Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are (We See You Hiding Behind that Lectern)

We were amused to read in the Albuquerque Journal that the new governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan-Grisham (described as “diminutive” by the Journal), joked in her inaugural speech that one of her first acts as governor would be to order all lecterns in New Mexico to be lowered. This got us thinking about how far too many presenters use the lectern as a crutch, something to hang on to, something to clutch, a small wall to hide behind if things go wrong and members of the audience suddenly get up and walk menacingly towards us. (Is “The Night of the Living Dead Presenter” movie title available?)

Let’s do a little math here. (Just a little, we promise.) The average lectern is around 47 inches high (4ish feet). Michelle Lujan-Grisham is around 61 inches tall (5ish feet). So when the governor stands behind the lectern, it covers 77% of her body. Manny Cordova, the governor’s fiancé, is around 72 inches tall (6 feet). If he stands behind the lectern, it will cover only 65% of his body. Lecterns obviously favor tall people. For those of us who are “vertically challenged,” the lectern becomes a physical barrier, reducing us to (literally) talking heads.

So what’s the solution? Get out from behind the thing.

But, but, my notes are on the lectern. How will I access my notes if I don’t stand behind it?

We didn’t say you had to jettison the lectern from the stage. You can still use it as a place to stash your notes, and you can occasionally sidle back up to it if you need to check your notes for something, like a date or a complex number. But of course you will already have practiced and rehearsed your presentation so that you don’t actually need your notes—they’re just there as backup, should a bird fly by the window and you forget what you were going to say next. If your notes are on the lectern and you are away from the lectern, you will be even less inclined to consult them during your presentation.

But, but, my laptop is on the lectern. How will I access my slides if I can’t be there with them?

Welcome to the 21st Century, where there are wireless devices for everything. It doesn’t matter where your laptop is—if you have a good remote slide advancer, you can control the pace of your slideshow from anywhere in the room. In fact, you can use this cool technique from time to time: Instead of standing next to the screen as you click through a series of slides, walk out into the middle of the audience (or even go all the way behind them) and advance your slides from there. It will seem as though you and the audience are looking at the slides together, sharing the experience of seeing them for the first time. This will force the audience to concentrate for a little while on the pictures they’re seeing, rather than on your facial expressions. It will also make them have to listen a little harder to your words as you narrate what they’re seeing on the slides. (If you’re old enough to remember people showing slides of their vacation to friends in their living room, you’ll immediately get the picture. You’ll also understand why you must use this technique sparingly, lest your audience become annoyed.)

But, but, I need the lectern to hold on to. What if my hands are shaking?

Trust us. There is no way the audience will notice that your hands are shaking unless you hold up a piece of paper. Or a lit match. If you remind yourself that the audience is the most important part of your presentation, that it’s not about you, it’s about them and what’s in it for them, if you focus all your energy on making a connection with them, you will forget about your hands. Or your trembling legs. Or those butterflies carousing in your stomach. The audience can’t see any of that. Unless you actually begin your presentation by saying (and we suggest you NEVER do this) “Oh, well, whew, hello, I’m so glad to be here, but I gotta tell you, I am SO nervous and I just HATE public speaking and I think I’m terrible at it, but bear with me and we’ll have a go . . . .” the audience will have no clue as to your internal state of anxiety. If you look like a confident person and speak like a confident person, lo and behold, the audience will react as though you are a confident person, and soon you will indeed be a confident person. “Don’t fake it till you make it,” Amy Cuddy tells us. “Fake it till you BECOME it.”

Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said about the fear of public speaking: “It will be all right when what you have to say is more important than the fact that your knees are knocking.”

Be brave. Come out from behind the lectern and meet your audience.

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