Transforming presentations into performances for Penguin Random House
Theatreworks prepares speakers for large annual conference with on-stage session at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre
Every year Penguin Random House hosts a company conference, bringing its UK-based publishing houses together for a celebration of their books, authors and teams. This year’s event, Penguin Random House Presents, was held at the Barbican on the 8 and 9 March. A number of speakers from across the company with varying levels of experience were called upon to deliver a short presentation to an audience of 1,000 of their colleagues.
In preparation for the event, Penguin Random House teamed up with its long-term training partner, Theatreworks, to support the speakers, providing a specialised ‘Personal Impact’ course aimed at honing the required skills for performing in front of large audiences. The session was open to any conference speakers interested in boosting their confidence, building their presentation skills and, ultimately, delivering impactful and engaging performances. Six of the presenters took part in the full-day session, spending their morning in a National Theatre rehearsal room and the afternoon mic’ed up and under the stage lights of the Dorfman Theatre.
‘Speaking in front of a large audience can be daunting, even for experienced presenters. We wanted to offer our team members the chance to develop their skills in advance of the conference,’ said Nicola Halsall, learning and development manager at Penguin Random House. ‘Theatreworks provided the perfect opportunity to help build our speakers’ confidence and practice their presentations, quite literally, on stage.’
The Dorfman Theatre training day began like any other Theatreworks course – through a series of exercises employing techniques that actors and directors use in the rehearsal room before a performance. Facilitators Al Nedjari and Didi Hopkins worked with the group to improve their body language, projection and confidence levels.
The group was then divided in half, allowing the participants to work closely with Nedjari and Hopkins on the content of their individual presentations. Still in rehearsal mode, participants were encouraged to be more free and dynamic, to go ‘off script’ with the content they were delivering and to be more dramatic. Each participant was encouraged to dig deep and get under the surface of how the book they were presenting made them feel and to speak freely about the experience. To incorporate a personal story to help make their content less of a lecture and more of a performance. One participant noted that the session, ‘filled me with confidence and got me thinking of new ideas.’
‘All of the participants spoke knowledgably and passionately about the books they were presenting,’ said Didi Hopkins. ‘Our job was to coach and challenge them into going the extra mile to make their presentations extraordinary. To help them make a real impact with their audience.’
Taking to the stage
Following the morning session dedicated to warm-up techniques and content, the participants left rehearsals behind and moved on to the performance element of the day. Held in the National’s Dorfman Theatre, both groups had a chance to apply what they’d learned and perform their newly refined presentations on stage, complete with sound, lighting and an audience of their peers.
‘This is where the real magic started to happen,’ said Theatreworks facilitator, Al Nedjari. ‘Being on stage really helped the participants to raise the level of their performance. Each participant made their content their own. We were able to see the transformation from interesting presentations to authentic, engaging, impactful performances from everyone who took part. It was hugely rewarding.’
Once the participants took to the stage, working on the more theatrical elements of their presentations became a natural focus – whether it was working on movement and positioning to ensure Darth Vader’s robes (for a presentation on the latest Star Wars books) made the most impact with the audience, or establishing a sense of place through language and movement.
‘Once they were on stage, simply starting with “Good afternoon, I’m going to speak about this book” became an unnatural and stilted way to open each presentation,’ said Hopkins. ‘We coached the participants, really working with each of them to set the scene of their performance for the audience, not just to introduce it.’
Engaging the audience
No presentation course would be complete without taking the audience into account – especially when it’s aimed at preparing for speaking in front of a large one. And good projection and sound quality are essential in elevating any presentation into an engaging performance.
To help them prepare completely for Penguin Random House Presents, each Theatreworks participant was given the opportunity to practice their performance with a microphone, using the Dorfman’s full sound system to ensure they captured the attention of the audience in the all parts of the theatre.
‘Practice using a lapel microphone, what to listen for, and how the voice sounds can really help performers address how and where to pitch their voice,’ said Nedjari. ‘A mic can be terribly intimate and being familiar with it is crucial to engaging the audience and delivering a confident performance. Without practice, performers can be left surprised or confused by the sound of their own voice, or get so wrapped up in their delivery and how they sound that their message is lost on the audience.’
By fully immersing each participant in the complete theatrical experience, they were each given the opportunity to switch the focus from themselves and what they were saying to the audience. In addition to performing their piece, each participant also sat in one of the 450 seats in the Dorfman, allowing them to engage with and coach their peers on their performances as well as to experience what it’s like to be an audience member.
One participant commented, ‘It really boosted my confidence to have good feedback from Al, Didi and the rest of the group attending the course, and I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed being on stage.’
Perfecting their performances
Feedback played an invaluable role during the session. Participants were able to constantly make tweaks to their performances based on observations and suggestions from Al Nedjari, Didi Hopkins and their own colleagues throughout the day and try them out in front of an audience, honing and perfecting their performances across the session. One participant observed, ‘The day followed a very natural, rewarding curve – building confidence, culminating in excellent personal feedback.’
Each participant also received individual, personalised follow-up notes from the facilitators after the training session, reminding them of the key elements of their performance for day of the conference. These ranged from projection and voice techniques to storytelling in bite-sized chunks and tips on how presence and taking up space on stage can help convey confidence.
Delivering on the day
With just over a month between their Theatreworks training and Penguin Random House Presents, participants were able to incorporate their feedback and learnings from the day and practice their performances.
‘I was impressed with the speakers at the conference. They were fantastic on the day – really genuine, relaxed and engaging,’ said Nicola Halsall. ‘It was obvious that they felt comfortable and confident on stage at the Barbican. Their preparation on stage with Theatreworks really paid off.’
Do you have a big presentation or event coming up? Theatreworks can work with you and your team on stage at the National Theatre, to help prepare. Please call us on 020 7452 3815 or email [email protected] to learn more.