Playwright Harold Pinter said, “One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”
Perhaps that’s the origin of the lectern and why so many speakers stay tucked behind it.
Speakers, those clever beings, have found many things behind which to hide. Lecterns are the least of them.
Here are six things you might be hiding behind when you speak:
1. Certainty: In “Without a doubt,” Seth Godin says: “Certainty is a form of hiding. It is a way of drowning out our fear, but it’s also a surefire way to fail to see what’s really happening around us.”
Are you being too sure of yourself or your facts when you speak? It is, among other things, a highly effective way of shutting down audience contributions. Is that what you’re trying to do?
2. The length of your talk: Speakers who use every second of the time allotted for their own remarks are hiding behind the clock, often as a way to avoid taking questions from the audience or to defy the organizer, chair or moderator.
If you hide this way, know that the choice is obvious (and annoying) to audiences and limits your ability to grow as a speaker. Balancing the allotted time between your talk and the audience’s time to speak is a better approach.
3. Humor and throat-clearing: Throat-clearing comprises all the wasted remarks at the start of a talk or presentation. It’s where you hear or see disclaimers (see below), jokes, cartoons, pictures of the speaker’s kids that have no relevance to the presentation, and lots of thank-yous and acknowledgements.
It also includes comments such as, “As I was walking across your beautiful campus today, I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful organization this is…”
All those are screens behind which the speaker can hide while he gets comfortable with the mic and the room and the crowd. Because throat-clearing and unrelated humor can waste precious audience attention, revise your approach. Sprinkle thank-yous, acknowledgments and pertinent humor throughout your talk, and give us a strong, focused start instead.
4. Public disclaimers: It’s the apparent opposite of the overly certain speaker. The most overused of these disclaimers is “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking,” now perhaps the most banal type of throat-clearing at the start of the speech.
Your disclaimer might be something else: “I’m not the expert on this, but…” or, “I’m just the substitute speaker,” or even, “I’ll be brief.” You are, in effect, giving yourself permission to not be perfect or entreating the audience not to judge you out loud.
Try saying those things to yourself, next time, and not to the audience. Those tacit apologies add nothing to your image or your talk.
5. Your outfit: You might choose too-tall heels to give yourself powerful height, but which make it impossible for you to move around the stage. You might instead suit up with a power jacket, lots of jewelry, a distracting pattern or a look more conservative you’re your usual.
Nothing’s wrong with any of those elements unless you’re using them to hide your authentic self or create a speaker who’s taller, more conservative or more visually distracting or bland than you are normally.
Think through why you’re choosing what you’re choosing. It’s important to feel good about what you’re wearing, and feel comfortable in it-but neither of those things involves hiding.
6. Your slides: Even though your slides are behind you, many speakers have confided to me that they use (or overuse) slides as a means of hiding on stage. The idea, however mistaken, is that you can distract the audience visually, so they’re not looking at you.
The trouble is that humans like looking at other humans, particularly the ones up on the stage. Use these tips to declutter your slides, and then figure out how you’re going to handle your nerves.
Those are just six of the things speakers hide behind. What else are you hiding behind?
Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 140 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article originally appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.