There is a term used in the theatre world, blocking, which is when the director decides where each actor should stand, walk, or sit during a play. The term came into use in the early 1960s when directors would stage a play using a miniature model of the set, with wooden blocks representing the actors. To most audiences, the movement during a play seems so natural that it appears the actors are just allowed to position themselves. Only the outside eye of a director can see exactly what the audience sees, so a third-eye approach is necessary.
The term crossing is used to mean moving or walking (“Charles, on your next line let’s have you cross to the sofa.” Upstage means away from the stage front, and downstage means toward the audience. These terms come from a time when theatre stages had to be built angled up toward the rear because the audience was seated below the stage on flat floor, as opposed to the raised seating we have now. To counter is to move in accordance with the crossing of another actor, so the stage picture remains balanced. To cover is to stand between another actor and the audience, thereby stealing focus, also called upstaging another actor. Every decision the director makes is to guide the focus of the audience to the appropriate actor onstage at any given moment. Television and movies accomplish this task by simply focusing the camera where needed. A theatrical production is much trickier; without tight blocking the audience’s focus will scatter. Be aware during the next play you attend and you will see that, when an actor makes an entrance and begins to speak, the other actors will turn their eyes to the speaker. This is a subtle hint to the audience to look where the actors are looking. It is called directing focus.
What does all this have to do with business? A lot. The reason most business presentations are horrible is because the speaker has forgotten that every presentation is a performance, not a lecture. And good performance demands knowing how to direct the audience’s focus. Mastering focus is half the battle of capturing an audience. One step toward directing focus is understand the Power Positions of the Stage. Every performance area, whether a stage or an open area in front of the room, has spaces that demonstrate power or weakness on the part of the speaker. The most powerful position in any room is front and center. If you stand toward the front of the performance area, and at a point midway between the farthest audience member on each end (the center), you appear the most powerful to the audience. If you take a few steps back from the forward position, you appear weak; likewise if you step to either side of the center position. If you step too far forward, the appearance of power shifts to become intimidating (or intimate, depending on your relationship with your audience).
Try this experiment. During your next staff meeting, ask those seated to tell you how you appear to them—powerful or weak—depending on the various places you stand in the room. You will likely hear that standing in the far corner (rear and to the side) appears the weakest. Weak staging can ruin the best speaker and even the most powerful message. No theatre director would have Mark Antony deliver his “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” speech from the back corner of the stage.
Unfortunately, in this time of bowing to the gods of technology, the thing that is given the power position in the room most often is an A/V screen. Everywhere I go I see the presenter standing off to the side while a huge white PowerPoint screen is front and center, the power position. The screen is literally upstaging the speaker. This might seem logical, since most speakers have abandoned their power to PowerPoint, but it ignores the cardinal rule of presentations: the only reason you are personally standing in front of the audience is to bring life to the presentation. Your audience can read for themselves, they don’t want you reading text on a screen for them. They want you to give meaning to the stats, life to the proposal, and personality to the meeting. You can’t do that from behind a podium or stuck in a corner.
So what do you do if the A/V screen is already set up to take the power position away from you? Simple. Use the Mute Screen function. The screen should be blank while you stand center stage and deliver your message. After each major point in your presentation, un-mute the screen to show a visual reminder (not text!) to support what you just said. Then mute the screen again, cross to center, and move on to your next point. Each PowerPoint slide should be a visual accompaniment to the words you spoke, not a direct copy of what you are saying. In this way, visual and auditory work hand in hand to create maximum impact for your audience. Even if you have pages of statistics to share, you should break down the numbers into major ideas, without simply displaying them on screen.
Just as actors turn to look at someone entering so as to direct the audience’s focus, you do the same. When you display a slide, cross to the side and direct your focus to it; telling the audience where to look. When you mute the screen, cross center and look at your audience. That is a signal that it is time for them to look away from their hand-outs or cell phones and engage with you.
One last step, if you truly want to improve your business presentation performance, you must do what actors and directors do; review your performance. Take videos each time you deliver a presentation and review them with the eye of an audience member. Ask “Do I look powerful?” “Where is my focus being directed?” “Is my interest piqued?” Direct your presentation like Shakespeare and you can avoid death by a thousand snores.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.