In the past few years, speaking in public has become even harder. It’s not that the audiences are more jaded, your nerves are worse or the teleprompter’s less reliable.
It’s that there’s no podium.
It used to be perfectly acceptable to go on stage, stand at the podium, click through your slides, and talk. Maybe you’d wave your arms or take a step or two in either direction, but basically, you’d stand there.
Now, often, there’s no podium. And if there is one, you’re not supposed to use it. Unless you’re doing a so-called “fireside chat,” where you and an interviewer both sit in chairs, you’re supposed to be magically taking up the whole stage, interacting with the audience, and making do without any notes at all.
I find this completely befuddling. At our most recent Inc 500|5000 conference, I was told I could perform my emcee duties from behind a podium--which I knew was really not the best option--or speak from the front of the stage.
Once I got to the front of the stage, I had no idea what to do with myself. I was told to walk back and forth, and there were little tape marks on the stage to tell me when I’d gone too far. It was pretty uncomfortable pacing like that, so I just sort of swayed. I had no idea what to do with my hands.
Now I’ve got it figured out, thanks to a recent video from Stanford University lecturer Matt Abrahams, entitled, "Workshop: Compelling and Confident Communication." The entire video is about an hour long. There is lots of good stuff about understanding what your audience needs to hear, establishing your credibility as a speaker, and getting your point across clearly. But the part that really helped me is about what, exactly, you’re supposed to do with yourself when there’s no podium.
Big and Balanced. Abrahams says nervous speakers make themselves small. They hunch in their shoulders. When they say they’re happy to be there, they’re not credible at all. When you present, you want to be big and you want to be balanced. Here’s how.
Stand square. Start with your shoulders square to the audience. Your head should be straight up. Do not tilt your head or lean. Your feet should be pointing straight ahead, not splayed out. Planting your feet properly makes it harder for you to sway. Swaying, says Abrahams, is a self-soothing behavior to help us feel more comfortable. Babies suck their thumbs; adults sway. Don’t do it.
When you move, move with purpose. This is the part I found so hard. You should not be pacing robotically. Instead, walk to the middle of the stage. As you begin speaking, take a step forward. When you welcome everyone or thank them for coming, move your arms up and out into a sort of very loose hug. (This sounds and feels weird, yet looks totally natural. Watch the video of Abrahams doing it, and you’ll see what I mean).
"When we gesture, we gesture out and away," says Abrahams. "Extend out." He also says that when you make big, sweeping gestures, your body releases chemicals that make you feel more confident. Who couldn’t use more of that?
Walk during transitions. Now, when do you traverse that big stage? During transitions. There is no need to go hiking from stage left to stage right as you’re trying to make an important point. It’s distracting for everyone. You can, and should, walk during transitions. Otherwise, stand in one place and make your point. Your hands can be at your sides (feels awkward, looks natural) or loosely clasped in front of your belly. Don’t clasp your hands any higher, or your shoulders will hunch in and you’ll seem small.
Another tip from Abrahams: If you tend to sweat when you speak in front of big groups, hold a bottle of cold water in your hand before going onstage. That will bring down your core body temperature the same way a cold compress on your forehead would, reducing the need for your body to sweat.
Next time I have to speak on stage, I’ll be a lot more confident ditching the podium. I hope you will be too. Even if Abrahams’ strategies don’t work perfectly, at least they can help you from feeling like an out-of-control Energizer bunny.