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May 2024
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How to Master the Stage

9 theatrical tips for delivering award-winning stories.

By Karen Banfield, ACB, CL,

Sometimes speakers who are accustomed to presenting from a lectern struggle when competing in a Humorous or Tall Tales contest. Perhaps it’s because they lack basic information about stage technique. Below are some guidelines to help you deliver effective and masterful presentations to engage your audience.


Block your speech as you write it.

To block means to move to a specific area on the stage at a specific time, for a specific reason. You move to achieve a dramatic effect, to ensure sightlines (or unobstructed views of all areas of the stage at all times), or to take advantage of lighting. For example, if I recite a line about my mother, I might walk toward her dressing table, which onstage can be either real or imaginary. The content of the story motivates movement. This technique also has the advantage of making lines easier to remember because it activates body memory.


Never move without motivation.

Many speakers try to add interest by pacing back and forth. But pacing by definition is the result of impatience, anxiety or annoyance. It does not engage an audience. If you don’t have a reason to move, don’t move.


Learn character voices.

If your speech has different characters, make an attempt to learn their voices. Go to YouTube, listen to different dialects and practice speaking them. You don’t need to have the accent down perfectly, but a few well-spoken lines will snap your audience to attention. However, don’t choose voices or characters that are beyond your range of believability.


Make different characters ­occupy different physical spaces.

When you become another character during a dialogue, physically step out of the main character’s position. Give each person in your story their own real estate. It doesn’t need to be a big move, but it does need to happen. One step to the side can often be enough to achieve the desired effect.


Be in the moment.

Interested people are interesting people. If you are reading a newspaper as part of your talk, don’t hold it and pretend to read, because the audience will know. Actually read from a newspaper prompt. The audience will feel the difference. If you feel what you are doing, the audience will feel it with you. Make your props real.


Show the detail.

Bringing the arc of a story (the narrative) down to a minute detail will nail the moment. For example, I can speak of how I took piano lessons from an overweight, bored and sweating man who chain-smoked. But if I also introduce the ticking of a clock or the small black hairs on the back of his fingers, then I have brought the audience into a single memorable moment.


Being tender is better than ­being theatrical

Aim for the heart. It is theatrical to dump a basket of letters onto a table to demonstrate the abundance of mail you received after your trip to Africa. But the effect is far greater if you show how receiving just one heartfelt letter made a difference in your life.


Kill your little darlings.

This phrase has been offered for decades (at least) as literary advice to aspiring writers who include their own favorite passages in their writing. This advice applies to writing speeches, as well, and so, if anything in your story is not clear or focused, or prevents the story from moving along, then take it out—no matter how much you love it. If the delete button is too traumatic for you, then copy and paste your passage into a different file to use later. Remember, less really can be more.


Deliver from your body, not from your head.

Feel it! No message will be effectively delivered to your audience unless you feel it. Delivering from the head is a different kind of speech, one that involves passing along information, such as: one plus two equals three. Don’t take this approach in storytelling, as this is a time for heart, not information download.


Practice these tips to engage your audience, and you too can master the art of presenting from the podium.


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