From small stage to BIG stage

Techniques for shaping your delivery to command the large house

May 17, 2024

by Corey Hansen
Attending a concert when I was twenty was a huge deal. Northern Iowa didn’t have many venues that attracted talent, but nearby Minneapolis did. On the University of Minnesota campus, a thousand-seat concert hall was suitable for jazz vocal legend Al Jarreau. I’d listened to his recordings so much that my needle drops were visible on the one Jarreau vinyl I had, and with a friend we saved money and got a seat in the last row of the balcony to hear this amazing vocalist in person.
What happened at that concert changed my perspective on how a performer connects with everyone in the audience. Or appears to.

I swear Jarreau was singing just to me in row Z, furthest from the stage. He seemed larger than life, easy, energized and in the groove with me. I imagine the other thousand in the packed house had a similar experience.

How did he do it? It would be easier to understand his connection with spectators in a small to mid-sized venue, like one might experience in the clubs of Chicago, where amazing artists provide exhilarating intimacy and everyone shares the vibe, up close and personal.

I’m mindful of business presenters who reach an opportunity to come out of the smaller briefing room and address an audience of a hundred or more in a much larger space. For some it’s a no-brainer, they just do it, but for many the real energy of hundreds looking and listening, counting on the presenter to take them somewhere of significance is daunting, overwhelming, and perhaps debilitating.

To handle that vibrant audience energy coming at him, what I think Jarreau was doing is first based in his belief that what he had to share was valuable. He was confident in his preparation with band members and the technical professionals that facilitated his performance moving way past the footlights. He had his content down.

Jarreau was then free to deliver his musical message and improvise with his audience. Dissecting what he was actually doing in his delivery, some points might include:
  • He was mindful of the person furthest from him. Reach them and you’ve covered the entire audience with your energy.
  • Jarreau seemed to look right at me, right in my eyes. He was singing to individuals without generally sweeping the audience with his gaze. And he spent time really looking in eyes, which probably made the ten or twenty people around that person feel like he was looking at them too.
  • He kept his feet still and planted, grounded, no wandering. Yes, he’d move, but only when he had a destination, stepping “closer” to an audience member after connecting with their eyes, no matter where they were seated.
  • His gesture expanded to fill the stage. Arms extending wide open as far as he could reach. Walking all the way across the stage at times, again, to reach an audience member he hadn’t visited for a while. His moves had a destination.
Presenters’ objectives probably remain the same regardless of venue size. What changes on the large stage is the perceived demand on the presenter to engage with every audience member and the increased, real energy that represents. Applying techniques like those demonstrated by Al Jarreau can help harness that incoming energy and reshape it into a heightened experience for the larger audience, each and every member.