Ready to go beyond body language to gain true presence as a speaker? Learn these actors' secrets of commanding a stage!
Let's go into space.
Not the space of planets, galaxies, and Hollywood aliens. I mean the space you and I occupy when we give a speech—however small or expansive that area may be. For it's within our power as speakers to make our performance space either barren terrain, or fertile ground where we harvest a rich crop of influence with our audience.
In fact, it's incumbent upon us as performers to accomplish the latter feat.
The way you stand, move, and gesture not only helps shape an audience's response to you—it also affects how you feel about yourself. From job interviews to presentations, audiences respond to what you show them. Discover the secrets of effective body language! Download my essential cheat sheet for public speakers, "5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language."
Call it "staging power," with an emphasis on the second word—for the space we occupy and fill is as much a tool as any other aspect of physical performance. In fact, stage movement and the conscious use of space is the one area speakers tend to ignore, though it's an integral part of speaking presence.
As much as anything, using one's performance space successfully requires adopting the right mindset. Below are three ways you can do so.
How You Stand Affects Your Standing with Audiences
You inform audiences about aspects of your confidence, professionalism, and enjoyment of speaking before you open your mouth. Since listeners are primed for the presentation that's about to begin, their antennae are out. They begin picking up usable information the moment you walk on stage or to the front of the room. (Or the moment they look your way as you're about to speak at that board table.)
Posture matters here, and so does the front you show the audience—and I mean that last part literally. So, two ways to help bolster your "standing": (1) Imagine a string tied to the top of your head that goes upward into infinity. Someone up there is pulling gently and steadily on that string. As they do, it lifts you into proper alignment, so you carry yourself with a healthy self-regard. (2) Open your chest area, i.e., let go of the rounded shoulders and even a neutral chest position. Allow your shoulders to fall ever-so-slightly back, so you literally open yourself physically to the influence about to flow both ways.
Both of these techniques are actors' visualizations. They're meant to help a performer effectively use his or her body to achieve presence and a connection with the audience immediately. Here are 5 more acting techniques for greater stage presence in public speaking.
Why You Need to "Enter" Your Performance Space
Part of your message—any message that you deliver to listeners—depends upon nonverbal communication, which, in turn, relies only partly on body language. (Of course, body language is an essential element of your on-stage effectiveness. So here are 20 ways body language can make you a better speaker.) Along with vocal dynamics and eye contact, the other critical element of nonverbal effectiveness in public speaking involves the use of space.
Do you consider this element of your speeches and presentations? While planning gestures is always a bad idea, considering which part of your performance space you'll occupy at different stages of your talk will aid both audience interest (through visual variety) and message retention. For instance, if you move to one part of your performance space and stay there, gesturing naturally, for each main point you're discussing, it will be easier for listeners to remember the things you said while you were there.
And here's a more general approach you should embrace: Just before you're about to go on, decide to move into your performance space, and then do so. This isn't metaphorical mumbo-jumbo. You actually do occupy space in the eyes of your audience; and as a speaker, you have the obligation to give a good performance. You're now a leader, and you will aid your effectiveness by embracing the physical and mental effort needed to command a stage.
What It Means to Command a Stage
Here, I think we're dealing with physical honesty as well as boldness of performance. Many speakers don't, in fact, trade in physical honesty. I'm talking about the rah-rah speakers who stride on stage like comic-book warriors, exhorting the audience to scream their responses, pump their raised-up arms, and generally feel the burn of this fabulous speaking performance.
This is garbage public speaking. It's worlds away from the honest yet passionate presenter who enthusiastically uses the entire stage because there's no other way to do it. That's why the stage is there: so that anyone performing on it can reach different parts of the audience by approaching them! Watch the first five minutes of the late Hans Rosling's TED talk "The Best Stats You've Ever Seen," from February 2006 to see what it means to command a stage honestly and effectively, even while using a lectern or laptop table.
Last, keep this thought in mind: your performance space is just that, whatever its dimensions. It may be an actual proscenium, i.e., the part of a traditional theater in front of the curtain. But it may be the floor in a hotel ballroom, or just four or five feet at the front of your company's small conference room. Whatever the size, it's yours. Stand tall, step into it, and fill it with honest and passionate physical expression of what you're about to say.
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