Insights + tips

How To Use The Stage When Presenting

" Focus on the audience's needs, not your own "

Earlier in the month, I posted the following across social media:

“Here’s an interesting ‘presentation challenge’. I’m speaking at this venue today – I’ve blurred the photo to protect ideas and identity (see opening photo to this post).

The yellow glow is the speaker, highlighted by a small spotlight. The big box in the centre of the stage – important ‘stage real estate’ – is an unmovable seating area for panellists.

If, like me, you enjoy moving around and engaging with the audience how would you deal with this?

I’ll tell you what I did later, but I’d love to know what you would do …!”

I had many interesting responses – nearly all of them wrong(!). Some suggested standing on the box, some suggested insisting that the box be moved. Some even suggested I do the whole keynote while standing in the audience. The fundamental reason that they were wrong is that they focused on the speaker’s needs, instead of the audience’s needs.

What I did in the end wasn’t particularly radical. In fact I think it was the only sensible choice. Have a look at the next photo to see what I did, but read on after that in case you ever end up in a similar ‘Where should I present from?’ situation, as you’ll find lots of useful ideas.

Read on after the photo

Change what you can, but accept what you can’t. When I saw that this would be a problem, I immediately went to the technical crew and asked them if it would be possible to move the enormous and very heavy box in the centre of the stage. They said no, and they said it very firmly. There was no point in continuing to ask, it would just have caused problems.

However, I asked what the options were – I’d noticed that the spotlight on the presenter, and the dark stage (to highlight the slides) were very limiting to a speaker who likes to move. I said to the tech team “My slides aren’t particularly important in my presentation, would it be possible to light the full stage, and also bring the lights up on the audience, so that I can engage with them?” This was an easy request for the tech team, and it got even better – I asked them to wait to do this until I was introduced. The change in lighting created a lovely ‘something different is about to happen’ feeling in the audience. The change of state helped signal that my keynote was not going to be the same as everyone else’s.

Focus on the audience’s needs, not your own. The presentation is not for you – you already know it. It’s for the audience. I took a mental step back and said to myself, ‘Ok, I don’t like this arrangement, but is it actually bad for the audience?’ I watched a couple of other presenters and saw that where slides were important, the setup worked well – the audience could focus on the slides. However, where the presenter was important, then the setup was a problem. The lectern meant that you couldn’t see much of the presenter (and this is a real problem for me as I’m only 5’6!) and the audience was always having to stare at the same part of the stage. However, I wasn’t convinced that moving around a lot would work either because of that BLOODY BIG BOX, so I decided to test what might work.

Test, don’t assume. In a break I asked someone to help me by walking across the stage a couple of times so that I could watch from one of the audience seats. I saw immediately that my usual ‘style’ – pacing from side to side wouldn’t work, for a couple of reasons: The projector was in the ceiling meaning that every time I walked across the stage, there would be an enormous shadow of me across the screen behind me. This would become unbearable for a 45-minute Keynote.

I also noticed that having to go behind the BLOODY BIG BOX every time I crossed the stage would mean losing a connection with the audience, as I’d have to move ‘upstage’ – never a good idea. I then asked the person to put themselves in various places on the stage until I found the one which – from the audience’s point of view – was the most effective. You can see the result in the second photo. I hope you’ll agree that it’s a nice balance of being connected to the audience, while not being stuck behind a lectern.

Be prepared. When I found the ‘best spot’ I used some bright yellow gaffa tape to mark on the stage the limits beyond which I would start to cast a shadow on the screen behind me. If you look carefully at the second photo, you’ll see that I still got it a bit wrong, as there’s a tiny shadow, but it was still much better than if I hadn’t prepared at all. I carry a roll of bright yellow tape to all my presentations, as it’s helped me out of many problems – squeaky floorboards to avoid, flip chart paper rustling under air-conditioning and even once holding my shirt sleeve together when I’d lost a cufflink!

When you’ve got a problem, go to the tech team first, not the organiser. This one is for those of you who present a lot at conferences and larger events. I went to the tech team, because the last thing my clients needs is to be bothered by a ‘diva speaker’ when she’s busy running an event. Tech teams are used to all sorts of odd questions, and they quite often enjoy a challenge if you ask nicely. If the tech team had said that the box could be moved, I would have then asked the organiser for permission to go ahead, making it an easy and low-stress decision for her.

Always arrive early. Almost all problems in presenting can be solved by arriving early. In my example here, I was able to watch other speakers and see what worked and what didn’t. I had the luxury of a couple of breaks to sort out what would work best for me, and I had time to liase with the tech team to get the right result. Even better, my client wasn’t even aware this was happening – she just got a good result without any stress.

I hope that’s given you some food for thought – let me know what you think, and also if you still think you’d have done something differently?

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