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 the types of public-speaking tactics scientists generally don't use--but which better suit public audiences. Leaving the lectern and making 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, 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 also serve as 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 behind 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.
Here are some ways to work with the lectern without breaking away completely, if you're just starting to experiment with moving around while you speak:
- Plan your escape: Choose a couple of spots in your speech or presentation as the points 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.
- 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.
- 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. After all, you might do anything at that point. Make sure you use this for a point that deserves that attention.
- 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.
Two more things to keep in mind when you're working on using or losing the lectern: 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. 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 before your actual talk. Rehearsing these moves over and over will make them seem less awkward and foreign, and will let you find out in advance which work best for you. Then, over time, you can spend more and more of your speaking time without that barrier in front of you.
(Creative Commons licensed photo by David Gallagher)
I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Please join me!