Most speakers begin their careers gratefully clutching the sides of a podium, happy to hide behind it for that little extra bit of security in a tense situation.  But should you stay behind the podium?  And as you get more advanced in your speaking, and comfortable with the stage, how should you move in relation to the audience?  Is it a good idea to move deep into the audience or not?  What about those situations where it seems awkward to get to the audience at all, either because of the logistics of the room or the positioning of your listeners?

In establishing a few rules for the effective choreography of a speech, several key insights from the research on non-verbal communications will help.  First of all, there are 4 zones of space between people:

  • 12 feet or more is public space;
  • 12 feet to 4 feet is social space;
  • 4 feet to 1 and 1/2 feet is personal space; and,
  • 1 and 1/2 to 0  is intimate space.


Sharing public space is quite low-excitement for our unconscious minds.  We’re not very interested in people in that space simply because they’re too far away to be important.  Social space is a little warmer, but it’s not until someone moves into our personal space that we really begin to pay attention.  And of course, when someone is in our intimate space he or she has all our focus.

The bottom line is that nothing significant happens between people except in personal and intimate space.  And public speakers can’t get into intimate space – it violates something quite profound.  So that leaves personal space.  Here’s the way to think about it:  you can’t make a real impact on people unless you can get into their personal space.  (By the way, the exact dimensions of these zones vary a little from one culture to another, but all cultures have them.)

By now, you’re thinking that this zone research creates a real problem for public speakers.  You obviously can’t get into the personal space of everyone in the audience – you’d be running around like a mad person – and won’t the majority of the audience feel left out?

I’ll get to the logistics in a minute, but first there’s a nice bit of recent brain research that sheds more light on the subject.  An Italian group of brain researchers looking for something else happened on mirror neurons.  It turns out that when someone near us experiences an emotion, a special kind of neuron – a mirror neuron – fires in our head giving us the same emotion.  It’s how we’re able to be empathetic as a species – how we can feel other people’s pain and joy, how we can care for others, and so on.

In this case, it means that if a speaker focuses his or her attention on an audience member, all the people sitting near that lucky individual will experience the same thrill of attention.  The effect diminishes over space, but it’s quite powerful and it means that you don’t have to run around the room to give attention to a great majority of the audience.

Add to these insights from the research a third:  our trust of people increases when they move closer to us, and decreases as they move away from us.

By now a picture should be emerging of why it’s so important to move into an audience – and why you shouldn’t believe that old canard that other audience members will feel left out if you focus on several people in the room.  Moving into the audience, and getting into the personal space of selected audience members, is the only effective to move beyond bland and make a world-changing impression on people.  And the only reason to give a speech is to change the world, right?

OK, you say, but we’re still left with the logistics.  What if I’m speaking in a ballroom with all those round tables and people facing every which way – how do I negotiate that space?  And what if I’m up on a stage and jumping down is hazardous to my health?  And what about those times I’m on a camera for the people in the back – the AV people tell me not to go off the stage because they can’t follow me.  What do I do then?

I’ll cover that important question next time.


  1. Hi Nick,
    This is a powerful bit of information. Thanks!
    I’ve been working my training rooms like this for years, but now I understand what this technique really does for both the audience and for me as a trainer.
    I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment on this topic.

  2. This is really useful! Thanks Nick.

    You mention this info coming “zone research”. Do you have some good references you could point me towards? I’d love to get stuck into some of the details.


    1. Hi, Alex — Edward T. Hall invented the science of “proxemics,” to study the spatial zones between people. The term never really caught on, except in communication nerd circles, but google his work and you’ll find what you’re looking for.

      1. Thanks a lot. Yes, that’s enough info to help me get started.

        It looks like proxemics has been picked up by the robotics field in recent years, which doesn’t surprise me. I was a robotics researcher before I moved into speaking and roboticists often find ways to apply fringe theories from other fields.

        I found the following paper which has a really helpful graph for international speakers. It shows the different values of personal space for different countries:

        Might be a useful resource for others following this blog series.


        1. Thanks, Alex — that looks like a great resource. Interesting about robotics picking up on proxemics, but it makes perfect sense — one more thing those poor robots have to learn in order to interact successfully with us pesky humans.

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