So you’re going to be standing, sweaty-palmed, in front of a microphone, to perform in front of a bunch of people who will all be staring at you? Go ahead – be nervous. You have ten seconds.
Now, let’s look at the situation. Your “performance” is probably musical, or you are giving a business presentation. They are more alike than you may think. First off, you will be on a stage, or at least in the front of a room full of people who are there to listen to you. Why? Because you have something to say, and presumably, you think it is interesting or exciting enough that they will want to hear it. Fair enough assessment? Secondly, the audience WANTS to like you, and WANTS to be entertained, informed, amused, and motivated. There is no need to fear the audience. Simply give them what they want, and leave them wanting more.
For this to happen, there are several things that must be in place. First – sound and lights. The audience has to easily see and hear you. Both of those are in place solely for the benefit of the audience.
When you look into the crowd, you may not be able to see anyone past the first few rows of seats because the stage lights are in your eyes. That’s normal, The lights are there so the audience can see you – NOT so you can see the audience. The lighting should make you much brighter than the audience. That helps focus their attention on you, as well as reduce distractions. Look at the first few rows of people, and look at a point in space toward the back of the hall where you know people are sitting, but not directly toward the light. To the audience members, it will appear as if you are “scanning the audience.” They will have no idea that you can not actually see them. The person running lights does that for a living. He has a better perspective of how you look from the audience viewpoint. Trust him. If there is to be a Q&A session, or general audience participation, ask that the house lights be brought up. If you have fixed stage lights – stand where they are aimed! This would seem to be common sense, but it is surprising how many people want to wander off to the darkest corner of the stage and stand (hide?). The general rule is: if you are not lit up much more than the audience, then they can NOT see you. Make it easy for the audience: stand where the lights are aimed.
The crowd also has to hear you easily. Sound is a bit more complex than lighting. There are more techniques that can be used by you and the sound engineer to add emphasis, drama, and excitement. There are also more things that can go wrong. Listen to your sound engineer. He wants you to succeed. SPEAK INTO THE MICROPHONE! One of the most common mistakes is for people to stand 2 feet from the mic, constantly turn their head, and mumble. When you mumble (or speak softly), it reminds everyone in the audience of the time they got sent to the principal’s office, and in response to a question, could only look at the floor, shuffle their feet, and halfway mumble some excuse. The audience wonders what horrible thing you’ve done to deserve this punishment! Look your audience in the eye, speak into the mic (1-3″ away is a good starting point), and speak up! Again, your sound engineer is hearing you from the audience perspective, and he can much better judge how loud or soft you need to be, and he will adjust accordingly. A few words with him before you take the stage will let him know you are a professional who wants to succeed, and will give you both a chance to understand expectations.
There are other things that affect sound quality, and many of these things can be minimized before the show by whoever makes equipment selection decisions, and during the show by you and your sound engineer.
One of the first decisions the person who books the equipment is going to make is what kind of mic they are going to get for you. One of the more popular microphones for presenters is the “lav” (lavalier or “lapel” mic). This is a small mic that clips on to your lapel or shirt front. They are very common, and under the absolute best of conditions are barely acceptable. I hate them. Their biggest two selling points are they or so unobtrusive that they do not distract visually (which from a sound guy perspective, is an irritating reason to select audio gear!), and secondly, they are convenient for the presenter. But remember – the purpose of the event is to provide the audience with the best possible event. Not necessarily to be as convenient as possible for you.
The other popular style is the handheld mic. This is simply a microphone which you hold in your hand. It takes a slight effort to remember to hold it at the proper distance, but it also allows you to vary mic placement and distance for emphasis or dramatic affect, something which can not be done with a lav mic.
You may or may not be able to influence this decision. Either way, express your concerns to your sound engineer, and he can give you some hints and tips that will go a long way toward making the show a success.
Arrive some time before the doors are scheduled to open. This will give you time to meet your sound and lighting people and ask questions or express concerns so that they may be addressed. Ask to see the lighting that will be used during the show. Use this as a “dress rehearsal” to make sure you can read any notes you may have, and so you are sure you can find your way on and off stage with that lighting. If you have any concerns, VOICE THEM. Are you sure you can see the steps you will have to use to get off stage? Are there any cables running in a place you will have to cross? Ask to have them marked with high visibility tape! Think safety first. Nobody will think any worse of you. There is little glory to be had by falling off a stage.
While you’re up there, ask to check the microphone. The sound crew will have done this previously, but this will give them the opportunity to get to know what to expect from your voice and speaking style, and for you to hear what it will sound like from the stage. The sound people will be familiar with their equipment and are there to help you. Ask if they have any pointers or suggestions to help you succeed.
If you have any sound or light cues to go over with the crew, now is the time. Just remember – keep it simple! You have spent weeks writing or reviewing your script. You have spent countless hours in front of a mirror rehearsing, as well as in front of your friends and family. You know what your speaking cadence will be, where you want to pause for dramatic affect, and exactly what comes next. Your sound and light crews have no such luxury. If you do a full dress rehearsal, they will have heard it exactly once. If you can provide an annotated script beforehand, it will help immensely, but the fewer details of your presentation that they have to remember in the heat of the moment, the better. They have a lot to do, and may get distracted by some other aspect of the show.
Remember – get up there and have fun! Spread some excitement and enthusiasm. If your audience sees that you are “getting into it,” they will too!!