The ability to handle a stage is a core skill for public speakers. The stage is where you share your ideas with audiences, but being successful requires advance preparation.
Here are the routines I’ve developed for how I handle my stage presence.
Here are my practices for the time period leading up to getting on stage to give a talk.
The Night Before
The key element of my pre-stage routine is getting adequate sleep. I can’t stress enough how important it is to get enough rest. There are few things harder to deal with when standing in front of an audience than dealing with brain fog due to lack of sleep. I even try to add an extra hour of sleep the night before I give a talk. So, if I normally sleep 7 hours, I try to sleep 8 hours.
I also avoid alcohol. First, drinking alcohol has a negative impact on my sleep quality. Second, I don’t want to have to deal with a hangover while on stage.
If at all possible, I try to visit the room where I’ll be speaking and get a feel for the layout. I respond to rooms differently based on their size, height of the stage, distance from the audience, and other factors. By checking out the room in advance, I don’t have to acclimate while I’m giving a talk.
I also make sure that the dinner I eat the night before I’m scheduled to speak is composed of safe food. What’s safe to eat varies from person to person, but I avoid carbohydrates and sugar since consuming them makes me feel lethargic the next day. So, I stick to salads and high quality protein and drink a lot of water.
An Hour Before
I start getting into the zone the hour before my talk, and I first do that by rocking my “Pre-Pump Playlist”. This is a closely guarded set of songs that get me hyped up and ready to rock it on stage.
I also make sure that I avoid food and only drink beverages during this hour, ideally water. However, I definitely don’t drink carbonated beverages since that can cause embarrassing issues with intestinal gas while on stage. I also avoid caffeine since I should have taken care of that well in advance.
This hour is also the time when I work with the audio-visual person to get my mic attached and also do one final check to make sure my laptop connects to the screen where the audience will see my slides. I activate do-not-disturb on my laptop, load up my presentation and test the clicker I use to advance my slides. If there’s a confidence monitor, I make sure that my speaker notes are properly displayed.
This hour is also when I make final confirmations. I confirm the side of the stage I’m supposed to use for my entrance and if the audio-visual person will handle muting my mic or if I need to do it myself. If there’s a timer, I confirm if it will count up or count down, and I also usually arrange someone to give me a five-minute warning hand signal.
I then start making sure my biological functions are in order. I make one last trip to the bathroom (after making sure my mic is muted) and swallow a few throat lozenges to prevent any throat irritation.
On Stage Routines
The opening lines you speak when you start your presentation are often the hardest. Those are the lines that start the relationship you’re building with the audience so they are extremely important. So, my opening lines are the ones I rehearse the hardest, and I make sure I can deliver them from memory.
Having these opening lines memorized has another tremendous benefit. If you do have any technical issues, you can deliver the lines while you or a technician work to fix the problem.
While giving my talk, I make sure that I scan from the left side of the audience to the right side. Every now and then, I make eye contact with a person in each section of the audience (left, center, and right). I strategically speak directly to them during certain parts of my talk. This is just for a few seconds per person, but it helps me feel more connected to the audience.
I almost always walk the stage during most of my talk. This gets me from behind the podium and more engaged with the audience. However, it’s important to not just randomly pace the stage. I usually walk to a predetermined spot on the stage, pause, and then walk to my next spot.
If you’re giving a talk to an audience of any size, there’s a high probability that one or more people will walk out. Don’t let this get to you. People walk out for a variety of reasons:
- Go to the bathroom
- Eat or drink (some venues don’t allow food or drink in the stage area)
- Hop on a work call
- Handle a personal emergency
- Sometimes, in a multi-track conference, people leave because they realize another session is better for them. That’s ok. People will also leave other sessions and come to your session for the same reason.
Don’t take people leaving personally. It usually has nothing to do with you and, when it does, it means the right people are in the audience for what you have to say.
I usually don’t memorize my entire talk because my speaker notes are detailed enough to guide me. However, I also know the big themes I’m trying to convey to the audience. That way, if I get lost or distracted for any reason, I can return to the major themes and make my way through the rest of the talk.
While the opening lines are the most important, the closing lines are a close second in importance. That’s when you make your final appeal to the audience. I prefer to leave them with a big idea or a call to action. I recommend having the closing lines memorized, too.
You did it! You’ve finished your talk. Hopefully, there’s at least some polite applause. You step off the stage knowing you’ve done something that’s a deep fear for most people.
I recommend hydrating as soon as you can after you finish. You’ve been speaking for a prolonged period of time so your throat is probably pretty dry. I usually have a bottle of water handy.
If you can, try to linger near the stage after you’ve given your talk. This isn’t always possible since the next speaker may start right after you finish (although most conferences schedule at least a short break between talks). Sticking around allows people to come up to you with questions or comments about your talk.
The final post-stage routine is to relax! After I’ve finished a talk on stage, I can rest easy knowing that I’ve fulfilled my primary obligation to the event. I can then enjoy the rest of the program, people, and festivities.