Setting up a stage for speakers and presenters may seem like an uncomplicated matter compared to creating an elaborate performance platform. But the success of a presentation—and of the people delivering their messages—depends on nuanced (and sometimes overlooked) details like size, lighting, and accessibility, as well as the right selection of microphones and lecterns. Industry experts offer their tips for producing stage setups that are operational, effectual, and impactful at meetings and conferences.
Choose the correct height.
Consider attendees’ sight lines and comfort when raising the stage. “For any presentation, I always like to be at least 12 inches high off the ground so that audience members have a good line of sight,” says Jon Retsky, co-owner and lead designer of San Francisco-based event design and production company Got Light. “For larger galas, big stages, bands, big fund-raising events, or fashion shows, we typically go as high as three to four feet off the ground to help elevate the speakers and presentations and give a good line of sight for all guests.”
Use appropriate lighting.
Lighting should be properly situated for all of the individuals who will be standing on the stage at various heights. “This requires research from the event team on who will be on the stage, and working with the lighting designer,” says Todd Hawkins, C.E.O. and founder of Los Angeles production company the Todd Group.
Though it may seem surprising, Retsky says stage lighting is often the most-forgotten element, especially during summer months when organizers assume daylight will be adequate. “Once that sun goes down, your presentation will be in the pitch black,” he says. “Adding a stage wash for basic visibility will make your presentation pop with light, both before and after the sun goes down.”
Make sure audio is loud and clear.
In addition to lighting, quality sound also contributes to the effective communication of target messages and to an overall positive audience experience. “The core of staging design begins with audio,” says Corporate Magic senior creative director Stephen Dahlem. “It may sound simple, but you can add all the … bells and whistles … to a presentation, but first and foremost the audience has to hear. If an audience cannot hear, they will not care. The correct style and amount of audio is key to delivering the fundamental message of any successful event.”
Select microphones based on speakers.
Some speakers may feel more comfortable speaking with a hands-free lavalier microphone, while others may prefer the comfort of a handheld microphone they can raise or lower to their preference. “We try to have both lavalier and handheld microphones available so we have options,” says Stacy Seligman Kravitz, the director of events and stewardship for the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
Beyond that, she advises having speakers arrive early, when possible, to build comfort with their mics and other details of the setup.
Pick the right lectern.
A lectern may seem like the most basic and ordinary of staging needs for presentations, but selecting the right one is actually a critical task.
“If it’s an acrylic [lectern], ensure it is spotless and clear of scratches. Particularly as the light hits it, any and all imperfections will show,” Hawkins says. “If it’s a custom-built lectern, ensure it’s built correctly to aid and support your presenters.” Additionally, he says, organizers should make sure there is enough space for speaker notes and relevant reference materials to minimize unsightly clutter.
Beyond that, it’s also wise to have a lectern on site, even for those who think they’re unlikely to use it. “[It] can help calm a presenter’s nerves,” Retsky says. “It gives presenters a prop to lean on, to read from, and [to make them] feel more comfortable.”
Keep it simple.
Elaborate stage decor or sets may pose a distraction for speakers, as well as audience members—those watching live or those watching virtually or at a later time.
Hawkins says: “Simple is more. We can go overboard with flashy sets, but in my experience the best staging is when I keep a very simple layout and design, as the more complicated sets don’t always translate well in photos or on camera.”
That being said, decor could serve a strategic purpose when necessary. “One need that was specific to one of our esteemed trustees was that she did not want her legs showing through the Lucite lectern,” Kravitz says. “Because I shared photos of it in advance, she was able to share her concern, and we addressed it with a selection of greenery on stage that is not always part of our staging plans.”
Allow easy access.
A stage with insufficient or complicated access can pose a threat to a successful event. “Are there performers who need a special way onto stage or have props that require to be rolled on or can come up steps? Additionally, when I’m producing charity events, there are often surprises where folks come to the stage who might have not originally been written into the script—so it’s important to have a fully accessible stage,” Hawkins says.
Remember: Size matters.
Retsky says the number of speakers will likely dictate the appropriate stage size. “If you only have one speaker at a time, a massive stage will dwarf the speaker and minimize the impact of the speaker or presentation,” he says. “Are there panelists? If so, you’ll want a larger stage and want to think about where to place the lectern, if any, so that the speaker can communicate seamlessly and with the panelists.”