“A smooth entrances makes for a smooth show”- Jerry Seinfeld
Stand-up comedians know that first impressions totally count.
An audience forms an impression of a comedian very quickly indeed, usually before he or she has started speaking – pretty much instantaneously. That impression may change as things proceed – a weak first impression may be improved upon, or a strong one progressively undermined – but the preference of the human being is to hold onto the first impression of another person until it clearly becomes untenable. And the same applies to speakers and presenters.
Furthermore, the audience forming that first impression has strong preferences as to how it wants to be impressed, and how it wishes that impression to be further confirmed as things proceed. The audience wants to be reassured that they’re in for a competent, confident, authoritative delivery, from someone who knows what they’re talking about – someone who is experienced and is good at what they’re doing. That’s what puts an audience at ease and in a receptive frame of mind for what is coming up.
The audience’s greatest fear (apart from being brought on stage!) is that the comedian or speaker will fail, that they’ll mess things up, or that they’ll not deliver good value – and that they’re going to have an uncomfortable or embarrassing experience in watching this failure unfold, or that they will at least have wasted their time. This is what is commonly called ‘stage presence’.
Many people think that stage presence is something some people naturally have and others just haven’t, and that’s that – but it’s not true. Certainly some people have developed it unconsciously or early in life, but everyone can cultivate it and improve upon it. Most comedians start without it and get it by working on it; speakers and presenters can, too. And the crucial fact is that most comedians pretend have to pretend they have it before they have fully developed it – and then succeed in fooling their audiences in the meantime.
These principles can apply not only when you’re walking onto a stage, but also when you’re walking into a room full of people, or even a one-to-one situation – anywhere you’re going to speak and want to establish your ‘presence’.
Before going on
As comedians do, find out ahead of time about everything that will affect how you come onto stage or podium, and what you will find there – not only to make a more effective entrance and avoid anything going wrong, but also to put your mind at ease and remove potential sources of anxiety. Be clear in advance about things like:
- when you’re on
- how you’ll be announced, or whether you’re self-announcing
- where you’ll be speaking from, and how you will get there
- technological aids such as microphone or slide projection
- practical items such as podium, your notes etc
Even the best comedians know that, on occasion, they won’t be feeling genuinely super-confident, or even comfortable, at the beginning of their act; so they learn to behave as if they are. They remind themselves that they’ve done this a hundred times before, that they’ve done their preparation, that they have good material which has worked with audiences before, and which has been refined and improved with each performance.
They also know that it’s perfectly possible to behave like someone who is comfortable and assured and confident even when they’re not – to affect a presence which convinces the audience, or at least doesn’t reveal the fact that they’re anxious. They know that this can make enough of an impression on the audience to carry them through, until the quality of their material starts to kick in and the audience is more profoundly won over. If you conduct yourself in certain ways that we’re going to look into next, people will believe you – it’s a process of drawing on certain triggers to perception that are hard-wired into our dna, for evolutionary reasons.
It’s all about them, not you
Nervous speakers need to realise that there’s a crucial difference between the internal manifestations of their emotional state, and what the audience are picking up on. Sensations such as butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, light-headedness, mind going blank, or an overwhelming urge to flee the premises, can feel all-pervading to the person experiencing them, but are not inherently evident to the onlooker. Even shaking or trembling needs to be very pronounced before other people notice it.
So it’s vital to remember that distinction when these internal sensations occur – to distinguish between these two ways of assessing ‘how I’m doing’: 1) how I’m feeling (often completely unrelated to how you’re doing) and 2) how the audience is feeling (observed via how they’re responding).
Learning from the model of stand-up comedy, the best way to understand the dynamic of the performer and the audience response, and thus how to form a basis for handling it effectively, is to see it as a rather primitive, tribal or even animalistic process. What you’re doing when you walk on stage or take your place to begin a presentation is all about asserting dominance and territoriality, albeit in a reassuring rather than an aggressive way. In drama training they call this ‘status’.
This is why it brings up basic, primordial fears for performers – just about all performers – and it brings up fears for audiences too. We’re talking about basic survival instinct here, and the fight-or-flight reflex – that’s why the failure of a comedian to get an audience to laugh – not actually a life-or-death matter – is commonly known as ‘dying our your a***’.
Bearing this distinction in mind can be helpful in keeping things in perspective – what actually is the worst thing that can happen? – and in working out how best to conduct yourself. It’s also helpful to remember that just about everyone in a comedy audience is glad that it’s not them up there on stage, and for that reason has great admiration for the person who is. And this is true to a great extent for speakers and presenters in general.
this blog continues with part 2