In the world of theater, there’s something called “the fourth wall.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s the imaginary wall that exists between the audience and the actors. It’s meant to help actors develop more believable acting skills and to forget the presence of an audience. The audience can see through the fourth wall, but the actors are meant to interact and move as if a real wall were in place.

However, we continue to see the disappearance of the fourth wall in forms of entertainment and education. From the classroom, to the movie screen, to the stage of theater and presentations, the barrier between audience and actor is changing. put together a list of 14 films that famously break the fourth wall. And popular shows like NBC’s The Office have done this with great comedic effect. With these shifts, it’s no wonder we are seeing changes in the way that speakers interact with their audiences, as well.

Author and CEO of Executive Speaking, Inc., Anett Grant, says, “We’re watching a different yet related shift in business speaking today, away from declaimed podium speeches towards a looser, more dynamic style.” This leads us to wonder,

Does the fourth wall belong in public speaking?

To put it simply, no.

While public speaking and presenting have similarities with some elements of the entertainment industry, we can’t treat a speech like a play. Actors in a play do their best to stick to a script and keep each performance the same as the last one. But speakers and speeches should be attuned and reactive to the audience members who make up the other half of the communication setting of a presentation. They shouldn’t pretend an audience doesn’t exist.

Here are some clues that you might be presenting with a fourth wall:

  • Little to No Eye Contact. If you aren’t regularly making eye contact with audience members, they will start to feel invisible. Research shows that the amount of eye that occurs in communication directly affects how engaged and involved listeners feel. The more, the better. So make eye contact with every member of the audience as often as possible.
  • Robotic Body Language. Humans are usually creatures of great variety when we converse with others. We use many facial expressions, change the tone and pitch of our voices, and talk with our hands. So why should all of that disappear when we stand up to give a presentation? As CEO, speaker, and author Jess Ekstrom says, “More than ever, audiences are craving authenticity and realness in their speakers.” If you are speaking with less warmth and motion than you do in a typical, comfortable conversation, you might have let that fourth wall creep up.
  • Sticking to a Strict Script. If your presentation feels more like a rehearsed reading than a conversation, something needs to change. It’s not bad to use a script or prepare like an actor might. But if the audience feels like you are reading to them or simply presenting an unchangeable script, they will begin to feel invisible again. And then they feel like their presence doesn’t matter. Like an actor who doesn’t pause long enough to give the audience time to laugh, audience members will stop interacting or giving feedback altogether.

Make every effort to present without a fourth wall. Do all that you can to tear down that fourth wall and to let the audience know their presence and their interaction matters.

Ethos3 understands the world of public speaking can be a tricky balance between performance and vulnerability. We’d love to help you find that balance.


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