Unspoken stage rules every speaker should know

Updated: Oct 31, 2018

Sometimes, as speakers, we’re forced to stand at a lectern to present. Maybe it’s because we’re tied down to a stationary microphone. Possibly it’s because we need our notes for the speech. If that’s the case, then so be it. But if we can use the stage, then we should.

It’s a silent partner that enhances the delivery of our material.

Dividing the speaking area

First of all, let’s see what the different parts of the stage are called.


This is the back of the stage furthest away from the audience. Interestingly, the origin of upstage comes from opera productions where the rear of the stage was usually elevated. It means the upstage actor, delivering their lines, would force the rest of the performers to focus on them, meaning their backs are to the audience.

This is also the origin of the term ‘to upstage’ someone.


Obviously this is the section of the stage closest to the audience.

Stage left and stage right

These are from the speaker’s perspective i.e. as they face the audience. Audience left and right are from the audience’s perspective.

Down centre and up centre

Respectively, these are in the middle, closer to the audience, and further away from the audience.

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A three dimensional space

We often forget that stages are three dimensional.

Now you might be thinking, ‘Hey, what about Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream‘ speech?’

The great Dr King had to stand at a microphone. No doubt, if he could have gotten rid of it, and the lectern, he may very well have used the whole stage. (Mind you, it’s such a magnificent speech that he probably could have delivered it sitting down, and we’d still be talking about it!)

If you can use the whole stage, you can divide the stage into areas. For example, if you're speaking about past, present and future events, you can divvy the stage into these three areas:

  • the past is audience left

  • the present is the middle

  • the future is audience right

Why? Because, in English speaking countries, we read from left to right. We expect the end of something – its conclusion – to be to the right.

If we were talking about our childhood, we would start at stage right, our present life would be in the centre, and our future goals and ambitions would be stage left.

Upstage and downstage

Downstage can be perceived as dominant. This is closer to the audience. The rear of stage is passive. As a speaker, you appear physically smaller to the audience.

Therefore, if we’re talking about winning, we might position ourselves at the front of the stage. If we’re talking about a setback, we can move to the rear of the stage.

Imagine this scenario – and the power it contains:

Upstage centre – ‘I had hit rock bottom. I was exhausted. I had lost everything. I could not go on.’

Moving to downstage centre – ‘But then I met the person who changed my life: the woman who was to become my wife. It was through her that I found the strength to go on.’

A power position

We can also further designate the stage so there’s a dominant power position. When we say something of importance, we go to that spot. It will most likely be downstage. We want to be in the audience’s faces when we’re making that kind of powerful statement.

Unconsciously, the audience becomes conditioned to know that important things are said at that spot. When you go to that spot, they unconsciously know, ‘She/he means business.’

Call back

And what about those times when we refer back to an earlier moment of our speech? Let’s just say you’ve mentioned an incident in your childhood. It might be a kid who used to bully you as a child. You can have a physical ‘call back’ in your speech by saying something like, ‘I knew this man was John. Now grown up with kids of his own, he was the one who used to torment me so long ago.’

As we deliver those lines ‘so long ago’ we make a small gesture with our arm to that part of the stage where we told that story.


Am I saying that we should plan every step we take and every movement we make?


We need to appear sincere and spontaneous in our delivery. Don’t march around the stage like a wooden puppet from one spot to another! You will look staged and unconvincing!

What I’m saying here is to keep your use of stage in mind when you’re planning your presentation. Using the stage in this way can be powerful when done well. Be smooth and fluid in your motions.

What I am saying is don’t march around the stage without any thought about where you are, and what you’re saying. Use the stage as an extension of yourself. Use it to support your message. Use it to your advantage.

If you do it well, you can completely transform your presentation, and yourself as a speaker.

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