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Chapter 18: Stage Managing: Staying One Step Ahead of Murphy's Law


If anything can go wrong, it will, and at the worst possible moment.

- Murphy's Law

It's difficult enough to give a speech; on top of this you must be your own stage manager. Even if you have someone helping you out, you're the one who's ultimately in charge of your speaking situation: how the stage is set up, what equipment you might need, what props you use and where they're placed, etc.

Stage managing is speech insurance: You may not feel you need it, and you may be right; many speeches go smoothly, and all the unseen details fall into place. But that takes extraordinary luck, and any professional speaker knows not to rely on luck.

A prepared speaker controls the speaking environment; he or she manages the setting and the room as if it were an extension of the speech itself. And it is. Speakers depend on their environment to get their points across; if audiences are uncomfortable because the room is stifling, or if there aren't enough seats, the words may be brilliant, but the audience will be counting the minutes until departure time. Do your best to control the environment, and you will control how your audience will receive the words you've worked so hard to shape. Proper stage managing can take the place of a certain amount of talent or confidence. This chapter will touch on everything you should see to before approaching the podium.

It's All in the Details

The more public speaking I do, the more I realize how much can go wrong: On a bad day it's mind boggling and enough to prompt you to swear off speaking. As a result, proper stage managing seems overwhelming. There are endless details to worry about. Most speakers make the mistake of approaching this task in parts. For example, if they are using visual aids, they may check the equipment carefully but not focus on which seating arrangement is best for showing slides.

Even seasoned professionals can look bad if they have not checked out everything. A well-known media personality and musician was the featured speaker at a recent conference I attended. Although he should have known better, he broke almost every rule of persuasive speaking. His notes were on lightweight onionskin paper, and the lectern was not wide enough to hold both the read and unread sheets, so there was constant juggling and rattling. After he spoke, he brought his messy notes over to the piano with him, and laid them precariously on top. When he hit the climactic chord, the papers cascaded noisily to the floor. Needless to say, he lost the confidence of the audience. People were actually laughing. A few minutes of thought and planning could have saved the day.

Comprehensive stage managing is best, and that means having a sense of all that you need to check up on. This chapter spells out the many details speakers have to attend to; a thorough checklist is included at the end. Stage managing is an administrative responsibility. A polished, memorable performance, whether in the theater or at a convention, is only the tip of the iceberg. The final, smooth performance is visible, and all the preliminary effort is not, even though the memorable words would not be possible without the stage managing.

George Bernard Shaw once said, "People who get on in this world are the people who get up, look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them." A well-managed room is one you set up in the way most advantageous to you.

Obviously you won't be able to control or to change all the circumstances that you face, but you can change many of the basic ones speakers often overlook. That's true even if you are part of a symposium or are sandwiched between other managers during a corporate presentation.

What to Watch out for

Here are the main concerns any speaker needs to address:

Seating and Room Size

Given the purpose of your presentation, what is the best seating arrangement for your audience? Don't be afraid to change the way the chairs were arranged by the person ahead of you; you can call a break to do the reshuffling. If you are specifying seating in advance, be quite clear about what you need.

Seating arrangements also depend on the degree of audience participation. If you are speaking before a large group and limiting participation to a question-and-answer period, auditorium style, with its rows facing the speaker, does nicely. Classroom style puts three to six people at a long table. U-shaped arrangements that let the audience fan out around the speaker are useful for speakers with small audiences who want to encourage participation. Audiences in U-shaped seating can see both the speaker and each other; the speaker doesn't seem too removed and can walk into the audience.

Find out the size of the room in advance. If you have to choose between one that is slightly too small and one that is slightly too large, choose the small room. Try to get people to sit toward the front, and have someone remove empty chairs from the back, keeping a few free for latecomers.

Speaking Order

Speaking order plays an important role. If you are one of several speakers on a program, find out when you're slotted to appear. If you can, try to get the opening spot. You'll be remembered more if you appear first or last, and first is probably best. If you're last you can sometimes suffer if other speakers run over their times and the audience becomes restless.

If you are speaking last, and you see the program is running behind schedule, start looking for ways to cut your speech. It is always better to give a speech that is a little short than one that is too long. (And your audience will certainly appreciate you for it.)

Speakers scheduled in the middle of a meeting should try to get a slot after a break, so they can use the time to set up. If you can't and have to appear with virtually no time to set up, try to keep your presentation simple; audiences that have to wait for 10 minutes or longer, while you fiddle, will lack in goodwill.

If you are the only speaker, you have the most flexibility and control possible. Arrive as early as you need to make sure everything is in place. An hour before is usually sufficient, especially in a hotel where the staff is used to last minute changes.

The Stage

Many speakers assume they must speak from an elevated area. Even though I'm barely more than 5 feet tall, I try not to use podiums or lecterns; the height of the former and the barrier created by the latter put distance between the speaker and the audience. Remember, power comes from being close to your audience, not removed from it. But if you are on a podium or behind a lectern, find out the height of the podium, whether the lectern has a light, and, if it does, what size bulb is needed (so you can bring a spare). Again, if you do have a choice, state your preference. I once arrived to give a presentation and found a huge raised platform - exactly what I did not want - simply because I had not specified that I wanted to speak from the floor.

Light and Sound

Although the lighting is often handled by someone else, you still need to think about what kind of lighting your presentation will demand and then to make sure the room can accommodate it. Try to have the brightest light available; avoid fluorescent lighting, which can be depressing.

If you are using slides, locate the controls for the room lights. Does the room have many large windows? Will the daylight make your slides too hard to see? Are shades available?

The microphone is another technical detail you confront as you prepare to speak. You should use a microphone whenever possible, unless you're speaking in a small room where amplified sound would be overwhelming. The microphone allows you to use all the nuances of your voice.

There are many varieties of microphones, and you either need to find out what type of microphone is available to you, or bring your own. Here are some options you may find:

Once you begin to speak, don't touch the microphone. If it squeals you may be accidentally touching it; take your hand away and it should stop. If you get a loud popping sound from the mike, adjust it so that you are speaking into it at an angle instead of straight on.

Whatever mike you choose, practice with it first. If you plan on having mikes in the audiences, work with the person who will be circulating, and check out those mikes, too. Always try to get to the room ahead of time, so you can check the lighting, try out all the microphones, and test the sound levels.

Keeping Track of Time

It's important for you, and for your audience, that you keep track of how long you've been speaking. If you have half an hour for your speech, don't assume it's okay if you run over by 10 or 15 minutes, especially if you're speaking at a seminar or conference where there are many speakers, and sessions have been carefully planned and scheduled.

Bring a timer with you if possible, and place it somewhere you can see it but the audience can't. This is a much better option than a watch. You need to check your timing throughout your presentation; if you check your watch every few minutes, the audience will get the impression that you can't wait to get to the end. Some speakers like to take off the watch and use it as a timer, but because I have a colleague who left a brand new Rolex at his last speaking engagement, I don't recommend removing the watch from your wrist. You can always ask someone to signal when you have five minutes, and then one minute, left. Be sure that person is not forgetful.

Check Those Audiovisuals

Every piece of equipment comes with a series of things to be checked:


Other visual aids have their own vital parts: chalk and erasers for the blackboard, the right number of handouts, and easel for the flip chart. Go through your presentation step by step ahead of time; note everything you need to have. A trash basket? This is usually missing from meeting rooms. Tape for putting a visual aid on the wall? Who will set up and remove props if you don't? Mentally pack the suitcase you need for a successful speech days in advance. Of course, your needs will vary depending on the type of presentation. Always be flexible and always have an alternate plan.

Spare Parts

The less you leave to chance, the better. Some speakers bring an extra set of their note cards in addition to the obligatory spare bulbs, extensions cords, markers, and so on. The ultimate spare part - one every speaker needs - is a backup plan, in case, after all your advance preparation, the slide projector still decides to die as you approach it.


A comfortable audience is a receptive one. Professional speakers also attend to the following details, which make for a contented crowd:


In many cases, hotel personnel will be assisting with your presentation. Carry at least three phone numbers of people to call in an emergency: your main hotel contact, a backup person, and a third person or office in case the first two aren't around when you suddenly need them.


Few speakers walk into a room that is perfectly designed for their presentation; more often they encounter distractions that are a function of the room's frequent use. Things to watch out for include:

Communicate Your Wishes

I always send the organization sponsoring my speech a complete list of my requirements - audiovisual and otherwise. Be as specific as possible; if you think you are spelling out something too much, do it anyway. Never assume. I once asked for a room to be set up "classroom style," because I was conducting a training session. But when I arrived there were no tables for people to write on, even though I had specified they would be necessary. Luckily, I had arrived an hour early and was able to find some tables. Always allow yourself extra time to correct crisis situations.

Careful stage managing is vital before any important meeting or discussion you are involved in. For example, if you are meeting with your boss to discuss your department's strategy for the next year, you will want to time the meeting right and hold it in a place where interruptions and distractions will be minimal.

Check and double-check all details and make copies of the checklists at the end of this chapter. Don't let the details of stage managing throw you; in reality, knowing you have addressed them makes you appear much more professional and at ease - qualities that you can't help but communicate to your audience. And once you have managed your surroundings, you will be in a much better position to manage the questions your audience sends your way at the end of your presentation.

For those speakers who have to travel to make presentations, I have also have included a transportation checklist. The last checklist, the Postprogram Summary, will be of help to professional speakers and those of you who make frequent presentations to the public.

Professional Projects: Careful Stage Managing
  1. Develop your own list of details to check and double-check before your next presentation.

  2. The next time you attend a meeting, imagine you were stage managing it. What would you do differently? What can you learn from how the meeting is organized?

Stage Managing Checklist:

  1. Do I have the phone number of an expert or immediately available helper?  _____

  2. Have I tested all the equipment and visual aids in advance?  _____

  3. Do I know where all switches are, such as, the switch for the overhead projector?  _____

  4. What materials do I need up front?

  5. Water  ___ Table  ___
    Lectern  ___ Chair  ___
    Pointer  ___ Markers  ___
    Microphone  ___   Computer  ___
  1. Have I checked the requirement for:

  2. Lighting  ___

    Heat  ___

    Air Conditioning  ___

  1. What equipment am I using? Is everything working and clean? Are there spare parts?

    1. Digital Projector
    2. Lenses, attachments  ___

      Remote Control  ___

      Stand  ___

      Location of screen  ___

      Size of screen  ___

    3. Easels (Flip charts)
    4. Type  ___

      Clamp  ___

      Paper size  ___

    5. Digital Video Camera
    6. Location  ___

      Operation instructions  ___

      Connection cables  ___

      Extra battery and memory  ___

    7. Microphone
    8. Type  ___

      Location of audience microphones  ___

    9. Laptop computer / tablet
    10. Outlet / power cable as necessary  ___

      Extra battery  ___

      Communication cable(s) and adapters  ___

      External memory containing software or data as needed  ___

  1. Is the room set up exactly as needed (e.g. classroom, theater, U-shaped?)  _____

  2. Do audience members have name cards (if necessary)?  _____

  3. Is my timer clearly visible?  _____

  4. Have I accounted for breaks?  _____

  5. Do I know where the restrooms are?  _____

  6. Do I need to follow any special protocol?  _____

Stage Managing: Personal Checklist

  1. Do I have my timer?  _____

  2. Do I have my?

  3. Glasses  _____

    Pointer  _____

  4. Do I have all my accessories?

  5. Notes  _____

    Visuals  _____

    Extra copy of my introduction  _____

    Markers  _____

    Extra items as necessary:

    Paper clips  _____

    Tape  _____

    Stapler  _____

    Voice recorder  _____




  6. Is there anything else I know I will need?





Transportation Checklist:

Travel date: ____________________________________

Leave office: ____________________________________

Means of travel: ____________________________________

Time, flight number: ____________________________________

Arrival time: ____________________________________

Ground transportation: ____________________________________

Pickup arrangements: ____________________________________

Who: ____________________________________

When: ____________________________________

Where: ____________________________________

Directions to hotel or meeting facility:



Distance from airport (time and miles):


Shipment of materials and equipment:

Method: ____________________________________

Date shipped: ____________________________________

Shipping contact: ____________________________________

Date of arrival: ____________________________________




Postprogram Checklist:

This form is especially helpful for speakers who give frequent presentations outside of their own organizations.

Date of program: ____________________________________

Contact's name: ____________________________________

Organization's name: ____________________________________

Department or division name: ____________________________________

Organization Contact Information

Address 1: ____________________________________

Address 2: ____________________________________

City: ____________________________________

State and Zip: ____________________________________

Phone Number: ____________________________________

E-mail Address: ____________________________________

Type of meeting: ____________________________________

Title of my presentation: ____________________________________

Subtitle: ____________________________________

Number of people at meeting: _________________________

Type of people:



Room setup:



Quality of facility:



Quality of equipment:


Quality of ventilation, heat, air conditioning:


Quality of lighting:


Clothes I wore:


Other comments:




Things for me to do after the program:

Read evaluation cards  ___

Pick follow-up materials  ___

Sort out my materials  ___

Clean out job folder  ___

Save two sets of handouts  ___

Send invoice if appropriate  ___

Write thank-yous to:





Key people from the meeting:

Introduced by:


Other speakers:









Memorable people:





Miscellaneous information:







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