360 Live Media
360 Live Media is an event strategy and digital marketing agency in Washington, D.C. serving association, professional society, and not-for-profit conferences.
Otter Talk and Google

Get the Speaker Off the Stage

Back in May, my sister and I had the chance to see one of our favorite bands, Bear’s Den, at a small venue in Chicago. The venue was the kind where there wasn’t a bad seat in the house—standing room only on the floor in front of the stage, and a narrow balcony above. We had balcony seats. It was our first time seeing them live and the show was great, but there was one moment that was truly magical. Three of the band members came down off the stage and stood in the center of the crowd on the floor with acoustic guitars. They sang without mics, surrounded by fans. It was so powerful and emotional. Instead of performing on the stage here was the artist, fully accessible, and it made the crowd part of the moment for this beautiful song.


At our last Event Innovators Exchange the idea came up of getting the speaker off of the stage to create a different feeling at an event. The conversation came from Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering, where she talks about an experimental courtroom in Brooklyn that is set up so the judge’s bench is eye level with the defendant, instead of towering above them. This emotional cue is very powerful in showing that the judge is there to help, not to be some inaccessible body of knowledge on high. We talked about how powerful that could be with a speaker. Not a sage on the stage but someone who is there to have conversation, and how we could change the script for the room by changing the format of the keynote.


Here are five ideas for how to accomplish this:


1) Kristen Keenan from NAMA just shared a cool idea for a panel session. Instead of having all of the panelists on the stage, she distributed them throughout the audience. They were on platforms with high chairs and had their conversation across the room. It’s a really smart and easy way to create a different feeling in the room.


2) Another way to get the speaker off the stage is to try a theater in the round setup. Ideally there would be no stage, and the audience instead is on platforms in a stadium seating setup. It creates a very different vibe when the speaker isn’t positioned above you, but you are surrounding them, much like my concert experience.


3) It could be really fun to try a walk and talk type of session. Instead of being stationary in a general session room, what if you were walking down the street or in a park and the speaker was talking over headphones? You could try this in small groups, or for something really different, record the speaker ahead of time and encourage people to listen to the session while they are walking on their own or in small groups.


4) Imagine getting a bus tour while listening to the general session. You could have a speaker talk to 55 people at a time or broadcast it to several busses at once. Or you could have a live speaker in each bus, so that everyone gets some part of the live and some part of the broadcast session. This could be a really interesting option if you have offsite tours as part of your event, or if you want to take people to a venue that is a distance away.


5) What if there was no speaker at all? What if the general session was just audience conversation using a Q&A type app or a Twitter chat? After all, our events are full of experts that we bring together. Could we create a space to highlight and share ideas in an engaging way? And giving it the space of a keynote session has a psychological effect as well—it says that you as the attendee are valued as an expert and your opinions are important to share.


If you have other ideas to share please add them in the comments box below or contact me at beth@360livemedia.com. And also contact me if you’d like to join us at our next Event Innovators Exchange, which will be on Wednesday, December 4th from 4pm–6pm.


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  • Beth Surmont
    November 14, 2019

    Thanks Mariah – these are great ideas to add!

  • Mariah Burton Nelson
    November 14, 2019

    Hi Beth, Great point! Love the title and the examples in this post. I’ve seen many speakers step off the stage the way you describe the band doing, and you’re right – it has an almost magical effect on the audience. Even those who can no longer see the person clearly appreciate that they’re there among the audience members – part of “us.” It also adds tension: What will happen next? How will they interact with audience members? Will they ask questions, joke around, demonstrate something, or what?

    Related ideas: Get the speaker out from behind the lectern. This removes a huge physical barrier (and security blanket for the speaker), and brings the speaker closer to the audience, as they stand “nakedly” before them.

    And get audience members up onto the stage. This immediately gets the attention of the audience, who are curious what will happen when “one of us” is asked to do something spontaneous. Offers a great chance for humor, interpersonal connection, and memorable moments for everyone.

    Love your writing. Keep up the good work.