Playing Your Speech to Scale

I was working with a great public speaking student the other day. We'd spent a number of sessions building his hour-long presentation soup-to-nuts. He had good stories, good rhythm, ease in delivery. On the speech that was his maiden voyage, in a small room with about twenty audience members, all sitting pretty close, he knocked it out of the park.

However, during his second speech, the audience was larger: about fifty audience members. And the room was very deep, with half of his audience seated much farther away from him than in the first presentation. He was doing pretty well with the front half of the audience. But I noticed his words and gestures weren't quite reaching the back half of the room. I could tell because audience members in the back weren't laughing as much at his jokes, and they weren't asking as many questions.

As speeches go, he still did well, but not like the first speech. This was because he forgot some of the work we'd done to make sure that he could play to the scale of the room.

Playing to scale simply means making sure that the size of your physical and vocal expression matches the size of your room. In larger rooms, you have to make sure that the back rows are getting a life-size version of your speech. To do that, you're going to have to be a bit bigger than life-size.

Have you ever seen a live theater piece in a really big venue? If you have, you've probably noticed that many of the actors' choices are bigger than they would be if they were just sitting next to you. Their voices are louder, their words are more articulated, their gestures may be bigger and more precise. And they may use more space between certain words or sentences to give emphasis and let ideas land properly. These actors are playing to scale.

If you sit way in the back of the house, you probably notice these differences less. From that distance, the actor's larger-than-life quality just seems normal. The same goes for stand-up comedians. Imagine having a one-on-one conversation with Grammy Award-winning comic, Lewis Black, speaking in his stage tone: he'd bust one of your eardrums out! But those rants sound great in a comedy club where the closest person is ten feet away and the furthest person might be a hundred feet away.

When you speak to a large room, you need to make sure you're including the people in the back by playing to scale. You need to be a tad louder, a tad bigger, a tad clearer with your words, and with a tad more space between your ideas. Think of yourself as the gracious host of a party in a big space. You need to make sure everyone is having a good time, including the wallflowers sitting the farthest away. Check in with them during your speech. Make eye contact with individuals in the back, if you can. If you can't (because maybe the lights are blinding you), give people in the back the illusion of eye contact by sharing your face with them.

But in all this work with the back of the audience, don't forget everyone else. Ultimately, to run a big room well, you'll need to shift your focus from moment to moment between those farther away and those closer to you. After all, it's your public speaking party. Make sure all your guests feel included.

Playing to scale in a big room can feel like a challenge at first, but it just takes practice. If you want to get some guided practice for your speech, contact MUSE Public Speaking today.