3 Public Speaking Lessons from Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The annual Festival Fringe in Edinburgh has come to an end and I am taking a moment to reflect on some of the shows I have had the opportunity to attend. This year I’ve watched mainly theatre, cabaret and comedy performances. I’ve enjoyed most of them in their own way and, as usual, I have picked out a few lessons we can take and use to improve our public speaking and presentation skills.

Make the tech operators your best friend

If you are speaking, presenting or performing in a large venue, the sound and lighting operators are the people who will ensure that you are seen and heard. If you are using sound and lighting cues, the tech operators are the ones that can make or break it with regard to the timing you require; you will need to communicate with them effectively so that they understand your requirements. They will also ensure that you can hear yourself through the fold back speakers if required.

Ideally you will have had an opportunity to test the sound and lighting prior to an audience entering the auditorium. If you haven’t for whatever reason and there is a problem affecting your performance, you will need to be able to communicate with them your requirements in a way that won’t necessarily negatively impact on you or the audience. An example of this being done effectively was at a preview performance of a cabaret show. The female singer was singing a fabulous song with the piano accompaniment and it wasn’t until the music break that we realised she couldn’t actually hear the piano. She smoothly spoke to the sound technician to let him know and it felt easy, almost as if it was part of the act. The sound guy quickly plugged in the relevant speaker to resolve the problem but it was her easy going manner and professionalism in communicating with him that enabled her to get back on track and confidently sing the rest of the song, and indeed the rest of the show.

During the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when shows in each venue are scheduled one after another, performers usually have a very limited time to set their stage and speak with the crew beforehand (often just 15 minutes which is shared with the performing company who has just finished their show!) However, in most speaking situations you will have an opportunity to connect with the sound/lighting crew beforehand so make sure you take the opportunity to ensure you are fully prepared and avoid any mishaps.

When you are on stage everything is in the spotlight

One of my bugbears when it comes to stage sets is crooked or un-ironed tablecloths! Your stage is an extension of you. If you are using any props or furniture to support your presentation or you are setting the stage for an event you are speaking at, remember that everything on the stage will be in the spotlight (regardless of whether or not there is an actual spotlight). The audience will be focused on the area you are presenting from and will have lots of time to scrutinise you and your surroundings. Therefore, if you are using fabric to dress the stage or a table, make sure it is clean and ironed (unless you specifically require something tatty!) If you are displaying anything, make sure it is in good condition, sits well in the environment and can be seen from the audience. A tip I use from my theatre days is to sit in various seats before the audience arrives so that you can see the presenting area from their perspective.

With regard to your outfit, it should be clean and pressed with no loose threads hanging (these are emphasised in certain lighting conditions and can be very distracting for people… or is that just me?) Don’t fiddle with your outfit or jam your hands into the pockets – the audience will often focus on your hands so think about where their attention is if your hands are in your trouser pockets! Remember to ensure your shoes are in good repair too; if you’re on a raised stage, your feet could be right at the audience’s eye level. Also make sure that any props you use are appropriate, relevant and that you have rehearsed with them to ensure you can use them to enhance your presentation, not detract from it.

Stick to what you’re good at and end on a high

We saw a brilliant, witty, extremely talented comedian almost ruin the end of his performance by asking the audience for their suggestions so that he could ad lib some jokes during his encore. Sadly, his improvisation was not as good as the rest of the show and he chose to end the show after one improvised joke rather than the few that he promised. This left the audience feeling a bit flat and took the shine of his otherwise excellent performance.

If you know you’re not good at improvising or you’re not particularly funny, don’t try to be! I admit that I am challenged in the ‘make ‘em laugh’ department, although I have recently attended some workshops to help me understand how to incorporate more humour into my talks. I’ve also attended some improvisation workshops to enhance my ability to be spontaneous on stage. However, whilst I believe in stretching myself and taking some risks when public speaking, I would never risk messing about with the beginning or end of my speech. These are the most crucial parts of a presentation so my advice is to prepare them well and show yourself and your material at your best.

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist who prepares ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to take centre stage, embrace the spotlight and present with more confidence, credibility and conviction.

Mel's book 'The Authority Guide to Pitching Your Business - how to make an impact and be remembered... in under a minute!' is available on Amazon. To find out more go to www.melsherwood.com or follow Mel on Twitter @MelSherwood_