This is the third of three articles on moving in front of an audience.
In two previous posts, I talked about the neuroscience of connection between people and motion toward and away from them. In thinking over this important issue, I was inspired to add a bit more detail about choreography in general and for different kinds of rooms.
Basically, you want to move toward select members of the audience when you’re making a point, and then only move away when you’ve finished the point and are ready to go to the next one.
How does this dance work in practice? You want to first study your speech to find the high points. What are the 3- 6 most important moments in the speech? Those are the points when you want to be in the personal space of a selected audience member. If that’s not possible, then at least be seen to be moving toward someone in the audience.
In order to balance your approach, divide the audience up into sections in your mind. Begin your speech standing stage center, where everyone can see you. After the first few minutes, then begin to move to stage right, and find an audience member on your right hand that can represent that section of the audience. Make your point to that person. Then, a few minutes later, move to stage left. Repeat. Move back to stage center. And so on. Work the room in rotation, without making it look mechanical. Finish your speech back at stage center.
Now consider some the variations involved in some typical room layouts.
My favorite room layout by far is the U. You can begin your speech in the center, at the top of the U, and work the audience easily up and down the sides. You’re never far from anyone, and everyone feels connected. Some U’s are several rows deep, and for those you may want to walk up – once or twice only – into the second row, depending on how hard it is to navigate. But never stay long deep in an audience, because some people will experience your back to them, and that’s not good for the reasons I’ve already outlined.
The success of a classroom style layout depends on how many aisles there are. If there’s at least one, you can work the aisle to get deep into the rows at least once or twice. If there’s no aisle, then the studies show that you’ll only connect with people who are in an inverse triangle in relation to the front. The base of the triangle is the front row, and the tip is at the back center. It’s why goodie-goodies sit at the front of the classroom, and hooligans sit at the back. The former want to connect with teacher, and the latter do not.
Auditorium style layouts give you lots of opportunities to work the aisles, provided that they’re accessible, and you don’t have to leap over obstructions, or climb down dimly lit stairs to get to them. When you study the hall beforehand, decide on your strategy. If it’s too difficult to get into the audience, then work the stage. The audience will interpret your efforts as attempting to get to them, and that’s second best. Once again, don’t spend too long deep in the aisles, because people can only turn with difficulty in auditorium-style seating.
These are perhaps the worst sort of settings, because it’s very hard to work the audience when it’s spread all over and facing in different directions. And yet it’s a style you will see in hotels across the known universe. Meeting planners love rounds, because they get tables to set, and they can put interesting centerpieces on them, they can feed the audience, and so on. But they are tough on speakers.
You still need to work the audience – in fact, you need to work harder. Try to negotiate with the meeting planner to have the rounds only half-filled, facing the front, so at least half the audience won’t have its back turned toward you. Keep the house lights turned up if possible, and consider beginning your talk in the back of the room in order to get closer to the people there. Then move to the front, and work the center, left and right, going into the second set of rounds once or twice.
Rectangular Breakout Rooms
These are rooms where audiences go to die. They’re long, the acoustics are typically awful, and the ceilings are low. The audience feels like it’s in a shoebox, and tends to sit near the back so that it can make a surreptitious exit half-way through. In these rooms, ask the audience to move forward to the front rows, pleading acoustics, and work the front and left and right sides. If there’s a center row, use that to get deep into the shoebox once during the talk in order to revivify the audience in the back.
Good choreography is the quickest way to raise your speaking up a level, from mediocre, everyday, and average, to memorable and world-changing. Practice with making your moves while talking and smiling at the same time will be richly rewarded in positive audience feedback. Audiences today crave a connection with their speakers, and this is the best way to give it to them.