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Stagecraft for Ballroom Speakers

November 16, 2017

By Brian Johnson, PDC Trusted Advisor, President & Founder, Johnson & Hunter, Inc. 

Click here for Brian's complete bio

Different settings come with their own distinct challenges when public speaking. As the PDC Winter Meeting approaches, it’s an appropriate time to explore some common issues speakers contend with while presenting at conferences. I’d like to offer some practical advice about the underlying stagecraft of public speaking in a big hotel ballroom.  Rather than content, structure, or delivery, I want to examine those intangible, often invisible, but critically important, elements of stagecraft that make a more successful speech.

Bask in the Limelight

About two hundred years ago, limelight was created when a hot flame was directed at a cylinder of lime. This created an intense light to illuminate a theater stage. We still use the antique phrase “being in the limelight” to describe a public speaker who is the focus of attention.

Bask in that limelight! Find your light. Don’t be surprised, or even annoyed, that there’s a bright light in your eyes. One of my mentors used to say, “If they can’t see you well, they won’t hear you.” Years ago I spoke to an audience of attorneys in a big hotel ballroom. I was introduced by the chair of the conference, clearly unaware of the importance of stage lighting. She mounted the stage, held her hand above her eyes and squinted, then instructed the light board operator to “Turn down these bright lights so I can see she them!” She didn’t understand the necessity of being in, and staying in, the limelight. 

Think twice before you leave the stage and descend to floor level while presenting. Such a move may make you feel more conversational with the folks in the front rows, but you want to reach your entire audience, especially those in the worst seats in the back. When you leave the stage, you’re no longer in the light. They can’t see you, so they can’t hear you as easily. If you stroll back and forth on the floor, you force your listeners in the back to constantly readjust their position to glimpse you wandering aimlessly betwixt and between the heads in front of them. Don’t make the listeners’ job harder. Stay on the stage in the light.

Sexist Microphones

Wireless microphones are not gender neutral. Male speakers can clip the battery pack for the microphone onto a belt or put it in one of many pockets in pants or jacket. The dresses that women speakers wear often offer no such options. As a result they have to hold the battery pack in one hand and the remote control for the PowerPoint slides in the other. You can’t gesture naturally while doing something so unnatural. How powerful can you feel with both hands occupied? You could practice your speech while holding an orange and an apple, but surely there’s a better solution.

Admittedly, I have no experience wearing a dress while speaking, so the following is as much a question as a suggestion. One could plan to wear a skirt with a jacket and, therefore, have a waistband or pockets (maybe) for the battery pack. But if you’ve chosen a fashionable frock without those options, think about that lanyard around your neck.

Since all speakers are wearing a nametag on a lanyard, would it be possible to suspend the battery pack on it as well? That would free up at least one hand to gesture more freely and naturally. 
To liberate the other hand, could conference planners request that the hotel place a simple wooden stool on the stage? This is what stand-up comics use to keep a water bottle nearby. In addition to a handy bottle of water, the remote control could rest on the stool, be handled only to advance the slides, and put back on the stool until needed. These two solutions would free up both hands to gesture naturally during a presentation.

The Curse of Cottonmouth

If you’ve ever experienced debilitating dry mouth while speaking, your adrenaline is to blame. When experiencing an adrenaline rush, the body’s digestive system, including your salivary glands, shuts down to conserve energy for fight or flight. The only solution to cottonmouth is to have water nearby. Then drink before you need to drink! Don’t wait until the curse of cottonmouth strikes. A good time to take a sip is when you change slides. The audience is reading the new slide, giving you a chance to lubricate those articulators with a refreshing sip.

Speaking of libations, think twice before you carry a cup of coffee onstage. You may feel that it gives your presentation the casual air of a coffee break conversation, but it raises a critical question. Is that all the harder you’re going to work to grab and hold your listeners’ attention? A dynamic presentation is different from a casual conversation. It takes more energy. Use the caffeine to power up, but leave the cup behind. 


Be aware of sightlines. Imagine a panel of three speakers that chooses to converse while sitting on upholstered chairs at the back of the stage, also known as upstage.  Ideally, all three panelists should be visible to everyone in the audience. Go sit in the worst seats in the back or side of the room and find out. If there is a large lectern situated downstage, will it block the sightlines for some people in the audience? That lectern cannot be moved because of the wires attached to it, but you can move those chairs downstage so everyone can see you.

Similarly, if you’re going to write on a flipchart upstage, will that large lectern downstage block the sightlines for a portion of your audience? You want everyone to see your visual aid. So pick up the flipchart easel and move it downstage, then move it back upstage when you’re finished with it.

Enjoy the View

Public speaking can feel sometimes like an extreme sport—scary but thrilling. Speaking to a big crowd in a big room can be nerve wracking, like mountain climbing, but the view is superb. Look around and enjoy it. Before you start to speak, focus on the four corners of your audience. Be ready to speak to all of them in every corner of that cavernous space. Take it all in, like you would a stunning mountaintop vista. Channel your adrenaline buzz away from anxiety and toward excitement. Have fun.