It's Not Just a Room

You reach into your closet and select your navy blue suit. You gather up an appealing French blue shirt and the appropriate accessories. You even take an extra moment to find, and shine, your dress shoes, putting them on the table on which you’ve placed everything you’ll need for tomorrow – keys, wallet and note cards. You’ve been preparing this speech for weeks. You’ve conducted the necessary research and your outline is solid. You even gave the speech twice – to your reflection in the bathroom mirror – something you typically don’t do.

Many of us may read that scenario and think the speaker has completely prepared for success. Others, however, recognize there is much more to be done. It’s important not to overlook one of the most critical elements in our success or failure as speakers: the room – and all factors that make up the speaking environment. When we learn to manipulate this environment, it becomes more than just a room – it is a setting, a place where great things can happen.

Setting the stage is an important part of every production, whether a grade-school play or a Broadway musical. As speakers, we can shape our speaking environments to better connect with and captivate our audiences.

Defining the Stage
Many of us may walk into a room for the first time and take note of that center spot in the front where all the chairs are facing. “Aha,” we may think, “I see an area in the front of the room large enough for me to stand in, and that’s where I will speak.” That four-foot by four-foot area may not be the best place, but the truth is that speakers are more in control than we may realize. Just as we try to “think outside the box” in life, we can liven up our communication performances when we learn to speak outside the box.

Tim Birchers, interim dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Minnesota State University Moorhead, says, “The stage is whatever and wherever the speaker makes it to be.” When a speaker runs from the front to the back of the room, continuing her message while deeply engaged audience members follow her with their eyes, that speaker shows her skill (and courage) in expanding the definition of the stage. Presenters must use every available speaking area appropriately to deliver vivid and powerful presentations. However, sometimes the most appropriate use of the room is to limit it.

Elliott Fischer, a speech instructor at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin, offers this advice: “The amount of space that you use must be in scale with the size of the room and the size of the audience. If you are speaking in a large auditorium that is only one-fourth full, keep your movement and gestures in scale to the size of the audience rather than being bigger, as the space would indicate.”

Another way to shape the environment is to invite the audience to be seated up front. It can be disheartening to speak to rows of empty chairs when most of the audience is seated in the back. “It’s important to bring your audience to you,” says Frank Kurtenbach, a member of the Eastside Toastmasters corporate club at Daktronics in Brookings, South Dakota. “It builds a more personal atmosphere that allows the audience to better connect with each other, and you with the audience. It’s what communication is all about.”

Staging the Room
As Toastmasters, we speak in the same room regularly, but we still can set the stage by re-arranging the room to fit the goals of a particular speech. “As the speaker, you get to control the space; the space does not control you,” says Fisher. “You have the responsibility to create the best environment for you and your audience.”

Think of the flexibility and audience-to-audience interaction that is fostered when the chairs are arranged in a circle. That’s a great arrangement for small-group problem solving, as it helps promote discussion between audience members. However, newer discussion leaders may be intimidated by the free-flowing atmosphere. A good compromise is the U-shaped layout, which provides a visual connection between audience members while maintaining significant focus on the speaker.

                “As the speaker, you get to control the space,
                    the space does not control you."

For larger groups and more formal presentations, a traditional classroom layout is best. Rows and columns help to create a sense of order and control. The focus is sharply on the speaker, which is critical for briefings and other formal presentations.

When the audience members need to learn from one another or work as a group, space clusters of four to six seats work best. Depending on your primary objective, these seats can face the speaker or each other.

Different room arrangements invite different audience responses, so be sure to consider your goals in advance. What are you trying to achieve? Then determine the best way to organize the space to accomplish your goals.

Sometimes the room layout is fixed. If you have the opportunity to speak before a large crowd of more than 600 people, for example, auditorium seating is the best, and often only, option. Don’t worry if that is the case; just make the best of the situation and take advantage of other ways to enhance the room environment.

Once seated, individual audience members have little choice in their location, but the speaker has great flexibility. Skilled speakers walk across a stage with great confidence and ease. Less-skilled speakers often reach the lectern and stay within six inches of it throughout the entire presentation. Before condemning the latter, remember that the goals of the speech drive each choice. Speaking from behind the lectern can be very effective.

Consider American President Barack Obama, who is renowned for his oratorical skill. He stood firmly behind the lectern when delivering “A More Perfect Union,” his famous speech on the issue of race. Yet at town hall meetings, campaign rallies and other events, he built connections with his audiences by walking confidently across the stage area.

Likewise, carefully consider your goals with each new speaking opportunity. Is it important to create a spontaneous feel? Is there value in building a stronger sense of authority? Is there a desire to gain sympathy? Is it more important to appear powerful or relaxed? There is no best solution for every situation. Every choice depends on the goal.

Consider Proxemics
Many speech professionals use the term “transitional movement” to refer to purposeful movement within the speech.

Transitional movement serves another important purpose: Cultural researcher Edward T. Hall determined in 1963 that different communication relationships have different spatial expectations. He used the term “proxemics” to describe these perceptions of space. Intimate distance (from six to 18 inches) is reserved for those people we know extremely well. Personal distance (between 18 inches and four feet) is best for acquaintances in small, yet professional settings. Social distance ranges from four to 12 feet. Hall defines any distance greater than 12 feet as public space.

These are general guidelines and they vary from culture to culture, yet great speakers recognize the power of proxemics. Perceptions of space have great meaning and can help a speaker drive specific emotional responses. It is important to speak within the appropriate public space, but we must also recognize the value of varying our speaking positions to build intimacy with the audience. It can be very effective to come close to the audience to deepen the intimacy just as the content of the speech becomes more thoughtful and emotional. Varying distances adds interest and helps us connect with our audiences.

If we are to succeed in our communication performances, we need much more than notes in our heads or note cards in our hands. When we start to make choices based on our goals, and control our speaking environments, we can more successfully connect with and captivate our audiences.

Angela Hatton, ATMS, CL,  is a marketing manager for Daktronics and a member of its corporate club, Eastside Toastmasters, in Brookings, South Dakota. Reach her at

Tips for Staging Success

Speaking is sensory, which is one of the reasons we pay close attention to using appropriate gestures and vocal variety. However, all our hard work will be lost if the room is not comfortable for the speaker as well as the audience. Speakers should arrive at least 45 minutes early to the site of the speech to get a feel for the room and make adjustments as needed.

  • Consider the temperature. If the room is too hot, members of the audience will become drowsy. If it is too cold, most won’t be comfortable. Check with the event host to see if the air conditioning can be adjusted or if a door can be opened.
  • Listen to the room. Is there an annoying hum? Perhaps the HVAC system is too loud. If nothing can be done about it, plan to speak louder to overcome the distraction of the noise.
  • Select the most appropriate microphone. A wireless lapel microphone allows you to hold a presentation remote in one hand while the other hand remains free for gesturing. The wireless handheld microphone is more cumbersome, but still preferable to the traditional wired mike that limits mobility.
  • Consider amplifying the audience. When the program calls for a question-and-answer period, microphones placed in the audience will help them be heard. Plan to have an assistant circulate the mike throughout the audience or be prepared to help control those lining up to ask questions.
  • Check the microphone. Test it to ensure that everything is cued correctly and in working order.
  • Determine your ideal lighting. If you are using a PowerPoint presentation, or other visual aids, consider the best way to adjust the lighting so your slides can be seen without your having to speak in the dark. You may have front and back lights that can be adjusted separately. The lights over the screen should be turned down while the lights directly above you should be lit.
  • Identify the speaking area. Are there cords in the way that could cause you to trip? Is there visual clutter that would distract the audience from your speech?
  • Consider the seating. Is the layout appropriate for the message you will be giving? Seek out the site host for help re-arranging tables and chairs if necessary.
  • Consider the smell of the room. Coffee is one thing, but if the room is musty or foul briefly open a door or window for ventilation.


Angela Hatton, ATMS, CL, is a marketing manager for Daktronics and a member of its corporate club, Eastside Toastmasters, in Brookings, South Dakota. Reach her at