Public Speaking and Theatrical Techniques

When speaking keeping your audience interested is essential.
When speaking keeping your audience interested is essential.
When speaking keeping your audience interested is essential.

Many of us assume that powerful public speakers are simply born with a natural talent for effective presenting. While it is true that some people are better oral communicators than others, anyone can draw on theatrical techniques to improve their public speaking. These theatrical techniques will help you stage your speech in a way that uses movement and visual pictures to enhance content.

Upstage and Downstage

Where you stand is important.
Where you stand is important.

Directors block the movements of actors to emphasize dramatic meaning and to maintain clear sightlines. The downstage area, closest to the audience, is a strong position and is the best place to present the

opening, closing, and most important content of your speech. Upstage, away from the audience, is less powerful but can be used effectively for reflective pauses or moments of offhand humor. Moving from upstage to downstage in order to make an important point can be highly effective.

Even in a less formal public speaking situation, these theatrical techniques can be applied. When you are sitting around a conference table for a meeting, leaning forward (downstage), this implies interest in the topic at hand. When you shift your weight back (upstage), you give your audience the impression that you are not as engaged in the subject matter.

Stage Right and Stage Left

Make every move count.
Make every move count.

In American and British theatre, Stage Right and Stage Left refer to the actor’s – or speaker’s – point of view. The position Downstage Right is perceived by western audiences as having intimacy and importance (probably because we read from left to right). In theatre, love scenes, monologues and narration are usually performed Down Right. Good public speakers use this position for their most important content, or for stories that have a strong emotional effect. Downstage Left traditionally has a conspiratorial feel to it, a place for plots and discussions in the theatre. Humor in a speech is often very effective when delivered from this position.

Think Like an Actor

Actors never “wander” around the stage. Every move is done with purposeful intention to emphasize, draw attention to, or otherwise offer “subtext” to the script or content. When you move from place to place on a stage, it’s called a cross. Crosses should be precise, clear movements from one place to another. Each movement should be done with purpose, at a specific point in your presentation. Wandering, pacing or even unconscious weight shifting draws attention and weakens the impact of your speech.

Think Like a Director

Know where you are in relationship to everything else.
Know where you are in relationship to everything else.

As a public speaker, you should always think about the stage picture from the audience point of view, keeping it balanced and visually interesting. Look carefully at the placement of furniture (lecterns, tables, projection screens) in relation to YOU and where you are in the audience’s view. If you are using a lectern, place it on one side and then move away from it at precise moments in order to make a point. Standing behind a large piece of furniture like a table creates a barrier between you and the audience. Make sure you are not “upstaged” by an unnecessary piece of large furniture, which unconsciously draws audience attention away from you.

If you are teaching public speaking, using these simple theatrical techniques of intentional movement and purposeful stage pictures will help make any of your students more powerful and polished presenters.

  • This Author:

    Genevieve Aichele

    Genevieve Aichele is a theatre artist – a performer, director, teacher and playwright. A resident of Portsmouth, NH, she received her degree in Music & Theatre for Community Programs from the University of New Hampshire in 1975, graduating summa cum laude. She is a co-founder and currently serves as artistic director of New Hampshire Theatre Project, based at the West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth. Genevieve is a juried Roster Artist/Trainer for VSA-Arts International and the NH State Council on the Arts, an adjunct faculty member of the Plymouth State University Graduate Program, and an affiliate of The Woodland Group and the Brown Center at UNH. She has performed, directed and taught performing arts from Boston to Seattle to West Palm Beach, from Dublin to Hong Kong to Frankfurt. Read Full
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