Block Your Talk

 In previous blog posts, I've addressed the Speaker's Triangle and three common mistakes by speakers using slides. This month, I want to offer another installment on using the space you're given for a presentation. What if you're stuck behind a long table or massive podium? What are best practices for speaking on a stage? And what should you do if there's simply no room to maneuver? 

 The Elegant Hack offers some helpful answers using theater terms such as "blocking."  Read on to learn how you can use space more effectively during your next presentation.

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Block Your Talk

You’ve written a great talk, you’ve made your deck (or not!) and you’ve practiced. But have you considered how you’ll move while speaking?

First, you have to know what you are walking into. You’ll perform in a space that consists of a stage, a room with four walls, a floor full of seats, and a ceiling. All of these elements affect your performance. It is critical to check out the space before you give a talk, preferably 24 hours before.

The stage may be raised or low. Sometimes it’s just an empty bit of floor in front of the chairs for the audience.

It may have nothing but a stand for your laptop or full of tables and chairs.

My talk at GDC was set up for panels, and although I spoke alone, I was trapped behind a long set of tables with a podium in the middle of them (Like Stone Librande in the photo below).

I had checked out the space the day before, I was prepared to be stuck there. I knew I could move to the right of the podium, unblocking more of my body and reducing the distance to my audience, and I had found the blind spots where the audience couldn’t see me.

If you are being videotaped, you also need to find out how much you can move and stay in the camera’s view. I put tape down at the UX Lausanne talk so I knew what the edges of the stage were.


From “Director’s Homework” Ian Barry’s script copy with blocking and shot notes. Source: Elegant Hack

From “Director’s Homework” Ian Barry’s script copy with blocking and shot notes. Source: Elegant Hack

Blocking is a theater term. It refers to a plan for how an actor will move during the script. It’s particularly critical for ensemble scenes, but a theater director will make sure every actor knew exactly where they stand and how they’ll move for the entire script. It’s also used in filming movies and tv shows, as shown below.

Sketch of a speaker leaning on his podium. He looks comfortable, at least.

New presenters often cling to the podium, as if letting go would mean floating off into space.

Intermediate speakers pace. Perhaps they have heard they should get out from behind the podium and are trying to move normally. But let’s be honest, not much is normal about being on stage. With tons of nervous energy and no plans for what to do with it, speakers end up pacing like a caged jaguar. This, understandably, can make the audience anxious.

Experienced presenters walk around purposely, not continuously.

Consider your movement as part of the presentation. If you have three points, pick three places on stage you’ll give each point, and use your transition to a new spot as a subtle message to the audience you are transitioning to a new idea.

You don’t want to be a crazy person, pacing from one end of the stage to the other. Your movements should be purposeful and thought out.  I’ve seen some great talks where areas of the stage represent logic and emotion, and the center is the set up for the talk, the balance.  Or you can just walk the simple triangle I’ve demarcated above, in order to reach out to different parts of the audience. You don’t have to overthink it, just move occasionally and with purpose.

When you arrive at your point, plant yourself.


When I say plant, it means stand in a way that keeps you still, without shifting your weight, rocking or leaping into another round of pacing.

Play with both. You may find just moving a foot slightly behind you, and turning it makes you much more stable.

I recently taught a course that had a unit on presenting. One of my students planted more comfortably and firmly than anyone I’ve seen. It turns out she had studied ballet, and had a variation of third position she used unconsciously. I’ve adopted this now for my planting. Left foot forward pointing where you are looking, right foot behind it at a slight angle. It’s a stable way to stand and it prohibits rocking as well as pacing, yet allows you to move forward easily when you are ready to make a point.

My previous way to plant was from yoga, and it’s still a go to. It’s called mountain pose. Stand with both feet directly under your hips. If you are rocking or swaying, your feet may be too close or far apart.

Next, sit in. This is a tai chi term for allowing your hips and legs to hold your weight in a stable pose. Often people (especially women) tend to sway back with hips tilted forward pushing the stomach and butt out. This makes you look fat. But if that’s not enough to dissuade you, I can warn you it’s also unsteady.

Tuck hips in and lift up your breast bone straightening your spine. Roll your shoulders back. You can imagine a string at the top of your head pulling you up. Practice this every morning (preferably followed by ten minutes of sun salutations) until you can slide into it naturally.

It’s important to practice standing so you are comfortable. Everyone asks, what should I do with my hands?

Let them fall loosely to your sides, then raise them when you have an appropriate gesture to emphasize a point. Practicing Mountain Pose will make letting your hands just be much easier.

You can see a perfect Mountain Pose plant in this TED talk by John McWhorter. In fact, he plants so completely, he’s almost eerily still.

When rehearsing, if you find yourself pacing, try mountain pose, then move into the modified. See what stabilizes you.

As a side benefit, if you take up yoga/tai chi, it will reduce back issues and curled shoulders brought on by our computer centered lifestyle. A bit of yoga is good for your body as well as your stage poise.