The second of two articles on moving in front of an audience.
In the first part, last time, I covered the theory of moving in front of an audience. What about 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?
Over 20 years of work as a speaker and as a coach of speakers I have seen virtually every imaginable room configuration. Many of them make it extremely difficult for speakers to move successfully into the audience. In those cases, you just have to do the best you can. And the best may only be moving to the edge of the stage. But even that will increase the audience’s trust in you, and sense of connection, because we humans are very quick to notice when someone is moving toward or away from us, even in small amounts.
Understanding how mirror neurons work lets you know why working the audience is effective even if you only get close to a few people. Nonetheless, you don’t want to spend a lot of time deep in an audience, so that your back is turned away from a significant percentage of your listeners. Turning your back on people sends out a powerful message of lack of interest or disengagement.
Especially with those round tables, where it seems like you’re always turning away from someone. With that kind of configuration, you should spend most of your time at the front of the room, working the tables you can easily get to. Try to get to each side of the room. The audience will appreciate both that you’ve attempted to reach them and that you haven’t spent a lot of time lost deep in the thicket of tables.
You also don’t want to spend too much time on one particular audience member. The exact timing depends on the nature of your speech, and the kinds of interactions you have, but as a rule of thumb, think in terms of 30 seconds to a minute, not much more. Audience members will feel left out if you allow one person to monopolize your attention for too long.
In the end, it’s a question of tact first and quick thinking on your feet second to size up the room, figure out how you’re going to move in it, and plan how much you can work the audience. The goal should always be to move toward your audience, even if it’s only a few feet, on points in your talk that you want to emphasize, or when you want to interact with audience members. Moving toward the audience – closing the distance – says, “this is important.” Moving away says the opposite. So use your body like a punctuation mark to add clarity and impact to your speaking. The choreography should be in service to the message. Always.