January 6, 2012

Stand or sit, and why does it matter?



When we think of public speaking, the traditional image that comes to mind is a person standing in the front of a room full of people. However, there are a variety of formats for what can be considered public speaking, such as leading a meeting, making a sales call, participating in a panel or round table discussion, or speaking to individuals at a networking event.

A common denominator at most speaking engagements is that the speaker or speakers tend to stand in front of the group. But sometimes speakers are seated. How do you know if you should sit or stand? And what other considerations are there if you choose to sit?

There are occasions when people sit to give presentations. At conference tables, on panels, and in other small venues, it can be considered awkward to stand when speaking. Here are some tips to help you decide what's appropriate.

1. What is customary for the particular group?

If it's your regular staff meeting, and typically no one stands when speaking, and everyone can be seen and heard clearly around the table, then it's okay to stay seated. If you have something important to share and you want to give your announcement extra weight, then by all means stand.

If you are a guest speaker, however, and are giving a formal presentation to a group sitting at a conference table, you should stand. It gives you authority, it helps the audience pay better attention, and your eye contact and body language are more accessible to the group.

2. Are you on a raised stage, or are you at eye level with the audience?

On a panel where several people are seated in chairs, sometimes behind a table and sometimes not, it's also customary to stay seated. This is usually because panelists alternate answering questions and presenting information, and to have people stand, then sit, then stand, then sit, is awkward.

However, if the panel is not on a stage, and you're seated at eye level with the audience, and there are more than 20 or 30 people in the room, then you should stand. You won't be effective as a speaker if the audience can't see or hear you, or if they have to crane their necks to look over or around people seated in front of them. Facial expressions and body language are such an important part of communication; your audience shouldn't miss this aspect of your presentation.

3. How intimate is the group size?

Sometimes you choose to sit because it brings you physically and emotionally closer to the group. For example, on a sales call you may prefer to sit at a table and converse with your client rather than stand and put distance between you. If the group is small and the seating is in a circle or U shape, you can probably stay seated, as this arrangement is meant to put everyone at ease and on the same level. In this case, your role may be more of a facilitator than a formal presenter.

In all of these situations, if you are coming in from the outside to speak, you should always check with the organizer of the event to find out what they prefer, and discuss any changes you want to make to the seating arrangement.

Additional considerations for seated presentations

If you are going to be seated, and you are a woman who wears skirts, you must be aware of where you will sit in relation to the audience and you must pay attention to the length of your skirt. You don't want to show too much leg, or your undergarments. I have some tights with a layer of extra reinforcement from the waist to about the mid thigh. If I sit down in a too-short skirt, that darker layer peeks out from under my skirt and I have to spend all my time focusing on my skirt rather than the people I'm speaking to. (Thank goodness this has not happened in a presentation, only in a social setting.)

For men and women who wear pants to a presentation, the audience can see your socks or hosiery when you sit on a raised stage, so make sure they match and aren't ratty or inappropriate with your outfit.

Also, when we sit, sometimes our tummies bulge over our waistbands a bit. If you are uncomfortable with this, or your buttons will be strained against your belly, be conscious of wearing anything tight or clingy. See my blog post on Wanda Sykes for an example.

When you dress for your engagement, practice sitting, standing and bending in your outfit. If any of these positions are uncomfortable or precarious, change the offending piece of clothing. There are so many more important things to be thinking about during a presentation than whether your slip is showing or if everyone can tell it's laundry day because of the gym socks under your suit trousers.

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