“How do you wean yourself from the lectern?”
That was the good recent question from one of the Science and Technology Policy Fellows, brought to Washington by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to work in federal and congressional offices on science policy.
We were in a workshop about communicating with non-technical audiences, and I’d been talking about public-speaking tactics scientists generally don’t use—but which better suit public audiences. “Leave the lectern to make a closer connection with the audience,” was among my recommendations.
Lecterns accomplish many things, from providing a platform for your notes and technology to hiding most of you from the audience. Lecterns are useful if you’re in fight-or-flight mode. They give the audience and any cameras one place on which to focus, and keep you from wandering into the path of the projector light. For many speakers, they make the speech feel more important.
But they are a barrier between you and the audience. It’s far easier to sense audience reactions, make eye contact and engage the audience if you’re liberated from the bench, so to speak. You’ll look more approachable and less like you’re trying to school the audience, two good tactics for technical speakers to adopt when addressing non-technical audiences.
If you’re just starting to experiment with moving around while you speak, here are some ways to work with the lectern without breaking away completely:
1. Plan your escape: Choose a couple of spots in your speech or presentation when it would make sense to step away from the lectern. You can choose a point when gesturing would help underscore your remarks, or a moment when you’re telling a personal story, since you shouldn’t need notes to relate what you’ve already lived through. Return to the lectern and your prepared remarks when you’re done.
2. Keep a hand on it: Rest one hand or one elbow on the top of the lectern while you stand to one side of it. You can do this for the entire lecture or talk, as this scientist does in her public lecture, or choose particular portions of the talk for this treatment.
3. Walk away from it, then return: Perhaps you need to demonstrate a movement or want to emphasize something in your presentation. Moving a few steps away from the lectern—to one side or in front of it—lets you do that. The moment you start to move, the audience’s attention will soar, because your audience will be thinking, “What is our speaker going to do?”.Make sure you use this for a point that deserves that attention.
4. Answer a question down in front: If you get a question from someone in the front of the audience, step out from behind the lectern to answer it and make eye contact, then return to your post. Again, it’s especially effective to use this when you have an answer you wish to emphasize.
Eventually, if you are able to move away from the lectern, you’ll need to have rehearsed your talk so you can deliver it without notes. Speaking without notes is itself a formidable challenge. Looking at your slides is not a good solution to this.
Two more things to keep in mind when you work on using or losing the lectern: (1) If you’re an introvert, moving closer to the crowd will feel exhausting, so it’s even more important that you take time alone before and after your speech or presentation to replenish your energy. (2) If you’re an extrovert, you may benefit from programming a return to the lectern from time to time, to check your notes and make sure you’re not veering off-course.
All of these tactics take practice. Rehearsing these moves over and over will make them seem less awkward and foreign, and will enable you to find out which work best. Then, over time, you can spend more and more of your speaking time without the lectern in front of you.