Play the moment

Public Speaking Tip: How To Play The Moment

I’m working with a man who loses his focus mid-presentation and then panics.  I’m working with a woman who speaks so quickly she loses her audience, who can’t keep up.

There is an answer for both these people: play the moment. 

Be in the present.  Arrive at every thought you express spontaneously.  When you do this, your energy is present, your focus is present and your audience is present.

I first came across this technique in Cicely Berry’s wonderful book:  The Actor And His Text. I was working in the theatre, mainly as an actor, but occasionally as director.  I’d been hired to direct Shakespeare’s ‘the Scottish play’ by Edinburgh’s drama school at Queen Margaret College as was, University as is.  [Why is Macbeth called ‘the Scottish play’? – superstition!]

I was working with a great bunch of students who thoroughly enjoyed all the devious ways I thought of to stop them being in awe of the script and to find its dynamic rhythm.  One thing I needed them to do, was to stop trying to speak Shakespeare in the way they thought it should be spoken, and to start finding the underlying emotional truth. 

Why do it?

There are three reasons to try this technique:

  1. To keep your focus
  2. To slow you down if you’re rushing
  3. For you to make sense of what you are saying.

This is my version of Ciecly Berry’s exercise.

The Three Chairs exercise

Put three chairs if you have room, or a couple otherwise, out in a room, at least six feet apart.

Three Chairs
Photo: Maureen Shaughnessy, “Concierge, Seats for Three Please”

When you stand at a chair, speak the first phrase.  When you come to a punctuation mark, put the paper down and walk to the next chair.  Only when you are settled and still, lift the paper and read the next phrase.  It doesn’t matter how long or short the phrase, always finish the phrase, paper down, move to the next chair.  No reading between the chairs and no memorising at all. 

It’s impossible to do this exercise at high speed and it’s impossible if you’re trying to think ahead. Your mind is only engaged with the specific phrase you are speaking. You engage with those words/that thought and no other.  You are focussed on the meaning of one phrase and your energy is concentrated on this alone.  You don’t move on to the next thought until you’ve literally, physically moved on.

The result is that your brain engages exactly with your mouth as you speak.  Your voice reflects the nuances and feelings of the passage.  You are in the same space and time as your listeners – neither in front nor lingering behind – but together.  You are ‘playing the moment’.

What people also realise when doing this exercise, especially when working in a group, is that their listeners enjoy the experience as it gives them time to take in and digest the meaning of what you say. 

Speakers rarely remember that their listeners do not have the benefit of their expert knowledge and therefore need time to make sense of what is being said.


  1. Great blog. I particularly like the phrase “Speakers rarely remember that their listeners do not have the benefit of their expert knowledge and therefore need time to make sense of what is being said.” Sometimes I give up on a talk just because I can’t keep up and I am left with negative feelings about myself as well as the talk. That is not the ‘taste’ that a speaker wants to leave in the mouth. I will try your exercise as I rehearse for my next even. Thanks Dil

  2. THis is one of the exercises I did with you a long time ago Dilly and still do in my head from time to time when pacing is important ( well it’s always important but when I think there might be a bit of racing going on…)
    Excellent – I love it!

Leave a Reply