DON’T FEAR THE SPHERE!
How To Speak In The Round Without Going Around in Circles
The three words most terrifying to any speaker — other than “They’re all drunk!” or “Your fly’s open” — have to be “In The Round.” As someone who has enjoyed the privilege of speaking to audiences of all sizes, in venues of all types, in countries all over the world, there is nothing more offsetting, nothing with more potential for disaster, and nothing more challenging than being surrounded by spectators on a circular stage.
Yet, in an effort to shake things up and avoid the “same ol’ same ol’,” conference organizers continue to trot out the 360-degreed configuration. Such is the predicament my friends Phil Telio and Alistair Croll are putting their speakers in at their upcoming FWD50 conference. And which is why I am penning this missive — to help them, and others, conquer the fear of the sphere.
So how can speakers best adapt their square pegs to this precarious round hole? It ain’t easy. But it ain’t impossible.
To start, let’s outline the nightmares.
Logistically, a circular stage puts a speaker at an immediate disadvantage because it takes away the audience’s natural focal point. The visual support of a back wall and the comfortable “V” it produces (from audience eyes to stage position) is obliterated. Instead of the optical stability provided by a static curtain or kinetic video screen, in the round audiences look right through a speaker…and directly at other audience members; a somewhat off-putting mirror image of themselves. (Worse yet, those people on the other side always seem to be engaged with their smartphones, which further reduces the prominence of the on-stage presenter.)
On a traditional stage, the speaker is omnipotent and almighty. He or she has a global view of the goings-on, thus can adjust accordingly and immediately to audience shifts in mood and attention. In the round however, even the most nimble and dexterous speaker has his or her back to the audience 50% of their time. In this position, no matter how confident a conferencier may be, there’s always that sneaking suspicion that those they can’t see are making funny faces or giving them the finger. Lovely.
To adapt to the above, most speakers follow their most natural tendency, that is to follow the stage’s shape and walk in a circle; clockwise, counter clockwise, or a mixture of both for the daring. Those truly subversive may try to walk in a square, but on any decent-sized round stage, a quadrilateral’s corners will be subtly smoothed and rendered irrelevant. You’ll still be going around in circles. Yikes!
Dizzy yet? Don’t be. There is a way out of this death spiral for in the round speakers.
First and foremost, a speaker facing an in the round challenge must acknowledge it as one, and realize it’s a different beast altogether. It’s a test of one’s mettle, creativity and guts. It’s also a uniquely intimate live experience; given the seating plan, a speaker is never more than 50 feet away from the furthest person in the room. Because of this, from walk on to walk off, a speaker needs to re-think and re-construct his or her presentation for the circular stage. This ain’t no line dance, it’s a pirouette, and as one, it’s a solo performance where the speaker is literally the centre of attention (check out the photo above of me at C2MTL in 2017).
With that in mind, let’s start with walking the talk. We’ve already crossed-out the circle and square routes, so we’ll consider two alternatives.
First one is “The Pentagram,” a classic five-pointed star smack-dab in the middle of the circle. By tracing and alternating the star route, and mixing it up by walking backwards at times, a speaker will eventually cover most of the stage’s surface area, and manage to increase important facetime with the audience. (Astute readers may note that a star within a circle is often recognized to as a satanic symbol; very apropos given the hell faced by most speakers in the round.)
The second alternative is borrowed from professional wrestling, perhaps the group that understands how to best present entertainment in the round (yes, I know that its performance platform is square, but it is called “a ring,” and known as “the squared circle”). Trace the footsteps of a wrestling match and you’ll find — despite its well-preparedness — a random pattern, a combination of zig-zags, starts-and-stops, falls and jumps. What’s more, many times, the action takes place OUTSIDE the “official” parameters of the ring itself. Last time I checked, there is no jailer who chains in the round speakers to a stage’s centre-point and limits their radius to its perimeter; who says you can’t sit down, run a pattern or even jump into the audience?
Okay, so not every speaker will be a stuntman, stuntwoman, or a gymnast; some are wonderfully brilliant academics or businesspeople who require the security of notes and a podium, even on a circular stage. Despite that, they still don’t need to be boringly rooted to one spot. Many moons ago, some caveperson discovered the wheel. Borrow four of these wonderful inventions, attach them to a podium and let this newly liberated contraption explore the stage with the speaker.
One last thing — if a round stage is Donald Trump’s nightmare and has no walls, where does one project the ubiquitous PowerPoint? Well, in most cases, right above the speaker’s head, scoreboard-like with four sides. This is another way a speaker can make the most of a round stage: look up and point powerfully! Better still, step to the lip of the stage, look inward towards the slides and be as enamoured with them as you hope the audience will be.
So in the end, speaking in the round is not all THAT bad.
It’s a one-ring circus where the speaker is the ringmaster, the animals and the clowns all rolled into one. If they score, they will soar for days. While not all-inclusive, I trust the above will at least provide speakers with enough new “angles” to take on the challenge of circular stages and make the next time they need to deal with them a — wait for it! — merry go-round ;)