Lecterns – no place to hide
What do you feel when you see a lectern?
Perhaps you feel relief.
If you’re a nervous speaker maybe a lectern offers comfort, something solid you can grip onto while you speak.
A lectern also gives you somewhere handy to rest your notes. You no longer have to worry about remembering what you intend to say. You can glance down at the lectern and read what comes next in your presentation.
A lectern is a place of comfort and stability.
Except it isn’t. It’s a shield, and it’s harming your performance.
A lectern is a shield
When you stand behind a lectern you shield 60% of your body from view. All the people in your audience will see of you is your chest, hands and face (and not much of that if you’re constantly looking down to read your notes).
When you speak before an audience you communicate with the whole of your body. You may think that your face and hands do most of the work, but your posture, the position of your arms, legs and feet and the way your body moves also communicate your message, more subtlety perhaps, but with just as much power.
When you hide 60% of your body from the people in your audience you prevent them from reading 60% of your non-verbal signals. This isn’t good. Your job as a speaker is to overcome barriers to communication with your audience, not to create them.
A shield is defensive
Imagine for a moment that instead of standing behind a lectern you are holding a shield in front of your body. What message does your shield send to the people in your audience?
‘I am defending myself against you.’
How do you think this makes the people in your audience feel?
When you stand away from the lectern, the people in your audience see all of you. This frees you to use your body to strengthen that invisible channel of communication that exists between you and the people who are watching you speak.
When you stand away from the lectern you send a message to your audience that you don’t want any barrier to exist between you. You are free to use gestures to support the perception that you are ‘giving’ something to your audience, that you are inviting them to ‘accept’ something from you, a gift of new and valuable information, perhaps.
Why put any barrier between yourself and your audience when it blocks up to 60% of your message?
What’s more important to you? Somewhere to lean and somewhere to hide or the space to move and inspire, unrestricted and completely open?
Given that lecterns are bad news for speakers you may resolve never to speak behind one again. However, what happens if you don’t have the choice?
You may feel that you have no choice but to speak behind the lectern if:
- all the other speakers spoke from there
- it is fixed to the floor in the centre of the stage
- the microphone is fixed to it
- the conference is being filmed using fixed cameras that are trained on the lectern
- the conference is being signed or converted from speech-to-text and the position of the interpreters/screen is dependent on the position of the speaker at the lectern
What to do about the lectern
Be the odd one out – There is no need to follow the lead of the other speakers. If you know that your presentation is more powerful when you move away from the lectern, do it.
Stand in front of it – If the lectern is fixed to the floor in the centre of the stage stand in front of it if you can. Don’t stand to one side of it as the people on the opposite side of the room may not be able to see you.
Use a lapel mic – Ask for a lapel microphone before the day of the conference. Don’t assume that they will have thought you might prefer one, always ask for one in advance.
Let the technicians know – Find out whether the event is to be filmed and ask if it’s okay if you speak away from the lectern (you may have to explain to them why it’s important that you do!).
Talk to the interpreters – If you know or notice that there are deaf people in the audience who need to see you and the interpreter or screen, make sure they can still see you properly when you move away from the lectern. If they can’t then stay where you are. As frustrating as it is to shield 60% of yourself, 60% is better than 100%.
In his wonderful talk about empathy at the School of Life, Roman Krznaric gives a perfect demonstration of how to speak in front of a lectern. Notice how Roman communicates with his whole body. Imagine how his performance would be affected if he stood behind the lectern.