for whatever reason, in the last five years, I’ve enjoyed working with adults more than children.

Like I said, I was really comfortable on stage. Once I had a script in my hand, I was fine because I could move into that character. But when I’m on my own, what do I say? How do I hold a conversation with people? How do I make small talk? All those things used to scare me, and they still do. I just ask a lot of questions now cause that’s a really good trick to take the focus off of you. Because people do like to talk about themselves for the most part.

But I find that there are a lot of people who really have trouble when they’re off script, and they really don’t know how to communicate. Like, somebody like Robert De Niro. Not that he can’t communicate, but he apparently is a really difficult interview, because he doesn’t really want to divulge much. I mean, he’s Robert De Niro, he can do whatever he wants. But there are other people who, when they don’t have a director and a script, really don’t know what to talk about. I think that’s a problem for all of us. We think actors should know this, but they don’t. They know how to act but being in front of people without that script or that camera or other things that keep us separate from the audience is really challenging. Because in the end, we’re still just people who are scared that we’re being judged.

  1. What’s the difference between teaching actors and teaching writers?

When actors are working, and I’m not working with them on acting, when I’m just working with them on like a press junket or something, I think they look forward to it a little bit more, you know, of like getting to the script and doing it. But they also have to expose themselves more if they’re on a junket. Writers are just reading their work, which can be very exposing, but they still get that to hide behind. It’s almost like having the script. It’s like one step removed from the audience in a way. When actors are going out there and talking about a film or talking about a project, they’re talking about themselves and that can be very uncomfortable. That’s the big difference with the actors and writers. The actors are revealing themselves, and writers are revealing themselves through their reading. But there’s still that layer of distance between them and the audience.

  1. What would you say is the number one mistake we as writers make when we’re reading in front of an audience?

Racing to the end. Most of them. Most of the writers I work with are just like, “Oh God, thank God that’s over.” They just want to get off of the stage and it doesn’t allow for discovery of their own work. Because, sometimes when you’re writing, you think about how it’s going to sound in your head. You can hear it in your head, but then when you read it out loud, it sounds a little different. They’re missing out on the discovery of their work, I think. And they’re also definitely shortchanging the audience. That’s the biggest mistake is people are like, “just let me get through this,” and they rush to the end.

The more you can look at your work and go, “Oh, that’s interesting,” you have to play around with where you can hit the words and all that kind of stuff. Have fun with the material. Change it up a little bit to see where things are.

  1. I noticed in the seminar, when you were working with people, that you really try to bring out what they have to offer. How do you do that?

I try to make it a safe environment, you know? I don’t want anybody to feel intimidated, because I make so many mistakes and I let people know that’s a part of who I am. I’m messy. I make mistakes. And I encourage people to do the same. That ideal reader we have in our minds, like I need to sound like this or look like this, that does us such a disservice. Because we’re not that person. We have to go with what works best for us. We have to say, what is it about me that an audience can respond to? Not what is it about somebody that I think is better than me.

I love when I give somebody an adjustment and then they do it and then everybody in the audience sees it and they don’t even know it happened. And I love it because everybody can see it. That’s my favorite thing: when I give an adjustment and they take it, and everybody can see it, and how easy it is. It’s just so simple, these adjustments you can do in the blink of an eye, and to see it actually happen in real time. I just love that.

I would really encourage people to enjoy being up there, as painful as it can be. Just giving people the gift of your work is a really generous act. I think it’s something we shouldn’t rush through, but we should take our time and enjoy it, and let our audience enjoy it.

Barbara Platts is an award-winning columnist and the online editor for Sweet Jane Magazine. She’s worked in many forms of journalism, from public radio to newspaper, and is thrilled to be pursuing her MFA for nonfiction writing at Antioch University. She works for Lunch Ticket on the interview, blog, and creative nonfiction teams. She lives in Los Angeles with her fiancé and two adorable pups. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @BarbaraPlatts.