Would you like greater stage presence to persuade and influence audiences? Here's one way: knowing how to boost your performance energy in public speaking.
Sure, you'd like to be a presentation dynamo on stage. But how do you charge yourself up?
You could change careers and become a superhero. But that's a ton of work, and there's the cost of leotards, masks, a cape, gloves, and all the rest. And how do you find the right shoes?
There's a much easier way. It has to do with developing your natural talents in what I call the Theater of Public Speaking.
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Boosting Your Performance Energy
The first step in developing greater stage presence is to become a more energized speaker. Even if you already blow fuses whenever you walk into a room, this article will help you understand the relationship between energy and performance, and allow you to use the combination more effectively.
The truth is, you already have a natural energy that’s the perfect engine for communicating with others. But public speaking requires a heightened level of performance. In public speaking as in on-stage drama, you have to be larger than life. Just the fact that you must bridge the physical space between you and listeners—and activate their thoughts and emotions when you get there—demands that you ‘scale up’ your performance energy.
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The 'Venue Factor.' In in-person presentations, there is always some distance between you and your audience. Ultimately, it is up to you to find the balance between naturalness in terms of intimacy and the public conversation you’re engaged in. Also, of course, you must factor in the demands of the space in which you are presenting. Always remember this, then: the venue itself is an important player in the successful performance of your speech or presentation.
However large or small your performance area is, you need to fill it appropriately. That means restrained gestures and movements for small spaces, more expansive ones when people are farther away from you. Tech solutions like microphones and giant screens only help take what you generate and broadcast it sufficiently. At all times, you are still the focus of what the audience sees and hears, and so your “size” has to be right.
Let’s talk about why the physical dimension of your performance is important at all—and how you can use it to your best advantage.
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THE PHYSICAL DIMENSION
The playhouses in the two greatest theatrical eras—the ancient Greek amphitheaters and the Elizabethan “thrust” stage—were conceived to maximize the power of the drama and the audience’s response. In ancient Athens, the playing area or orchestra was circular; the seating area (theatron) rose upward from it in a way that allowed everyone to see and hear clearly what was going on in the play, no matter how far away each person was sitting. Nineteen hundred years later, the Elizabethan thrust stage of Shakespeare’s time jutted out into the house, with the audience on three sides. In both these theaters, the shape of the performance area—and the physical relationship between actor and audience—mattered as much as the spoken lines.
Now consider the modern playhouse, i.e., the typical auditorium or Broadway theater. It usually features a “proscenium arch,” and row after row of seats marching away from the stage. The audience’s seating area is much flatter than in the Greek amphitheaters; and spectators are nowhere near the performers as they were in Shakespeare’s time.
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In fact, it’s hard to conceive of a stage design that's more limiting in terms of intimacy between performer and theatergoer. Now consider the hotel ballroom or convention stage where many business presentations take place, with chairs arranged on a flat surface over a spacious area. These venues are even worse when it comes to connecting with one’s audience. Yet it is your responsibility to do so, wherever your listeners are located in relation to you as the speaker.
Owning Your Space. Whether you present in a cavernous hall or a tiny conference room, you must own the space you speak in. And starts with ownership of your own body. As performance coach Patsy Rodenburg says, “We know long before someone speaks whether we will listen to him or her. We know as soon as an actor walks onto the stage whether he will engage us.”1
You must acquire the skill of demanding that people listen to you before you utter your first word! The initial step is this process is to know how to display confidence physically. How important is this? A recent study of presentations to raise venture capital found that the best gauge for predicting success wasn’t the person’s credentials or even their pitch. It was how strongly they displayed confidence, comfort, and passionate enthusiasm.2
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How to Display Confidence Physically. That word passion is instructive here. To gain practical knowledge of how to use the physical dimension for speaking presence—to make it happen for you on stage—you need to understand the mind-body connection. Your emotional state is particularly relevant, as it’s tied to what you’re doing and showing bodily.
For some reason, we seem to understand this only in one direction. You know that the way you feel tends to express itself physically. When you’re sad, for instance, you may cry; and when you’re happy you smile. But it occurs in the opposite direction as well, so that the way you hold yourself and move elicits a specific emotional response inside you.
You can test this yourself right now. Stand tall with your shoulders in place, feet slightly apart, and with your chest thrust out. Don’t you feel confident and ready? Now, allow your shoulders to fall and your chest to cave inward. Bend slightly at the spine, and place your hands one palm over the other in your crotch area. This posture is virtually an advertisement for powerlessness!
Here’s a mantra to remind yourself to display the right message physically:
How you stand affects your standing with your audience.
To your mind and body, the physical and the emotional are a unified state. Your body and brain have a lifetime of experience interpreting each other’s signals! You hold yourself, move, make facial expressions, and gesture based on what you’re feeling. Acknowledging this is priceless information in understanding how you’re coming across to others:
The way you carry yourself is a source of personal power—the kind of power that is the key to presence. It’s the key that allows you to unlock yourself—your abilities, your creativity, your courage, and even your generosity. It doesn’t give you skills or talents you don’t have; it helps you to share the ones you do have. It doesn’t make you smarter or better informed; it makes you more resilient and open. It doesn’t change who you are; it allows you to be who you are.”3
Your Physicality and Stage Presence
Now consider the implications of this when it comes to an audience’s response to you. If what your body is doing makes you feel a certain way—why wouldn’t it bring about a similar response in listeners? Your physical stance, posture, gestures, and movement will cause an emotional response in audiences the same way it does in you.
Therefore, you should begin thinking of your physicality as part of stage presence. Practice three techniques in particular:
- Stand and move with confidence. Improve your posture if you need to, and be aware of whether you’re sitting straight or slouching. Develop the habit of maintaining eye contact even if you’re thinking of what to say next. Some speakers find this a real challenge, as their next point seems to be written on the ceiling or the floor!
- Fill the stage. That really means: don’t be afraid to use all parts of your performance area. That can mean anything from a few feet at the end of a conference table, to the wide stage of a convention hall. Our brains are biased toward visual information, and so you need to show us something visual as well as discussing concepts with words.
- Boost your energy level when you start to speak. Actually, do it before you speak. As soon as listeners observe that you are an energetic person, they’ll assume you will help energize them.
Accomplish these three things and everyone will get a clear sense that you’re present and ready for the business at hand. As, indeed, you will be.
1 Patsy Rodenburg, The Actor Speaks (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000), 15.
2 L. Balachandra, “Keep Calm and Pitch On: Balancing and Moderating Affect in the Entrepreneur’s Pitch,” 2015. Manuscript submitted for publication. Quoted in Amy Cuddy, Presence, 19.
3 Amy Cuddy, Presence (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2015), 198.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His handbook for presenting in videoconferences, Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for developing virtual presence in online meetings. Contact Gary here.