Jerry Seinfeld once mused, “According to most studies, people’s number-one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
This is what we’re up against in the world of events and, as a meeting planner, you’re often charged with making your glossophobic speakers look good. Many times it’s your own CEO. She’s ascended the ranks of the industry because she’s a deft manager, or visionary, or master of marketing—rarely because of her stage presence. Yet, here she is, every year, standing in front of hundreds of rapt members, speaking. And it falls to you to raise her up. The task may seem daunting but you can do it.
Here are a half dozen great ways to make your boss look good on stage.
1. Practice, Practice, Practice
Just like your boss has told you a thousand times, the proper onboarding is essential. You can’t expect people to perform without an organized orientation. Well, the same goes for your event. And rehearsal is that orientation. If your CEO will tread the boards, give her a chance to walk the stage. Practice her entrance and exit. Get her comfortable with the stairs and the curtains. Make sure she can see the teleprompter and knows when to enter. Let her hear her walk-on music. The fewer surprises, the more comfortable she will be. A well-planned rehearsal is essential to a well-received presentation.
How should the rehearsal run? Just like the show—at least once, and invite a few trusted colleagues to sit in the audience. Tell them to laugh in the right places and nod along. Applaud when the real audience is likely to applaud. This will help your CEO understand the pace of her remarks and how a live audience might affect it. If your CEO has several parts to perform, be sure to rehearse each one—that way her body will begin to remember where to go and when. If she will cue a video, let her cue it in rehearsal. The more closely you can replicate the real thing, the more comfortable she will be when the time comes to perform.
2. The Eyes Have It
Whether your boss is speaking to an audience of 25 or 2,500, the principle is the same: Speak to the audience. And the key is eye contact. This engagement with the audience is the difference between conversing and orating, and the more the audience feels included, the more they’ll listen. Here’s a trick: Tell your CEO to pick out individuals in the audience—a different one for each major point. Coach her to speak directly to these individuals and try to get each one to respond with a nod, a smile, something that acknowledges that the point has been made.
Whether we realize it or not, we do this search for feedback in everyday communication. We use all of our tools—inflection, tempo, volume, gesture—to get a desired response. When your CEO tries this onstage, all of her tools will be more readily available and, in turn, her speech will become instantly more engaging. Even if her eyes meet someone who is not paying attention, a simple attempt to get that person to look up and listen will require a deeper need to communicate. When a full array of your CEO’s speaking tools are employed to reach individuals, she will become much more successful at reaching the entire audience.
And what about the people to whom she isn’t speaking directly? You can help your CEO out by giving her a better eyeline. Position teleprompters at eye level, rather than on the floor. Align the monitors with the camera positions or elevated at the back of the room. That way, when your CEO is reading, she will appear to be looking at the audience. This will at once create better eye contact with the audience as a whole and, frankly, make her look better on the camera shot.
3. Help Her Get a Cue
Speaking of teleprompters, they can be a useful tool for your CEO—and not just for her remarks. You can also use the prompters as a way to communicate with her, reminding her to slow down or pause or lead applause. Simple italicized stage directions noted at appropriate moments in the script can save your boss from floundering on the stage, not knowing when to exit or throw to a video.
Helpful reminders include: Lead applause, Pause, Acknowledge Dave in the audience, Shake Meg’s hand, Exit left, Hold for laughter. You can even use the prompter to reinforce the speech itself: Build to the end, Slow down, Stand still here. You can use rehearsals to hash out what might be most useful to her because, remember, she’s on her own out there and the prompter can be her coach.
4. Motivate the Movement
Do you have yourself a wanderer? A swayer? Or a does your CEO suffer from audience-induced rigor mortis? Movement on stage can be quite useful, but only if it’s motivated. Random pacing, weight shifting and rocking might combat nervousness, but they also kill the speech’s impact—It’s hard to make a point while swaying, and she just might make the audience seasick.
The key is to move with purpose. Again, a trick: Move when making a new point. This works very well when done in tandem with Tip 2, speaking directly to individuals. Here’s where your practice audience comes in handy. If you position your colleagues around the room during your boss’s rehearsal, have her cross the stage to speak to one of them. Then, on the next point (probably a few sentences later), direct it to someone else at the opposite side of the room. Now she’s moving! This technique will help your CEO feel in control and will go a long way to easing his nerves.
5. Watch Your Shot
If you’re using IMAG (image magnification—basically, camera shots on screen), make sure your speaker’s background helps her stand out. Know what color it is. A black suit against an all-black background creates a floating head on camera. Misplaced graphic design can lead to inadvertent horns or halos (which may be a subtle statement, depending on how you feel about your boss!). You can actually lose your speaker in complicated backgrounds. Always test the shot in rehearsal with a stand-in. Find the best angles for each camera and then mark the stage with tape. When your boss arrives for rehearsal, you’ll be all ready to show her off well.
6. Keep It Real
Most of all, help your boss be herself. We’re not all Jimmy Fallon or Meryl Streep. We shouldn’t try to be. The most we should hope for is to be the best version of ourselves up on that stage—engaging, confident, comfortable, and honest. When you feel your CEO start to worry, remind her that she’s an inspirational leader. Remind her that she’s an expert in her field. Remind her that the audience likes her and encourage her to be herself. If she speaks with her hands, let her. If she likes to laugh, go for it! She’s onstage because she is who she is and the audience has come to see her. Help your boss look good while being herself, and you’ll look all the better for it!
Follow these tips and you just might help your CEO develop the stage presence of a pro. Of course, you may not be comfortable coaching your boss through this yourself. If not, consider hiring a professional speaker coach who can employ these tactics. Your boss will thank you for it.
Josh Golden is creative director at PCI, an integrated agency that uses design, digital, video, events, and strategic communications to engage audiences across channels in meaningful ways. Josh spearheads the creative development of major projects for PCI’s corporate, government, and nonprofit clients.