Commanding a Small Space

by David Brooks

1990 World Champion of Public Speaking
Austin, Texas

One of the best things about consulting with other World Champions is that we don’t always agree. When that happens, do we argue who’s right? No, we merely acknowledge that the better question is “What’s right for you?”

Take the matter of how to use the stage: my approach is the direct opposite to that of some of my colleagues. For example, I love to do live presentations with Darren LaCroix, because his presentation style is 180 degrees from mine. When we speak on the same platform I always explain that the two of us represent the yin and yang of speaking styles. His delivery style depends on movement and staging; I take a much more minimalist approach.

When Darren presents, he’s all over the stage. In contrast, I’m relatively still. My movement rarely exceeds a distance of six feet right to left. Darren believes that every position you occupy on a stage should be for a specific reason. I believe every time you move from center stage it should be for a specific reason.

Darren’s style works for Darren, and though I could do what he does, I don’t, because it’s not my style. Likewise, Darren could be more restrained—more like my style—but he doesn’t because it’s not his style. Your style should match your personality.

That’s the choice you have to make: which style is right for you and for your message.

A lot of speakers make this mistake. They see speakers like Darren using every square inch of the platform and they assume they need to do the same. But unless you have a specific reason to go far to the right and far to the left, I contend you’re usually better off in the power position, anchored center stage.

Here’s a way to tell if your movement has a purpose. Videotape yourself. Then watch the tape with the sound off. This will force you to see your movements in isolation. As you watch the background move, ask yourself: “Is there a specific reason why I moved to this spot in my speech?” If you can’t tell—with the sound off—why you are there, it probably was an unnecessary move.

I made this mistake when I was first starting as a speaker. I saw other speakers move, so I assumed “movement must be good.” As a result, I made an effort to traverse the stage, far right to far left, several times in a seven-minute speech. But when I watched a videotape of my speech with the sound turned off, I realized that I was pacing back and forth like a caged tiger.

So to break myself of this distracting habit, I turned to my old friend…duct tape. Yes, that big ol’ roll of three-inch wide duct tape. With it, I taped off a box on the floor three feet deep by six feet wide. I used duct tape because it was silver and reflective. That made it visible in my peripheral vision. I didn’t have to look down to see the box. I could see the boundary while still looking at the audience.

I used this box every time I practiced, because I knew if I practiced in a three-foot by six-foot space, I would not pace.

You may think such a small box is restrictive or confining. Yes, it is, and that’s exactly the point. By forcing myself to command a small space, I had to work harder on my message and my use of voice. Over time, I became the most comfortable with the least movement, because I learned to command the audience’s attention more with message than with motion.

If you have acquired and viewed Magic Moments 1 & 2, (and I can’t imagine why you have not…) then you have seen several superb examples of speakers commanding a small space.

Actually, you may have seen some great examples in Magic Moments 1 & 2, but didn’t realize it because I did not specifically call attention to this skill when analyzing the clips. So if you have my Magic Moments, go back to it and you may discover how you can command a small space in the following speakers’ clips:

From Magic Moments 1: watch Mark Haugh, Italo Magni, Peter Hempenstall, Hans Lillejord, Sandra Ziegler, Brad Ballinger, Rick Brunton, Evelyn Peyton, V.J. Smith, and Jeremiah Bacon. All of these speakers use minimal movement (watch them with the sound off to confirm) yet all of them command your attention. Is their command a result of staging? No, it’s through constrained movement, colorful language, and a powerful message.

Especially notice how Brad Ballinger brings a basketball scene to life. Less disciplined speakers would run about as if actually playing the game. But watch Brad’s clip and tell me: did you feel the emotion—could you visualize the scene—did your pulse quicken as his character stepped to the free throw line—could you “see” the ball in flight—did you hold your breath as the ball descended? For most people, the answer to all those questions is absolutely yes. Now, ask yourself: how much did Brad move? Watch it again with the sound off, and you will see the embodiment of the concept “commanding a small space.”

In Magic Moments 2, I encourage you to concentrate on Kelly Standing, J.A. Gamache, Craig Weathers, Jim Key, Lisa Albers, and Ed Tate. Especially concentrate on Craig Weathers, Jim Key’s 2002 clip, and Ed Tate. With Craig Weathers, he moves a lot, but watch it with the sound off and you will see just how small of a space he commands. He’s very physically expressive, but he doesn’t travel more than six feet left to right. Similarly, watch how Jim Key and Ed Tate are in complete control of your attention, yet they are unusually still. Any extra movement or staging would not have enhanced those powerful moments. Quite the contrary—in Jim’s 2002 clip and Ed’s clip, any additional movement would have taken away from the moment.

One final thought: through the speeches that I’ve critiqued, I’ve noticed a recent development. It used to be that people would send a transcription of a speech—just text. But in the last few years, it’s become common for speakers to submit text with staging notes. Certainly, if you have a particular gesture or movement that cries out for explanation, then by all means, put it in your script. But if it’s simply a matter of movement because you think it’s expected—ask yourself: “Is this movement really necessary?”

By challenging your staging, you may just find that you end up putting more emphasis on your voice, your manner, and your message.

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Author’s credit:
David Brooks, DTM, won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in 1990. Since that time he has coached and/or mentored six subsequent World Champions and dozens of finalists. You may contact him at

Author’s note:
If you want to learn more about becoming a better speaker, visit David’s website. Under the Resources tab you will find many free resources for writers and speakers. And, when you are there, sign up for David’s free blog-azine so that you can receive nuggets of knowledge from him on a regular basis.