The Stool (How Position Affects Power)
People sometimes joke with me saying that they can always tell when I’m going to preach because there is a stool on the platform. Perhaps two stools, maybe even three. Let’s just say that the humble stool has become a bit of a calling card for me.
So why the stool? Do I get so tired after such expressive hand gestures that I need to sit down and recover? Perhaps. But it’s about so much more than that. The stool is a communications tool, one that is well worth understanding and embracing.
Most people would be aware that body language is the most significant factor in effective communication with some studies suggesting that its contribution to a message is up to 85%. Body language includes a number of factors, most particularly eye contact, gestures, mouth expression, and position.
Position is where the stool comes in. Position sends a message to your audience about who has the power, and how much power that person has. Position, while often interpreted subconsciously, involves a number of factors including the environment, props and posture, which all contribute to a statement of power that must be taken into consideration if your public speaking is to be effective as both authoritative and relatable.
Listen for the power dynamics at play as we break down the things worth considering as a communicator:
- Are you on a raised platform? If you are, even a minor one, that physically places you in a position of power over your audience. They are looking up to you, and you are looking down on them (Yes, I chose those words deliberately).
- Are people seated above you? Depending on the setting, you can be on a raised platform and still have people positioned above you if the seating slopes downward. These settings generally decrease the power dynamic and establish a greater equity between communicator and audience.
Point of Interest: theatres are traditionally designed to have the actors well below the audience, because that places the audience in the position of power to critique, which of course, they do.
- Are you using a stool or chair? (It was bound to come up!) When your audience is in a seated position, utilising a stool or chair leverages a phenomenon called mirroring, building immediate rapport and identification by matching your position to theirs. You may use these props for various portions of your message to create emphasis and relatability.
- Are you using a lectern? Notes on a lectern suggest preparation. They can also suggest boredom (just saying!). The power of a lectern to contribute to position depends on the quality of your delivery. If you are nervous and hide behind it, it lowers your position. If you confidently grip the front edge of it, it raises your position: “I got notes but I don’t even need them!”
Think for a moment about classic body positioning extremes; you have on one hand the military. Straight backs, rigid, staring straight ahead, the commander says “at ease”, and the unit strikes a pose that doesn’t look all that “at ease” to me. On the other hand you have the guy slumped on the couch, watching TV and eating Doritos. Communicators find a middle ground:
- Are you sitting or standing? Posture and props are intrinsically connected, as mentioned above, sitting provides rapport, and standing gives you greater power for emphasis. Don’t give your audience whiplash by standing up and pointing then moving to a stool and slumping your shoulders.
- Are you leaning forward or backward? You can find out how that affects your ability to communicate here.
- Are you lying down…and eating Doritos? Your audience has left.
Environment, props and posture, in total, will all shift your position, and therefore your power and authority to communicate. Remember, your role is to convey information, so people actually want you to have authority in their eyes, but they also want to be able to relate to you, to know that you are “like them”. This is why power dynamics are most important to consider.
If you don’t have authority they won’t listen, if you don’t have relatability they won’t believe what you share is meaningful to them. The best communicators navigate and leverage this balance but simple awareness is the best place to start.