Have you ever witnessed a speaker take the stage really animated, with lots of energy, excitement and enthusiasm? I remember one speaker like that and he was using all of the stage, connecting with all of the audience members. I thought at the time, “Wow! This guy is really good.” However, he continued pacing back and forth all the time. It didn’t take long before it became distracting and irritating. He started to remind me of a lion pacing back and forth at the zoo. Ever witnessed that? I think the reason it became irritating, was because it started to look habitual, purposeless and it just lost its impact. It reminded me of John, a student friend of mine, who used to have a habit of highlighting everything on every page of his workbook. I realised then, that when you highlight everything, you actually highlight nothing. To highlight, emphasise or feature something, in needs to be limited and have a purpose behind it. In this post you are going to find out Why, When and How, to use the stage with purpose.
Why move on stage in the first place? K. Loghandran, the runner-up in the 2008 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, hardly used the stage at all. The thing is, he had so much going for him, that he didn’t need to use the stage. He was passionate, funny, and animated with lots of body language. That is, all aspects I talk about in my posts. Bottom line, he connected with the audience. But maybe, just maybe, he could have won if he’d just used the stage a bit more. Why?
To Connect with your Audience
The first reason you should move on stage is to allow you to connect more closely and on a more personal basis with each of the audience members. As mentioned in my Microphone Techniques post, if you are stuck behind a miked-up podium, because you’re addressing a large audience, you’re pretty much tied to that spot. And being tied to the podium means that you won’t be able to make that close and personal connection with the audience members on the other side of the room. That’s why I prefer to use a handheld mic or be miked-up with a headset or lapel mic. It gives you the freedom to position yourself anywhere on the stage and to connect with different parts of the audience. Speaking to connect is what this blog is all about. Moving to different parts of the stage to allows you to connect with different parts of the audience. However, the audience will find it more coherent if you actually have a clear purpose for doing so. I’ll talk about what a clear purpose is under the heading of “When?”
The other reason to move on the stage is that it adds visual dynamics to your presentation. I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” That’s why speech coaches recommend vocal variety. It’s the same with movement across the stage, it’s part of your body language variety. Stage use adds energy, visual dynamics and variety to your presentation. It also maintains or gains the audience’s attention. Mind you, I recommend that you “Stand and deliver” if your movements are just nervous shufflings or you’re moving across the stage with no purpose at all.
The other argument for stage movement has to do with speech structure. The post on speech writing concentrates a lot on the benefits of structuring your speech. The one reason for structuring your speech is that it helps you and the audience to follow your speech more easily nd clearly. And they will also remember your points and message better. There is a way to structure your speech on stage. That is by anchoring your points on different parts of the stage. This means you’ll be structuring your speech physically. And I’ll deal with that more under the “How?” heading.
Just like anchoring your points on different parts of the stage for structural reasons, you can also anchor your stories. Why would you anchor your stories? Well, if you anchor your points and stories you’ll be able to refer back to them with a simple indication of your hand. This is a particularly handy (no pun intended) during your speech and in particular, during your conclusion.
Positive and Negative
Long-term theatrical wisdom has it, that the left-hand side and right-hand side of the stage are associated with negative and positive perceptions respectively. Keep in mind that the LHS & RHS is from the audience’s perspective. That is, it will be the reverse from your perspective as the speaker. Note that centre stage is often considered the Power Spot.
Let’s see if we can take advantage of these negative, positive and power spot associations. We’ll go with an example where you have a speech about a particular problem you’ve been struggling with. But a problem, you’ve overcome, with a positive outcome. You now have a message that you can share. This type of speech gives you an opportunity to stage the struggle part of your speech on the LHS, the positive outcome on the RHS and your message or take away on from centre stage; the power point. It gives you a chance to reinforce the associated emotions of different parts of the speech.
When & How?
One of the most common stage use is a timeline. The classic example is Past, Present and Future. That is, let’s say you have a speech that has a storyline about an event that happened in your childhood sometime in the past. The speech than continues with how it affected you today and how you’ve set goals to change things in the future. Ok, the way to stage this is to speak about what happened in the past on the audience’s left-hand side (i.e. your RHS). Stage how it’s affecting you today in the present, centre stage. Then anchor how it’s going to change in the future on the audience RHS. The reason the timeline is from left to right is that’s the way we read.
As an example of using this timeline, check out my speech “The Wall” in my Story Structure post. I move from left to right as the story proceeds in time. The timeline of this story also incorporates different scenes being anchored at chosen locations on the stage that I refer back to in my conclusion.
When you tell a story to illustrate a point or get your message across, you can anchor your story on an appropriate part of the stage. That spot then become the scene for that story. You need to respect that spot and not walk all over it or through it at any stage, as if in never existed. That will destroy the image, the scene and the memory of the story in the audience’s minds. Similarly you can’t continue that story on another spot. It may get a, “What the…!” reaction. However, if it’s a one-story speech you can anchor different parts of the story at different locations on the stage. However, you still have to honour the scene location.
As mentioned in Stage Dynamics, purposeful movement across the stage adds energy, visual dynamics and variety to your presentation. The best way to make the movement purposeful, is to relive your story as opposed to telling or narrating your story. For example if you kicked the winning goal in one of your stories, show us. You can take a run and kick an imaginary ball over the audience’s heads. You’ll be surprised to see that some audience members actually follow the imaginary ball. Darren LaCroix, a professional speaker, has an adage, “Show us, don’t tell us.” Even a line like, “Come and meet my mother.” allows you to walk across the stage and anchor your mother on a stage location. You can now also refer back to your mother by indicating towards that location later on in your speech.
When you are writing and reliving your story to illustrate a point, be mindful of opportunities to move across or to move to different parts of the stage. It will make your movement purposeful. At all other times, I recommend that you “Stand and Deliver”. This prevents your movements from being purposeless, distracting or irritating. Standing and speaking confidently on the spot is a powerful position and I recommend it most of the time when speaking.
Presenting when Moving
While movement on stage has a lot going for it, I do recommend that when you take the stage that you do not move or say anything for a brief moment. This allows you time to take in the audience and for the audience to take you in, in turn.
So far, I’ve mainly focused on linear stage movement, however, there are other movements. The part of the stage that is often neglected is the back of the stage. If you’re talking about something revolting, a few steps backwards will give your comments greater impact. When you want to interact with the audience up close and personal, moving to the very front of the stage and leaning forwards should do the trick. Very few people consider moving along a diagonal line across the stage. This can be very useful if you have anchored something front left and don’t want to go there. It allows you to use back left of the stage. The stage also offers 3D opportunities if you include vertical, physical movements like jumping.
The point is, be beware of these options so you can utilise them. At all times, stage movement should look natural, smooth and un-choreographed, while being choreographed. Huh? What I mean is, that when it’s well designed, practiced and rehearsed, and then you just let it happen, it will look natural. Keep in mind not to over use the stage, that is, that it all gets to busy and frantic that the audience vertualy tires from all the activity. If it becomes too much about the choreography it starts to detract from you as the presenter and your message. It’s similar to when PowerPoint slides become the focus instead of you as the presenter.
The sole purpose of stage movement is to connect with the audience. It’s used to hold their attention and make what you say clearer and more impactful. Sometimes when there is too much choreography it can become more like a theatre play as opposed to a speech. That is, you need to leave time for and have sections where you narrate and check in with the audience. In all my posts I make the point that if it doesn’t add, it detracts.
Practice – Speaking, use of body language or any other language for that matter and learning to use the stage takes time, practice and rehearsal. It’s only then that it will become automatic. Don’t confuse this with becoming an automaton. It’s just like you develop a vocal vocabulary to speak well, you need to develop a stage vocabulary to use the stage well.
Stage and Venue Size – When my wife and I were watching the Toastmasters International Speech semi-finals in Cincinnati in 2013, one of the semi-finals was held in a very spacious hall. The audience was quite spread out and some of the speakers just seemed to lack presence. They seemed to be totally swallowed up by the space around them. Yet some of the other speakers, through reliving their stories and using up all of that big stage, owned the stage and connected. We were transported onto that stage, into their story and we were on board for the ride.
Lectern Notes – If you have notes on a lectern or podium that you need to check in with from time to time, I recommend that you slowly and confidently walk up to your notes, read them, move back to where you need to stand and then, and only then, start speaking again. It’s a disconnect when you’re speaking while reading. You’re not looking at the audience, and therefore not engaging with them. Besides sometimes with your head down, if your not miked up, they won’t be able to hear you clearly.
Speak to connect, to make that difference