A week ago, I watched a live video feed in which three high-ranking speakers gave presentations from behind a lectern. Each of the three had a different default hand position and a different degree of movement around the lectern. Though uniformity is decided not a tenet of public speaking, there are several best practices that will make your performance more effective when speaking behind a lectern.
(As every commentator on this topic has done before me, I offer the gentle reminder that a podium is a stage you stand on and a lectern is a stand you speak behind.)
Tip 1: Use a lectern when you need to project authority
Lecterns are neither purely good nor purely evil. Let’s start by assuming that you have practiced your material and have your content and delivery solidly nailed. In that case, you are simply making a stylistic decision about whether or not to use a lectern. In most cases, the best choice is to avoid the lectern entirely since it creates a physical and psychological barrier between you and your audience. If you want to motivate and inspire, the lectern is your enemy.
However, you should use a lectern when you intentionally need to project power and authority. In years past, executives would always speak from behind a lectern. Today, they reserve the lectern for more solemn occasions such as sharing financial performance or delivering bad news.
When your objective is authority, remember to maintain consistency in your other actions. President Barack Obama frequently leaves his jacket behind and rolls up his sleeves. However, when he speaks from behind a lectern, he always wears a formal suit and tie with the jacket buttoned.
To maintain authority, make sure that you and the lectern are completely out of the line of fire of projected slides or images. For the same reason, if you are very short relative to the height of the lectern, either use a hidden stool or avoid the lectern.
A second reason to use a lectern is when doing so is required by the norms of the event or the audience. For example, some churches require that speakers talk from behind a lectern to maintain a divine aura. In this circumstance, the lectern also makes it easier to read long passages from a religious text. The same logic holds true when delivering a eulogy.
A third reason to use a lectern is when you need to rely on notes and you do not have a teleprompter available. In most instances, this is a poor justification – with sufficient practice you should not need notes. However, if you speak often and on a wide range of topics, you simply may not have the time to practice adequately. In addition, there are situations when the stakes are very high and every word matters, as is the case when a CEO is issuing an apology for a consumer product safety recall.
Tip 2: Rest your hands gently on the lectern
From what I can tell, the vast majority of untrained speakers grip the sides of the lectern. Even more egregious are those speakers who grab its front or back edges or rest their elbows on any part of it. If those are the worst practices, what are the best practices?
Every time you speak, you should premeditate your default or base hand position. This is the place you are going to put your hands when you are not gesturing. When speaking behind a lectern, you have two choices. I recommend loosely and comfortably resting your hands on the lectern – especially if you are referring to notes. Any of the following three ways of doing that are acceptable. The most casual is with your hands fully interlaced with the webbing of the fingers of your right hand touching the webbing of the fingers of your left hand. When using this approach, be careful not to clench too tightly. In terms of formality, the intermediate way is to interlace your hands so that the finger tips of each hand touch the webbing of the other hand with palms apart. Most speakers that apply this technique allow their thumb tips to touch. The most formal approach is to pair the finger tips of both hands – pinky with pinky, pointer with pointer and so on.
If you are not referring to notes, then the other acceptable base position is to stand about a foot behind the lectern and use one of the three hand positions just out in front of you at navel level.
Regardless of whether you choose to rest your hands on the lectern or hold them at navel level, gesture normally and confidently at or above chest level. By way of reference, this is a bit higher than when speaking without a lectern due to the obvious obstruction. Also, unless you are a crazed dictator, please do not pound the lectern. If you are a crazed dictator, then pound early and often.
Tip 3: Move away from the lectern if you can
To break the physical and psychological barrier between you and your audience, you want to move away from the lectern. Your ability to do so will be limited by the formality of the occasion, audio-video considerations, and by your degree of preparation.
In very formal settings, start, deliver, and end your speech without leaving the lectern. That means that you need to keep your feet planted firmly, square, and straight for what is likely to be a painfully long time. Of course you can shift your weight occasionally, and I do mean occasionally, for comfort. Also remember not to lean toward the lectern, sway, or rock.
Audio and video considerations may also inhibit your ability to move. Most obviously, if the only available microphone is attached to the lectern, then you are stuck. Additionally, if your talk is being broadcast over a simple, single camera video feed, then your range of movement should be limited if not nonexistent due to challenges with tracking and focus.
If the occasion is not overly formal, you have a wireless microphone, and there either is no video or very sophisticated video, then you are free to move about the cabin. Though you may choose to start and end your speech from behind the lectern, move with purpose and with pseudo-theatrical staging in mind. That means that you are not solely moving for variety or to release your nervous energy.
If you move, really move. Do not remain artificially tethered to the lectern by stepping just to its right, left, or front. Another amateurish maneuver is to return to the lectern simply to advance your slides or refer to your notes. Use a wireless slide changer; preferably a very simple one that you can surreptitiously advance by pressing on your pocket. If you do lose your place and need to come back to look at your notes, then do so while taking a drink of water. This clever sleight of hand distracts your audience from your true purpose. Doing this excessively will both undermine your credibility and hasten your need for a bathroom break.
When you leave the lectern, leave your notes, water, and any other materials behind so that you leave the stage with confidence and authority. You can always come back for them at intermission or get them from your host.
Tip 4: Use notes like a professional
As I mentioned before, the best use of notes is to use no notes at all. That said, as far as I can tell, 99% of speakers that use a lectern use notes. If you are going to use them, you might was well use them right.
Your best option is to use a single page outline in very large font with text only on the upper half of the page. Avoid using ALL CAPS since that is much more difficult for you to read. In addition, leave the clear sheet protector at home (or hide it before you start) since they tend to catch light and produce glare.
If you do need multiple pages of notes, apply the same best practices that you would for a single page. In addition, keep the pages loose (not stapled or in a three ring binder) and clearly numbered just in case you drop them. Finally, advance the pages by sliding them over rather than flipping them to minimize movement and noise that distracts your audience from your message.
Try it out!
If you are going to speak behind a lectern to deliver a speech where you need to project authority, then I strongly encourage you to practice using a lectern as well to come as close as possible to simulating your ultimate situation. At minimum, premeditate your default hand position and any potential movement. Once you get up there, let your muscle memory take over and focus on your message and your audience.