Anyone who sees me on Facebook already knows: I have a new dog. I also have an old dog, although the new dog is older than the old dog. Last year, we adopted 5-month-old Bookie, a cute, clownish puggle, (half pug, half beagle.) A few weeks ago, we adopted Dash from a shar-pei rescue organization. Dash is half shar-pei and — like Bookie — half pug. Shar-peis were originally bred as guard dogs. In a royal court, here’s how I would cast my two dogs:
Dash: royal guard
Bookie: court jester
In many ways, Dash is more gentle than little Bookie, whose play can be too rough. But when it comes to body language, Dash is vastly more regal and intimidating. Which brings me to today’s topic. Watching both dogs exit the house this morning, I was struck by Bookie’s leisurely amble compared to Dash’s commanding charge, head high, tail erect, scanning for intruders. Anyone seeing that body language, even someone not familiar with dog behavior, would instantly understand and respect its meaning.
Since we’re often presenting to large crowds, how we MOVE may be more important — particularly to spectators in the back of the assembly — than what we say. Do we move confidently, striding from one side of the room to the other, or do we stand timidly, shoulders hunched over the microphone? Confident, INTENTIONAL movement will communicate “I’m in charge” more quickly to a young audience than even a series of claps they’ve been trained to mimic.
I’ve been active in community theater for decades, but one of the first things I had to learn was how to move onstage. I’m not talking about dance movement, although stage movements do borrow many fluid motions from dance. I’m not even talking about “blocking,” which is precise movement designated by the director. “On this line, move to the bookcase; on this line, cross behind the couch.” I’m talking about learning to move with INTENTION, as I make that cross behind the couch.
Onstage, you can’t shuffle uncertainly… well, not unless you’re deliberately playing a nervous character. Once you’ve been in a few plays, you can even detect, from the audience, when actors don’t know their blocking. Some years ago, my son was in a youth production of Beauty and the Beast. One night, as I watched the cast rehearse, observing a “clock,” a “bureau,” and other similarly-costumed actors rehearse a scene in a shifting, ill-defined cluster, I thought to myself, They’ve forgotten their blocking. Sure enough, when it came time for notes from the director, she told them, “Guys, we need to go over that blocking again.”
If those young actors had moved with INTENTION, even if they didn’t remember their blocking, I wouldn’t have noticed the problem. That’s the way we need to move, also, if we really want to command and hold the attention of a large assembly. Here are some body language tips to “hold the room.”
1. Use “open” body language. Palms out, shoulders back, large sweeping gestures. It may feel strange, almost like overacting, but it will throw your energy all the way to the back of the room.
2. Rather than standing in one spot, move around, from one side of your audience to the other. One reason for this is, if you’re using a projector, moving around will ensure that everyone has a chance to see the screen. Because we’re at the front of the room, we’re often blocking the screen for at least a small group of students. Moving often will allow everyone to see. Striding around will also remind you to call on students seated in various locations instead of unconsciously concentrating on one small group. On the other hand, don’t flit aimlessly like a moth. Pick a spot, make a few points in your presentation, then move again.
3. Once you HAVE moved, stop and plant yourself firmly on both feet. Shuffling from foot to foot conveys uncertainty. That’s what I could see in those young actors who had forgotten their blocking. Once they were in position, even if it wasn’t the correct position, if they had stood firm, confidently planted, their broken blocking wouldn’t have been so evident. So, instead of shuffle-shuffle-shuffle, you’re aiming for: MOVE… STOP (speak for a few moments)… MOVE… STOP (speak for a few moments), etc.
4. If you’re offered a lectern, shun it. Sometimes I’ve found one already set up when I arrive. I always drag it far out of the way. Lecterns are for… well… for lectures. We’re not lecturers. We’re presenters. Performers, even. Big difference. I know, if you’re nervous, a lectern seems a great place to hide. But consider this: once, when I was in high school, I was amused as a classmate delivered a book report from behind a lectern. She clasped the sides of the lectern with nervous fists while her right leg, bent at the knee, swished behind her like a horse’s tail. Through (swish) the (swish) entire (swish) report (swish.) Pretty distracting. She’d have been better off reading her paper with no lectern, since it would be hard to deliver a speech on one leg without a tall wooden object to lean on.
Bear in mind, I’m speaking as an author who mostly presents in elementary schools. In a high school auditorium, before a more mature assembly, a lectern may be just the ticket. Even then, consider moving away from the lectern for few points. It’s a great way to keep your audience awake.
5. About eye contact… My advice may differ from standard Toastmaster wisdom. Having spent several decades onstage before beginning my author visit career, I had learned not to make eye contact with audience members, even if they thought I was looking directly at them. For one thing, stage lights are so bright it’s hard to see audience faces. When the lights are dimmer, or if I’m far downstage, near the audience, it’s more likely I’m gazing at neckties than directly at faces. I probably do something similar when I’m speaking to a large assembly. Your style may differ. Some experts tell you to look directly at one face in the audience as you make an important point. I probably don’t do this, but I definitely do look directly at each face when I ask a question for which I want an answer. Later, if I refer back to something a student has said, I often will look directly at the original speaker.
I learned something interesting about my own body language a couple of years ago when I was presenting at a local library. This was a makeup event after I’d caught the flu. Sadly, the folks at the library forgot to publicize the makeup program. For the younger children’s program I had exactly ONE attendee. He was a brilliant 6-year-old boy named Varun. With only one person in my audience, I found I needed to change my delivery. It took me a couple of minutes to shift my body language from “large hall” gestures (and voice) to a more casual one-on-one interaction. Varun and I ended up having a grand time. That day taught me to gauge my movements to match the size of the audience.
I was flattered, a few weeks ago, at the end of my final school visit for the year. This was also a makeup event (darned flu, even with a vaccine!) that had been rescheduled precariously close to the end of the year. I was expecting exuberance with the end of school only 2 days away, but I did think the programs went well. As I was packing my supplies at the end of the day, the young principal told me, “I have to be honest, I was a little worried about this.” It was a crazy day with a 5th grade graduation and a picnic and all kinds of excitement. He said he had feared the kids would be wildly out of control. “But you really know how to hold their attention. It was great!”
I appreciated his compliment, glad to know I’m not simply deluding myself when I think an assembly has gone well. I know the way I spoke was a big part of holding their attention on a very “attention-deficity” sort of day. But I also believe that my commanding–and sometimes comedic–body language was another reason they behaved so beautifully.
And in an era when attention spans are waning, we’ve got to use every tool in the box, right?
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