Last week, while shooting eComm 2009 in Burlingame, I started posting a set of thoughts on Twitter, all starting out Dear Speaker. Getting up on stage and speaking is a difficult and demanding thing to do. It’s natural to be nervous and for that nervousness to show. It’s also hard to know how what you are doing up there on stage is perceived by the audience. There are things that speakers do that feel good to them, but which are not actually great for the audience. In any case, for whatever reason, I started posting my thoughts. I wasn’t making these comments about any particular speaker’s performance. Instead, they were more an outpouring of ideas I’ve wanted to get out there. Here’s a recap.
Please deliver your speech to the crowd, not the screen. This was my first tweet of the series and was inspired by having seen just a few too many people stand on stage turned one way or another and talking to the screen. A couple of the speakers that day spent all of their time talking to either the left or right side of the room and never addressed the audience. Your slides aren’t the recipient of your presentation. Your audience is. Face them. Address them.
Please pick a spot and stay. Move deliberately to another. Don't pace aimlessly. And please don't turn all the way around. This was directed at those speakers that pace from one end of the stage and back to the other at rather high speed. From the audience perspective, a speaker like this looks like a caged animal. Back and forth. Back and forth. Never resting. Sometimes, speakers will go so far as to turn their back on the audience as they shift direction. I’ve even seen speakers pull a 360 spin off a few times. This just says to everyone in the room that you feel trapped up there. That you don’t want to be there. And, if you’re telling the audience that you don’t want to be there with your body language, you’re not helping your words get through to them very much, are you?
To be absolutely clear, Twitter’s 140 character limit required a bit more force to this statement than I’d otherwise want to convey. I don’t mean “pick a spot and stay there the entire talk”. Instead, I mean “pick a spot and stay there for a bit, then move deliberately to another spot”.
Please take off your name tag. This is self explanatory enough. If you wear your name tag on stage, you make my life easier for captioning. But, you don’t look as good in your photos or on video with a dork tag hanging around your neck. Don’t make my life any easier on this front.
If you find yourself walking backwards, you are probably pacing very vigorously. Stop. Breathe. There were a couple of speakers that were pacing so hard they didn’t even bother to turn around. They just reversed direction and backpedaled. That’s a sure sign you just are feeling like you have to move too much. This can also be dangerous. Stages have edges. You don’t want to go off the edge of one.
If you don't make eye contact with your audience, you make it that much harder for them to connect to your message. You want your audience to connect with what you are saying, right? Then make them feel like you are addressing them. Obviously, there are many people in the audience and you can’t look at all of them at once. The good news is that you don’t have to. If you pick a few people in various places of the audience and lock eye contact with them, everyone else around them will feel that. It works. If it helps, you can lock eyes with friendly people that you know in the audience. Don’t have any friends out there? You can make some talking to a few people before you go up on stage. Then, when you make eye contact with them, you are making eye contact with the audience and connecting with them.
The corner of the stage that you like to use to feel closer to the crowd is darker than rest of stage. They can see you less there. I used to do this all the time as a speaker. I wanted to get right up to the audience. But, stage lighting typically tapers towards the front of the stage so that it doesn’t illuminate those first few rows too much. It tapers off more in the corners. The result, on many stages when you stand in the corners, there’s ½ or a ¼ as much light on you as when you stand in the middle of the stage a few feet back from the edge. While you may feel more connected to the audience by being out there on the edge, you may be making it hard for them to see you, and therefore connect with you. Stay in the lit part of the stage so that they can see you more easily. And, unless there’s a follow spot on you, don’t jump off and wander up and down the aisles. It’s a lot less cool when you don’t have a spotlight on you.
If you are being videotaped, all of what I've just said matters 10x more. Think of viewers watching a rapidly pacing speaker. Self explanatory. This obviously applies to photography to a large degree as well. If you’re rapidly pacing and never pick a spot to deliver your presentation from, I’m going to have a hard time making a sharp photograph of you. Again, you shouldn’t be concerned with making my job too easy. On the other hand, you shouldn’t make it hard on the photographers and videographers that are trying to capture your image. If you want to look good on stage, don’t pace! Pick a spot. Stay there for a while. If you feel like moving, do so by picking another spot and going there. Then stay there for a bit.
Rule of thumb for speaker clothing: Dress like you mean it. ~0 to 1 levels above mean “nice” for audience. Obviously, you should wear clothes that you are comfortable in on stage. But, you shouldn’t look like a slob or bum up there. If you are talking to an audience full of people wearing suits, don’t show up in a t-shirt. On the other hand, you shouldn’t show up in a tuxedo for an Open Source conference. You know who is in your audience, right? Dress at their level or maybe a level or two above it.
When on a panel, don't look at your shoes. Try to look at who’s talking. Otherwise, you look bored, even if you're not. I can’t tell you the number of bad photographs of panels I have because some of the panelists look like they are sleeping or bored up there. I’ve seen people gaze at their shoes or stare off into the ceiling. It’s unfortunate that sometimes people stare off into space when they really are paying attention. But it doesn’t look that way when you are on stage. If you look sleepy, bored, or just plain disconnected to me as a photographer, you look the same way to the audience up there. Be engaged in the subject. Look at the person speaking. Pay attention and you’ll look better up there. Smarter, even.
That was my last twit on the subject that day. At some point, I ran out of thoughts and just went back to making photographs. Obviously, there is so much more that could be said. And much better formats than just a simple list of twits. But, for now, maybe this will help a few speakers better deliver their message. And, most of all you should remember that your audience wants you to succeed. They’re there to listen to you. Help ’em out a bit and everyone will be happier, including you.
Finally, it should be obvious but I’ll say it anyway. Malcom, Shai, and Doc (pictured above) gave great presentations. I’m including their photos here as positive illustrations, not negative. Although Malcom should have taken that badge off. :)