Actors refer to an invisible “fourth wall” between the stage and the audience. In a play, audiences view the proceedings with a special anonymity. Actors portray an alternative reality that rarely acknowledges the presence of an audience in an auditorium.
Occasionally, usually for humorous effect, an actor might engage the audience directly. If a character playing an embarrassing situation on-stage turns to the audience and asks, “What are you looking at?” they are said to have “broken the fourth wall.”
Though actors on a stage or screen usually stay “in the fishbowl,” public speaking could be called “the art of fourth wall theater.” The speaker engages the audience directly throughout the performance. Though a speaker might break into song or act out a situation, focus always returns to the audience. Even during interviews and panel discussions where presenters interact on-stage, the audience is acknowledged and the discussion is directed at attendees.
So what is the “fifth wall?” The four traditional “walls” are easy to visualize. The back and sides of the stage comprise the first three, and the symbolic “fourth wall” lies at the forward edge of the stage between the performers and the audience. Consider what I call the metaphorical “fifth wall” that conceals elements of performance that don’t involve the relationship between the speaker and the audience: equipment, time allotted to speak, stage set-up and clean-up, etc.
I recently finished a short presentation where I used slides and the two speakers who followed me did not. When I finished, I quickly shut down the projector, closed my laptop, and moved the equipment to the side of the stage. Courteous, right? But a friend commented later that my “clean and powerful” ending was diluted by my frantic clean-up. In my mind, my speech was over when I said, “Thank you” and bowed my head, but the audience watched me transform from an inspiring messenger into a stagehand.
The performance is not over until you leave the stage.
The next day, I was asked to critique a meeting room speaker who had written a web address on the whiteboard behind him so participants could access slides and other materials. Before he went on, I advised him to request that the emcee erase the board for him when he was done. Though he felt uncomfortable asking, I reminded him, “it’s not as if she has to clean up your vomit; it’s just a line of text on a marker board.” The speaker made a clean break with the audience at the end of his presentation, and nobody noticed when the emcee spent five seconds erasing the board because it was her job to prepare the stage for the next presentation. As a non-performer, she worked on the other side of the fifth wall.
Professional speakers engage audiences by putting their stories in the service of their listeners. While doing so, they deal with technicalities like microphones and projectors and handheld remote controls that advance their slides. Speakers monitor a clock that informs them how much of their allotted presentation time remains. (Running overtime is a rookie mistake. Imagine three low-paid local speakers preceding a high-fee professional keynoter. If each of the three local speakers runs ten minutes over, the host will have paid big money for a twenty-minute final performance—hardly the fifty-minute closing keynote they were expecting.) All these politics and technicalities are your problem, not the audience’s. Acknowledging them is “breaking the fifth wall.”
“I’ve had a lovely time speaking to you today but Marlene is signaling me to wrap it up,” is your situation, not your audience’s. The challenges you face on-stage are not their challenges and discussing them shifts the focus from them to you. Your relationship to the clock or person holding the timing cues lies on the other side of the “fifth wall.” If you start late due to another speaker running over, spare your audience the excuses and blame. Deliver your shortened presentation with grace and dignity.
I watched a speaker drop his slide remote, and as luck would have it, it broke open. The two halves flew in different directions and the batteries scattered (which is one reason I now carry two slide remotes). But instead of scrambling to reassemble the shattered technology, the speaker smiled and walked over to where his laptop rested on the lectern. “On to the next slide,” he said as he calmly tapped the “next” arrow on his keyboard. The audience admired his coolness under fire. Nobody minded that he stayed close to the keyboard for the remainder of the performance because they understood he was operating with a handicap in the service of not making his problem their problem. The speaker remained focused on his relationship with the audience. Instead of “breaking the fifth wall,” he used his technical problem as an opportunity to build rapport. What could have been an awkward disaster did not interfere with the audience’s transformation.
A common fifth-wall violation occurs in virtual speaking when, before the actual meeting begins, the speaker prattles on about how to use breakout rooms, and “don’t forget to mute your microphone,” and how to use gallery view and speaker view. “Can you see my screen?” and “Let me start my slides” are similar transgressions. Don’t be the usher at your own show! Find a colleague to run the meeting, manage the participants, introduce you, and then call you to join the session—just as you would at an in-person performance. The first words you say should engage the audience, or you may never capture their attention.
Public speaking is the “art of fourth wall theater.” Unless there’s a fire drill or other emergency, preserve the sacred relationship between you and your audience by sparing them exposure to the politics, business, and technicalities of your performance. Don’t break the “fifth wall” unless you have an artful and clever reason for doing so.