Before becoming a Learning and Development professional, I tried my hand at acting … No, you never saw me in anything … but I learned a lot about using the stage to engage an audience and for a long time now I’ve wanted to write about how my former passion informs my current one. My timing isn’t ideal, but in anticipation of a return to face to face/classroom learning, I started to write down a few thoughts, which turned into a lot of thoughts, so now this has become a three part article. In this part we will look at what goes on before the real presentation begins in order to enable us to have stage presence. Part two will focus on some fundamental, mostly physical skills and the final instalment will address what I would consider to be the more complex elements of stage presence.
What is stage presence?
For an actor, stage presence is what he or she does with the lines in front of them. Reading lines isn’t acting and this applies to presenting as well. We must bring what we say to life. This is done with how we say the lines and it is also done through ‘where’ we say our lines, the stage. Often neglected by presenters, the space in the room is ours to command and it has the effect of giving colour and movement to what we are saying, of amplifying it, of ‘embedding it’ into the hearts and minds of the audience. I heard someone refer to stage presence as a ‘visualisation of confidence’. It is not contrived or forced, it is our natural behaviour when self-consciousness and nervousness take a back seat. We know our content – and we know that we know it. Rest assured, stage presence is a set of behaviours that can be learned, and once learned they appear to be natural gifts we were born with. We need to practice these things as much as you would practice the content of your presentation. The currency of stage presence is attention. Our presence on stage should command the attention of those listening and for the right reasons!
Our appearance is the first thing participants notice, so it should add to our confidence and credibility. We need to be mindful of what we are wearing. It is important to be distinctive and have elements of our true self and style, but does it convey the authority and presence that we need? Does it suit the topic, and the audience? Does it take the focus away from what we are delivering?
Set the stage
I always arrive very early to set up the space I have, and to become familiar with what I have to work with. We don’t always get the space and set up we would like, so we have to learn to make do with whatever is available. I know one thing – if we’re not comfortable, it will be virtually impossible to encourage a learning mindset in the audience. I set out the tables and chairs in a way that is meaningful for what it is I am presenting, ensuring no one has their back to me and they are as comfortable as possible. In addition, I maximise the space I have at the front. I like to have 2 to 3 metres between myself and the participants if possible and I remove any barriers, such as tables and lecterns, because that is how I like to engage with the group. But every presenter is different, and this may not suit you, so whatever makes you comfortable and relaxed is the best option. It’s always a good idea to walk about the space, before anyone arrives, to make sure you are comfortable with the space and able to access all the equipment you need. Also, before anyone else is in the room we need to determine our anchor spot. This is where we’ll start from and where we’ll return to, but it’s not where we’ll stay (more on that later). It’s a place where we can see every face in the room, and they can give their full attention to us. We may have another anchor spot, for when we are showing visuals, so we step to the side and the audience’s attention is focused on the screen.
Engage with each participant as they enter
Unlike the theatre, we don’t make the ‘grand entrance’ as the curtain lifts, we are at the front as people arrive. The audience’s first impression of us occurs a long time before we start our presentation. It occurs as soon as they enter the room and see us at the front. So, we must be ready for them. Then we can make the most of this time and engage in conversation with each individual as they enter. We should have a few questions prepared to start the flow of conversation and build from there. Go beyond stock questions such as ‘what do you do?’ with something more stimulating, such as ‘What are you working on at the moment that gives you the most satisfaction?’. We can even tailor the questions to align with the topic for the day. Preparation is key. Apart from building rapport, we are helping make them feel more comfortable, welcome and safe. We are also gathering ‘free information’ about them which we can use to further build rapport as the session goes on. So, we must pay attention, listen and retain the information we receive. During this process we are also looking for a connection with them. It’s not hard if you try … there is always something we have in common with each other, we just have to look for it. As more participants arrive, we introduce them to each other using what we have learned so far, so they can start their own networking process. All of this is important as we are establishing our character and style, getting them familiar, and comfortable with ‘who we are’ … establishing our presence.
Depending on the presentation we may engage in a warm-up activity. It is important that any activity has the following attributes:
- It is relevant
- It is short
- It is safe
- It is warming them up to a learning mindset
Getting this wrong undermines our credibility with the group. The warm-up is an excellent time to further establish our style and presence with the group as a whole. We can use some of that ‘free information’ we gathered earlier to demonstrate our genuine interest in the people in front of us. We need to display our passion, not only for the topic, but also for the group in front of us and for the art of presenting. This needs to be established a long time before out content begins.
If we can get these building blocks under control, it makes it easier for us to focus and concentrate on our delivery when the time comes. In part two of this series we will explore some of the fundamental skills of building our presence, such as using our body and voice as part of our presentation.
Article by Adam Le Good, Director of Fundamental Training and Development
For help to develop the presentation skills of staff, contact Fundamental Training and Development: firstname.lastname@example.org.