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The lectern is not your friend.

I often get asked to speak at conferences and whenever I do, I notice something interesting.

If there’s a lectern available, people will use it. No matter how well they know their talk and regardless of whether they actually need the microphone attached to the lectern, if there’s a lectern available, people will use it (particularly if the speaker before used it).

Mark my words, the lectern is not your friend.

As speakers, our delivery consists of two key parts: the voice and body language. Body language is all about non-verbal physical signals. It's the unspoken language. With that in mind, what message do you think standing behind the lectern communicates?

Aside from being a bit headmistressy, the underlying message is that the speaker wants to distance themselves from the audience. It also suggests that perhaps the speaker isn’t confident enough to come out from behind the lectern. In other words, they’re using it to hide behind.

So, when given the option, how should you use a lectern?

Before we answer that question, we’re going to take a slight side step.

As the speaker, in most contexts, you can choose the speaking conditions that work for you, which means, generally speaking, you don’t have to go along with the default setup. Chances are it was arranged by someone that doesn’t necessarily understand what works best for speakers.

So, ahead of time get in touch with the organiser and specifiy what you want as part of your set up.

Handheld or lapel microphone. Slides or no slides. Audience seating arrangements. Obviously, you don’t want to be unreasonable with your requests, they probably can’t change things like the venue, but—and particularly if they’re paying you to speak—the organiser would expect you to make your preferences known.

Even then, occasionally you’ll turn up and the set up won’t be what you asked for. This is why it’s so important to arrive early to any speaking gig. The last thing you want is being illequipped and in a state of stress when you get up to speak.

Earlier this year I was speaking at a conference and, like all speaking engagements, I arrived early to carry out my usual due diligence:

  1. Confirm set up, check.

  2. Have a tech run-through, check.

  3. Bring my own adaptor and clicker (just in case), check.

  4. Bring tablet (for notes), check.

  5. Familiarise myself with speaking area, check.

I was good to go...except...

One thing I forgot to consider was that I was speaking immediately after someone who had different setup requirements to me. Rather than just use the setup he had, I took 3 minutes to adjust the set up to suit me. This involved asking the audience to move forward and occupy all the empty seats nearer the front (bolshy, I know). It also involved, moving the lectern from it’s dark corner where, you guessed it, all other speakers had been presenting from until this point.

I moved the lectern into the middle of the speaking area (set slightly back). I then put my notes on the lectern and took a step out, away from it. I grabbed a handheld mic (again, not something anyone had thought to do until this point), and then I began my presentation.

Not only was everything set to how I liked, but the audience were immediately engaged because someone—thank goodness—was doing something different. I had their attention!

Which brings me back to the lectern. The simple principle here is get out from behind it, and in doing so you’ll give yourself the freedom to move with purpose and gesture as you normally would.

If you don’t need notes, then ensure the lectern is completely out of your way.

If you do need notes, then pop them on the lectern, but don’t appear awkward or embarrassed when you have to consult them. Instead, when you need your notes, walk calmly back to the lectern, review, and continue, walking away from the lectern as you do.

To recap:

  1. The lectern is not your friend. At most, it is there to hold your notes (and water).

  2. Specify your preferred set up with the organiser ahead of time.

  3. Arrive early to ensure everything is arranged the way it should be.

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