Originally Posted June 11, 2012
A friend of mine called me the other day asking for some help with her contest speech. She is competing in Toastmasters “International Speech Contest.” An annual contest that is world wide starting in January and culminating at the World Championship in August.
She has made it to the District level which is all of Southern Nevada and all of Central California. If she wins District she will move on to the Region and then possibly the World Championship of Public Speaking in Washington D.C. Everyone from her home club has told her she has a great speech, but she needs “to learn to take control of the room before she starts her presentation like George does.”
I have competed many times in the past and others have observed that I get the audiences attention before I start to speak even before I am introduced. This is what entertainers call stage presence. Anyone can stand up in-front of an audience and tell jokes, give a speech, sing a song, but to be a professional entertainer, comedian, or speaker you have to have stage presence. This is what separates the amateurs from the professionals. Many call it the “it” factor. Do they have “it?” The question now is, is stage presence something that you can develop or are you born with it. Can Stage presence be taught? I believe yes and no.
I believe that you have to have “it” in you to begin with, but many need to be taught how to bring “it” out of them. When I first started I didn’t have stage presence, but I believe I had it in me. I was too nervous and inhibited, but I knew if I was going to make it in humor I would have to get over my nervousness and inhibitions.
The first step in developing stage presence is to get up in-front of an audience as often as possible. There is no substitution for stage time. You have to overcome stage freight. You have to overcome what comedians and entertainers refer to as “Flop Sweat.” This is that feeling you get when you are performing on stage and the audience is not responding to anything you are doing and you break out into a cold sweat. You may always be a little nervous on stage but you have to get it under control. The only way you can control nervousness on stage is by more “stage time.” If I go through a period of time where I haven’t been on stage as much as I am used to, I tend to feel more nervousness.
The second step is to know your material. If you are too busy trying to remember what you are trying to say you cannot possible have stage presence. Knowing your material gives you the opportunity to concentrate on your delivery.
The third step is to dress just a little nicer than your audience. You want to be the focus of attention on stage. This goes back to dressing for success. If you are dressed too casually, the audience isn’t going to focus on you. I should say you don’t want to overdress either. Many entertainers wear a lot of flashy sequined outfits and that is ok for entertainers, but not for speakers. My friend Steve Pavlina who has a “personal development blog” also owned a computer game software company and when he would speak at computer conferences he said the audience wouldn’t listen to you if you were dressed in a suit and tie. There is was better to wear a t-shirt and jeans, but for the most part you should dress just a little nicer than the audience
After you get over stage freight and you know your material then you can really learn how to develop your personality so that you can take control of the room. When I competed I liked to sit near the back near the exit. I would get nervous before a contest and want to pace or go to the bathroom. I didn’t want the audience seeing me get up a lot. I didn’t want to appear to the audience and especially the judges that I was nervous before I got up to speak.
Just before it was my turn to compete I would go over to get miked up, I would smile stand-up straight and walk with confidence. This is where I would start to settle down. I knew the audience shouldn’t see me looking nervous so I had to get my nerves under control. Taking a couple of deep breaths and standing up straight can help with that.
When the master of ceremonies (toastmaster) would start to introduce me, I would take one last sip of water so as to not have dry mouth when I spoke. When I was introduced I would walk a little faster than my normal walk with a big smile and look like I couldn’t wait to get up and speak. I walked and spoke with purpose. I would almost jump on the stage. Shake the toastmasters hand and then stand in front of the audience smile and make eye contact. One of the toughest things for most speakers is to just stand in front of the audience without saying anything. I would just stand there and let the applause die down. Only after the applause died would I go into my introduction. Standing in-front of the audience with out speaking shows confidence. It lets the audience get to know you. You want to make a good first impression. You want the impression to be of having fun and that you are confident. In the wild an animal can smell fear. The audience can also detect fear in a speaker. This can hurt your presentation. The audience isn’t going to listen to you, respect you if you appear too nervous. When I was doing stand-up comedy I noticed that the most successful comedians didn’t always have the best material, but the had the best delivery. If the comedian was confident the audience usually laughed, but if the comedian was nervous the audience didn’t laugh and even occasionally the comedian would get heckled.
I recently tried to give this advice to another competitor in the same contest. And she said her speech was too serious that she didn’t want the audience to think she was having fun. She lost. You can still give a very serious speech and show the audience that you enjoy speaking. You don’t have to be a grinning idiot just let the audience know you enjoy what you do.
Choreography is important. You don’t want to pace too much or just stand in one position the whole time you want to move with meaning. The trick is to make it look natural. I see too many speakers that are too choreographed and they don’t look natural when speaking. Their movements are stiff and it appears that they are thinking “when I say this, I will move my arm this way.” When I was in theater class the teacher would say a good set design is one where the audience doesn’t notice it. The same applies to your choreography, if the audience notices your gestures it may detract from your presentation.
The overall goal of taking control of the room is to be confident enough to be yourself in front of the audience, so that they focus on you and what you have to say.