The Stage Is Always Bigger Than You

— The Keynote Speaker’s Guide to Gestures and Movements in Public Speaking

One of the key things that separates good speakers from the not-so-good ones is a thing so seemingly insignificant that one often doesn’t even talk about it. I’m talking here about body language, the manner in which a speaker communicates with means beyond voice and the pre-prepared deck. While it might seem like a tiny thing, unrelated to what is assumed to be the content of the e.g. keynote, gestures and movements are in fact highly important part of a good presentation, one that’s often misunderstood and overlooked.

On one level, this is understandable. Speaking, particularly keynote speaking, is all about content. It’s about using words and stories to help the audience see new things, or old things in a new light. A speaker is a storyteller, supported by words on a screen behind him or her, so whatever gestures that go with the stories seems like at best of marginal importance. Also, there are great speakers who gesture very little if at all, speakers who barely move from their podiums, speakers who let the words speak for themselves.

But these are exceptions. Most great speakers gesture and move, emphasizing and punctuating their words by a subtle shift in posture or a sweep of the arm. Some do this in a conscious way, planning their movements with the studiousness of a dancer. Others just subconsciously get this right, and their gestures flow from the same source as their words, smoothly.

I am of course not the first one to have pointed this out. Many speaking coaches teach body language tips and comment on the manner in which their clients use e.g. hand gestures. A great deal of what’s written on this tends however to focus on body language in general, emphasizing for instance the need to show an openness for communication (no crossed arms, for instance) and the manner in which power can be communicated by posture. This has led to an increased amount of “power posing” among speakers, where body language is used more to establish dominance than to actually supporting the message.

It is with this in mind I started writing a few notes on movement and gestures in public speaking, with a specific focus on speaking from a big stage, in front of a big audience.

You Look Tiny Up There

The first thing to realize is that keynote speaking is often done on big stages. For some, this might seem like either a trivial observation or a meaningless one, as the speaker cannot control the size of the stage (unless you’re truly a superstar and can start making demands…). But although you cannot control the size of the stage, you need to be in control of how you look on it. The key to understanding how lies in the realization that a stage both elevates and diminishes you at the same time.

When on stage, a speaker has a tremendous amount of focused attention. Everything in the room is usually set up to enhance this. You’re on your feet, right up front, often elevated or otherwise singled out. You might have lights on you. More likely than not, you’ve been introduced and invited to step on stage. There may have been applause. So now you’re here, with all the attention on you. And you look tiny.

This, as the stage and the setting of the same means that you have been given a tremendous amount of space to fill, metaphorically and literally. There could easily be a dozen more people on the same stage, and you’d still have room to move around. To the people in the back of the room, you may at times be nigh on invisible, depending on the heads in front of you.

You’re job, now, is to counter-act this. No, I’m not talking about power posing all over the stage. No, you don’t need to pace back and forth to cover every square inch of the stage. But you need to understand the stage you’re on and how to make use of it.

A big stage makes every movement you make look smaller, so you need to exaggerate. Where you’d normally make a small sweeping gesture, you now need to make a grand sweeping one. Where you’d normally point with a quick poke, you now need to point in an emphasized manner. You are an actor on a stage, and to convey your points you need to project your body language so that it can be read and understood even at the back of the room.

A small shrug needs to become an almost comical one, and your eye-roll needs to be both slowed down and almost diva-ish. If you don’t exaggerate, your movements become too small to be fully seen, and fail in communicating what you’re trying to convey. Body language is important, but on the big stage it can disappear unless you make a conscious decision to project it.

Poetry in Motion

The same goes for moving on stage. Being the focal point in the room is great at first, but there is a cost involved. If you merely stand at a podium, speaking from your papers, you’re in effect forcing people to hold their attention focused on one single spot for an unnaturally long time. Some speakers can get away with this, but even for them there is a slackening of attention from the audience.

This is why I move around on stage. Which I do. A lot. Some might be uncomfortable doing quite as much bobbing and weaving I do, but the important thing to understand is why I move so much.

Sitting is unnatural. Not so that sitting down every so often is a problem, but the amount of sitting that most modern people do definitively is. At conferences and the likes, this is pushed even further. In chairs that at times are quite uncomfortable, people might sit for hours, just listening. This is not natural. To then force people to look at an immobile speaking head is cruel and unusual, which is why I make myself a moving target.

Sure, if you’re constantly pacing back and forth, like an odd metronome, this’ll be distracting (and annoying). But movement on the stage is actually a welcome respite for the audience, who might not know it but will still appreciate the shift in perspectives that even a slight movement of the head will bring.

Remember that the note about exaggerating your movements applies here too. If you want to communicate excitement, skip like nobody’s watching (which can be tricky with a few thousand people watching). If you want to engage the people at the far edges of the audience, go to the very edge of the stage — and beyond. Sure, the video guys will hate you for it, and it might spook the event manager, but that’s a small price to pay for getting people interested in what you’re physically doing.

Reaching Out

In the end, it’s all about creating a connection with the audience, and we connect better with people who put themselves out there than those who hide behind a podium. Reach out to people, extend your arms as far as you can, show that you’re flesh and blood, not just a PowerPoint that’s come alive. Populate the stage with movement and life.

You’re up on that stage to enliven it, to act as a stand-in for those in the audience that have longed for your message. They’re not looking for an automaton, they want the message to come alive.

Sure, things can be taken too far, and there’s no need to become a prancing diva or hamming it up. But more often than not, people opt for a far too safe, far too bloodless performance. So…

Don’t be a stiff.
Gesture like you mean it.
Move like you’re going places.

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