Eliminating barriers

23 01 2011

Here we can see Michael Faraday giving a speech at the Royal Institution. Well, we can just about see him behind that massive desk. It is acting as a barrier between him and his audience.

I don’t think there is any YouTube footage of Faraday presenting so I can’t be certain but I’d be surprised if he stood there for the whole of his lecture.

Desks, tables and lecterns all have their uses but they should never be used as barriers for hiding behind.

If you have a table that you use when you do your shows where is it placed on the stage? If it is downstage centre (ie: right in the centre of the stage between you and the audience) and you stay stood behind it throughout your show then even if you don’t mean to be hiding behind it your audience will think you are.

When you are hidden (even if you are not hiding) you appear as if you don’t have confidence in yourself so gaining the respect of the audience will be that much harder. Depending on where your audience is seated between half and two thirds of your body is obscured when you stand behind a table. And successful communication requires the use of your whole body.

Imagine how you’d feel if you were sitting in the front row of Michael Faraday’s audience and he walked out from behind that desk towards you? I think the effect would be electrifying. All of a sudden the barrier between you and the presenter would be gone. You would be able to see his whole body. It would be so much easier to make meaningful eye contact. And the modern presenters of the Ri lectures know this.

This is Mark Miodownik in the first of his lectures from this year’s series. No hiding behind the desk here and I think the effect is a lot more dramatic for it.

There are very good reasons to have a table on your stage but I’ve yet to hear a good reason for putting it downstage centre.

If you need somewhere to put your notes then consider putting the table to one side and putting your notes on the short side of the table. That way when you consult them you’ll be standing to the side of the table instead of right behind it.

If you use your table as a platform to carry out demonstrations then consider turning the table to an angle further upstage and to one side. This means downstage centre is clear for you to be seen unimpeded but you can move behind the table to present a demonstration when you have to.

If your table holds props that can be picked up and don’t require the table to be presented on then you can move the table even further upstage. This table can be angled if the stage area is large and you don’t need all that space or flat to the wall behind you if space is tighter.

If you are in a school and you are offered the choice take two small exam style tables over one large rectangular table and put one on each side of the stage. Here is a good example of a presenter using multiple small tables on the Ever Wondered Why roadshow. Notice how Downstage centre is kept free for the performer and the tables are positioned angled to each side.

If you have lots of equipment in your show all crammed on the one table the props can form an even greater barrier than just the table itself. On top of that those props that are yet to be used or those that have already been used can distract the audience. Instead of setting it all up on the one big table downstage consider setting sections of the show up on trays stored further upstage which you can carry onto a smaller table downstage that you’ll present from. When you finish a section you can pick up all that equipment and take it out of the way replacing it with the next tray of equipment that you’ll use and not be stuck behind a big cluttered table.

And if you find yourself in a venue where you have no control over the tables like Faraday or in a university lecture theatre (that often have large immovable desks for the lecturers to hide behind) you might have to get creative. One suggestion is to leave the first row of seats empty so you can squeeze in front of the desk. Whatever, do everything that you can to avoid your audience thinking you are using the desk to hide behind. Eliminate that barrier at all costs.

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