Like it or not, your presentation is a performance. You are on stage as a character, rather than yourself, and you are acting a part. To have the desired impact and connection, you need to treat your presentation as a one-character stage play. Your only support is your slides, off to the side; and your microphone. Your task is not an easy one, but you’ve rehearsed, you know your lines, and you’re ready. The stage is also your tool.
In the theatre world, a play would be blocked. That is, the actor would be told where to stand; what to do; when and how. Nothing is left to chance. As part of your rehearsal process, this ‘blocking’ should factor in to your storytelling. There are some basic Dos and Don’ts of using the stage, and then some more advanced tricks. Keep in mind, this is another way to connect with your audience, and make your story more engaging. This isn’t only for those big-time motivational speakers. This works for presentations of all shapes and sizes.
We’ve all seen good and bad presenters, and good and bad presentations. Sometimes though, it’s difficult to quantify exactly what made it good…or bad. It’s not just about voice, or confidence, or movement, or dynamics, or body language, etc. It’s about the sum of all parts. Using your stage, and moving with confidence, is often overlooked, or under appreciated, but it’s important.
The two most common sentences I hear prior to a presentation are, “I’m fine staying at the podium” and “I like to walk around a lot.” OK, fine. I can tell you right now that one of those is definitely wrong, and the other is partially right. I’m sure you can guess which is which. Standing behind the podium feels great. You have something to hold on to; a good portion of your body is hidden; you feel in control, and you even have somewhere to put your notes. For all those reasons, standing at the podium is a terrible idea. You may feel comfortable, but that’s not what we’re trying to achieve here. Time to break out of your comfort zone. Get away from the podium!
“I like to walk around a lot.” OK, so this is more the right idea, but only a starting point. There are many ways to walk the stage – both positive and negative. Walking systematically back and forth, or in circles, is a sign of nervousness. You may as well hug your knees, and rock back and forth during your presentation. Going back to the stage play analogy, what we want to achieve is meaningful and controlled movement. The first step is to go through your ‘script’ and decide upon your key moments, or messages – those exact sentences you really want to be remembered. Then, try to incorporate the following tips for stage movement:
PAUSE for Effect
Tell your story while walking (in a controlled fashion) across the stage. Remember, this is not pacing – this is walking with confidence. When you hit a key moment in your message, PAUSE. The sudden lack of movement will make your audience take notice, and pay just a little more attention to what comes next. Take a breath, and then start moving in the other direction.
Think of the stage width as a timeline. This could be anything that makes sense for your specific presentation. As an example, stage right (probably where the podium is) could represent one year ago, and stage left could represent one year from now. As you speak, move to the point on your timeline that correlates to your message. For example, as you discuss performance numbers for today vs. last year, you would move appropriately between those two places in time, and on the stage. Then, whenever you speak about a specific time again, you would make your way back to that spot. You audience will begin to associate your position with a time, and a stronger connection is made. Always remember to make eye contact with different people at various points on the stage.
Back and Forth
I just discussed side to side, but what about back and forth? Your front to back also has an effect. Let’s start by speaking in the middle of the stage. That is, equal distance front (downstage) to back (upstage). As you tell your story, moving closer to the audience will draw their attention. Sorry, but it doesn’t work if you spend your entire talk standing downstage. This is about dynamic movement. At a key moment, take a couple quick steps downstage, and your audience will listen closely. Move back to your midpoint, and they will go back to neutral. Conversely, if you slowly step back (upstage), you will slowly disengage. This is ok if you need a water break, or if you have something specific in mind.
Thinking again of the stage play you are performing, it’s time to set the stage with some imaginary props, or co-stars. Your audience is thirsty for visual cues, which as we know, help to make you more impactful. So, for example, you’re telling a story which involves yourself, two co-workers (Sarah and Mike), and a copy machine in a copy room. You’re going to imagine all of these are on stage with you, and place them where you like. When you reach the point in the story where you are talking to Sarah, go over to where she is, turn TO HER, and start reciting what you said to her. Then, when you take Sarah to meet Mike in the copy room, walk over to the copy room, and talk to Mike. As the story goes on, remember where you left everyone, and go back to them as needed. This can be used in so many ways, and is extremely impactful. Your audience will love you for it.
Stage movement takes planning, and practice. If you have the opportunity, try out some ideas at home fist, until you get the hang of it. It won’t be long before you’re ready for your stage.