Speech Preparation #7: Choreograph Your Speech with Staging, Gestures, and Vocal Variety
Your speech preparation is going well. You started with your core message, wrapped it in a speech outline, extracted your first draft, edited your speech, and added impact with rhetorical devices. You’re ready to deliver, right?
Wrong. You only have words on paper, and your audience doesn’t want to read your speech.
Your audience wants to see and hear your presentation. You will dazzle them by complementing your speech with staging, gestures, and vocal variety.
This article shows you how.
Vocal Variety: The Four P’s
Monotone delivery puts your audience to sleep, no matter how riveting your content. On the other hand, an energetic and varied voice will be music to their ears.
Vocal variety covers the 4 P’s:
- Power (or volume)
Power refers to the volume you project. At a minimum, be sure that your entire audience can easily hear you without straining.
- Turning your voice volume up or down adds interest. Use both variations when they match the emotion you want to convey. For example, speaking loud might be used to convey excitement. Speaking soft might convey sadness.
- Use a microphone to amplify your voice in large rooms.
- Eliminate outside noises, if you can. If you can’t, consider moving the audience closer to you, or moving into the audience.
Pitch is the frequency of the sound you emit. To some extent, you are born with your voice pitch, whether it be soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, or baritone. However, if your speech contains dialogue for several characters, varying your pitch is an excellent way to distinguish between them.
Pace is your speaking rate, and varying it throughout the speech adds great interest. There are many effects that a variable pace can generate, but the most basic are:
- Speed up to heighten the emotion in a dramatic story.
- Slow down when delivering key phrases.
The most common pace problem is speaking too fast for the audience to absorb the material. There are two underlying reasons for this:
- Lack of editing leaves too much content and too little time. The resulting pace is far too fast for the audience to absorb.
- Nervousness also contributes to a rapid speaking rate.
For an example of rapid speaking rate, see Majora Carter in Greening the Ghetto.
Pauses are magical. On the lips of master speakers, pauses can be used for a multitude of purposes.
- Short pauses can signal the end of a clause or sentence. Your audience needs these because they can’t read the punctuation in your text.
- Longer pauses signal the transition between major points or stories. Experienced speakers will often take a drink of water, ready a prop, or consult notes at these times.
- Pauses before and after key points are wonderful buffers. The preceding pause signals to the audience that you are about to say something important. The following pause gives the audience time to reflect on what you just said and internalize it.
- Pauses can also be used to enhance audience interaction (e.g. ask a rhetorical question, and then wait).
Example: Steve Jobs demonstrates a powerful pause in his Stanford Commencement speech.
Gestures / Body Language
Hundreds of gestures are available to help complement your words. Gestures throughout your speech make you interesting to watch. If you are interesting to watch, then your audience will be more attentive to your message. Failure to use gestures will lead your audience to watch the inside of their eyeballs.
Rather than attempting to itemize hundreds of different gestures, I’ll highlight a few general principles:
- Your body will naturally want to move as you speak. Don’t inhibit these natural gestures as they convey a sense that you are comfortable and confident in your message.
- Mix in deliberate gestures to coincide with key points. Mimic the actions of your speech (e.g. throwing a ball), or convey concepts through recognizable symbols (e.g. convey “censorship” by covering your mouth).
- Use a variety of gestures. Don’t use the same one over and over and over again.
- Increase the size of your gestures to match the size of the room. When presenting to three of your co-workers at a table, your gestures can be small (e.g. hand gestures that start at the wrist). When presenting to a packed auditorium, your gestures should be large (e.g. full-body gestures originating from the shoulders)
- Don’t neglect the power of facial gestures. Your audience will feed off the facial gestures you make.
For an outstanding demonstration of gestures which complement a speech, see J.A. Gamache deliver Being a Mr. G.
Staging your speech means utilizing the 3-dimensional space around you in the most effective way possible.
- Novice speakers will chain themselves to the lectern or stand in one spot on the middle of the stage.
- Intermediate speakers will meander randomly around the speaking area. Body movement appeals to the audience and keeps attention.
- Great speakers move around the speaking area with purpose. Every time they take a few steps, they are doing so with a distinct purpose in mind.
Like gestures, there are innumerable ways to stage your speech, but here are a few general principles:
- The simplest act of staging is to prepare the speaking area before you begin. Move the lectern to the side. Move obstacles away, or at least be aware of them. Make sure every person in the audience has a clear sight line to you (or your slides). Simple acts like this show the audience that you’ve thought of everything, and that you want no barriers between you and them.
- If you are using props or other visual aids, plan where they will be before and after you use them. When they are not being used, you want them out of sight.
- Just as long pauses can signal the transition between major points, so can considerable movement within the speaking area.
- You can map specific locations in the speaking area to be virtual locations for certain stories of your speech. Then, when you refer back to these stories, a simple gesture back to that area of the speaking area is valuable to help the audience make the connection.
- In very large rooms, be sure to balance your position on the left, center, and right of the speaking area.
- Not every speech allows for it, but don’t forget about the forward/backward direction as well as up/down. If you can meaningfully bring in these directions, it will make a powerful statement. For example, consider what climbing on a chair might allow you to do within your speech.
Example of Staging, Gestures, and Vocal Variety — Face the Wind
As I have done with previous articles in this series, I will use my 2007 contest speech Face the Wind to illustrate the use of staging, gestures, and vocal variety.
- Staging: Throughout the speech, note how most of the humor “punch lines” are delivered looking right or left. Similarly, many of the serious lines are delivered front and center. This is a technique that I was exploring in this speech for the first time.
- Gesture: Arm gesture to left, then right to match the trading of house keys for condo keys. [0:27]
- Vocal variety: “escaped … loud vacuous whoosh“. Also complemented by arm gestures to the right [0:42]
- Gesture: Facial expressions on “yard work” [0:56]
- Gesture: Arm gesture referring to audience on “a Toastmasters club officer” because many in the audience were (or have been) officers. [1:00]
- Staging: The walk around my yard looking at numerous bushes and trees [1:26]
- Gesture/Staging: Introduction of the Japanese maple tree is with arms up to indicate the height of the tree. Notice how this stage position is mapped to the tree location. [1:34]
- Vocal variety: Vocal variety: “no, not wide enough” [2:10]
- Gesture/Staging: Difficult to see this on the video, but the hole-digging sequence involves stage movement from front to back, diagonally. [2:13]
- Gesture: Arms open wide to indicate the breadth of the “moat” [2:21]
- Staging: Drop to the floor to wrestle the tree. [2:30] This position was also the setup for the “roots like tentacles, as expansive as its branches” gesture [2:50]
- Gesture: Triumphant gesture [2:34]
- Staging: Note the location of the neighbour’s monster tree is off to the right (actually above the audience). This position is mapped for future reference to the monster tree. [3:12]. For example, notice reference to monster tree at [3:51] and again at [4:12].
- Gesture: Forceful gestures to mimic the gas BBQ being lifted up [4:05]
- Gesture: Double hand gesture for “force combined with direction” [4:30]
- Gesture/Staging: Full body gestures for wind blowing and tree resisting. Notice that for these gestures, I am facing to the side so that the majority of the audience will see these gestures in profile. This is more effective than facing the audience. Note also how the contrasting wind directions are indicated [4:39 to 4:55].
- Vocal variety: Voice is quieter at the start of the miscarriage story, then gets louder with “when that wind came for them, not once but twice” [5:05]
- Gesture: holding infant Maximus [6:22]
- Gesture: incubator [6:30]
- Gesture: Notice the gestures in the “yesterday-today-tomorrow” segment [6:45] It starts on the audience’s left, then middle, then right… just as if they were viewing a standard timeline from left to right.
- Vocal variety: Lengthy pause before “We are not trees” [7:04]
- Gesture: Emphatic gestures to indicate we are not trees [7:12] and roots going through the seat [7:13]. Energy here is amplified.
Next in the Speech Preparation Series
Your speech is finally ready. No… wait… you haven’t practiced it yet. The next article in the Speech Preparation Series discusses techniques to get maximum benefit from your rehearsal sessions.