How To: Be (A)ware of 'The Room'
What to do when speaking
conditions are less than ideal.
By Gene Perret
Tell a story to a group of 15 or 20 people crowded into a living room at a party. If the anecdote is genuinely funny and you tell it well, you’ll hear glorious, spontaneous laughter. Deliver that same story with equal enthusiasm and skill to a group of 15 or 20 people scattered in small groupings around an auditorium that seats 400 and you’ll hear only a nervous chuckle or two, or perhaps even stony silence. “The Room” has an influence on the effectiveness of a speaker’s presentation.
Well-prepared speakers should know their material and their audiences. To guarantee the most effective presentation, though, that speaker should also know and control “the Room.”
“Wait a minute,” some may argue. “The room is hardware. It’s four walls, a floor and a ceiling. The stage is where it is. It’s size and height is permanent. There is no way to change the room.” But there is.
“The Room” for a speaker is not only the physical dimensions of the lecture hall, but all of the conditions associated with it – the lighting, the sound system, the seating arrangement, the activity in the room during your speech...even perhaps, what is going on outside the room while you’re presenting. All of these are considered part of “the Room.” Good speakers should be aware of and control as many of these conditions as possible.
Many professionals write restrictions into their contracts that help control the room. One entertainer I worked for stated in his agreements that there should be no dance floor separating the stage from the audience. That distance, he knew from experience, destroyed the intimacy and impact of his performances. Other entertainers explicitly request that no food or drinks will be served or tables cleared during the performance.
One highly regarded comedian performed at an outdoor football stadium during half-time to a crowd of about 50,000 people. It was the first time she presented her comedy in such a venue. After the performance, she said, “Comedy was not made for the out-of-doors.” She never appeared under such conditions again.
You may not have the clout of these celebrities, but you can still get to know the location where you’ll speak. You can learn which conditions work best for your specific presentation. And you can control the ambience that you’ll work in, to a large degree.
There are three prerequisites for blending your talk most effectively with your surroundings. First, you must know the room. Second, you must know which conditions work best for your presentation. Third, you must know how to alter existing conditions, if necessary, to maximize your audience reaction.
How can you, as a speaker, get to know and control the room where you’ll speak? You begin the process well in advance of your engagement. In arranging the logistics of your talk, along with the date, time and place, you can ask questions and politely and respectfully list your requirements.
You may want to know how large the hall is and how many people are expected to attend. Will there be theater seating or banquet seating? How are the tables expected to be arranged? Will you speak from a head table or be alone on a stage? In short, ask anything that you think might help you get a feel for “the Room” and how it will influence your presentation. If you spot any problems from the sponsor’s reply, tactfully suggest alternatives and ask if the conditions might conveniently be adjusted. For instance, suppose the sponsors have you scheduled to speak from behind the head table and you have placards that you display as you speak. You might mention this and see if they can arrange a microphone off to the side, or perhaps on a stage.
At this time, you should also list your requests. Know what your presentation requires and ask for it. Personally, I usually request a lighted lectern with a removable hand-held microphone – either wireless or with a generous amount of wire. I like the anchor of the lectern but enjoy being able to roam the stage should I choose. Whatever preferences you have, it’s best to let the sponsors know of them well in advance of your presentation so they can have time to prepare.
Next, you can exert control immediately in advance of your appearance. When you arrive on site, ask to see the room where you’ll be presenting. Often you will spot hazards that can be eliminated before the event. Many of these may simply be fine-tuning adjustments. You may be able to meet with the sound technician and switch from a lavaliere microphone to a hand-held, if that’s what you prefer. Or you could arrange lighting that would enhance your presentation. You may simply request that when the program begins, the doors at the back of the hall be closed to eliminate distracting conversations.
Sometimes you may want more substantial changes, but ones that can be made if requested early enough. For example, I once was scheduled to give a talk to a relatively small group at a banquet. I always prefer that a room be on the crowded side. As mentioned earlier, the impact is lessened when the crowd is scattered around the hall. In this instance, although the tables were all near the stage, there was so much emptiness in the rest of the room that any audience enthusiasm would have dissolved into the vacant space. However, when I noted this, the staff at the event brought in large plants and room dividers, and miraculously transformed a large, mostly empty banquet hall into a small, intimate dining room. The adjustment worked perfectly, but only because it was noticed and corrected in advance.
Suppose you discover you’re to speak in a room that is too large for your expected audience. Again, you want to avoid scattered listeners, so in a half-empty room, you’d prefer to have the listeners grouped together near the stage. If you discover this problem early enough, the event staff can tape off rows of seats in the rear of the room with “reserved” signs. Now you and the cooperative staff have forced the attendees to fill the front portion of the auditorium, where they’ll be a more responsive audience.
Some performers and speakers prefer to work to the crowd “out front.” They dislike having audience to the sides of the stage. If the presenter discovers that some tables have been positioned to the side, he or she might be able to work with the set-up staff to reposition those tables out front.
Many problems can be easily corrected if they’re discovered and pointed out early enough. So it’s wise to take a look at your room before the actual event.
However, speakers quickly learn that conditions are rarely ideal. Despite your diligence in trying to control “the Room,” requests may be misunderstood, forgotten, simply ignored or impossible to implement. What do you do when that happens? You must rely on your creativity and your training as a speaker. It’s your obligation to adjust your presentation to the conditions as they exist.
You might have to change from the flamboyant, theatrical production you planned to a more intimate “chat.” You may have to drop your slide presentation (since the bulb in the projector burned out) and replace it with a question-and-answer period. If dinner was delayed and you have to present while dessert is being served, you may have to speak louder and more forcefully to overpower the clatter of plates and silverware, and the distraction of the servers roaming about. In short, you must exhibit your professionalism.
One thing you don’t want to do is highlight any problems by complaining about them. This not only labels you as a whiner, but it could also be construed as offensive to the sponsors of your talk.
Simply deal with the existing conditions courageously and to the best of your ability. Most audiences will applaud your grace under pressure. But do make a note of it and remember it for future presentations. It then becomes another thing you should consider when you’re trying to be aware of and control “the Room.”
Gene Perret is a three-time Emmy winner who has written for Carol Burnett and Phyllis Diller, and was head writer for Bob Hope. Visit www.writingcomedy.com.