Sitting at the kitchen table this morning filling out the Census (I hope to live long enough to use all three ‘age’ blocks) in between making pancakes, I was thinking about the choices that public speakers make about using podiums or not using podiums. I was also thinking about how intimate kitchen table discussions tend to be. If only public speakers could mimic that sort of relaxed, guard-down connection we tend to have at the table, coffee-cup in hand, maybe there would be no wars. To be sure, though, all public speaking events do not require a speaker to be kitchen-table intimate, and that’s why there are options for public speakers that can get a little messy. This post is aimed at cleaning up those options to help you speak up and speak well at your next event.
A couple of weeks ago I was giving a speech for Women’s History Month at Penn State Lehigh Valley when I realized that there would be a cavernous area of carpeted emptiness between me and my audience if I stood at the podium. I decided that since the occasion was more informal than most speaking events, I would simply stand at one of the tables and deliver my remarks from there, since I reasoned to my mostly female audience: “most of us make life’s greatest decisions and enjoy the most personal of moments at the kitchen table.” Then I thought of Elizabeth Dole’s effort to connect with her audience by eschewing the podium. She told me when I interviewed her in 1998 that “I think of the podium as a barrier between me and my audience and I prefer to move around.” This was after her blockbuster 1996 GOP Convention speech when she strolled the audience to speak “about the man I love” (her husband, Bob, who was then the GOP presidential nominee). Few of us get such a moment to move around the audience and “create a new form of campaigning” as Dan Rather gushed after that speech. That same year, Hillary Clinton gave her convention speech and plaintively noted: “I wish we could be sitting around a kitchen table, just us, talking about our hopes and fears, about our children’s futures.” A nice thought, but not a practical alternative to the far-reaching potential of a public speech.
Still, all public speakers need to make the decision whether to stand behind the podium or simply stand and deliver, so to speak. In this post, I thought I’d distill some of the ways that public speakers can make the call whether or not to use a podium.
What are the options?
Standing Behind a Podium
There are floor models and table top models and for more informal, teaching-type speeches, the table top works well. But if you need amplification, or the event is more formal, a floor model with the optional microphone is a better option. Depending on how well you amplify your voice, when the audience rises above twenty-five, it is better to use a microphone. The mere act of walking up to the podium identifies you as the speaker and will let your audience know the speech is about to start. Use your podium to hold notes that mark the important points you want to make in your speech. Checking your notes for the next point to be made while you are finishing up your previous point will keep you on track.
Do not lean on the podium or slouch on it or around it because your appearance and your voice quality will suffer. By standing up straight, you will allow your voice to project clearly and be better understood. Avoid rocking back and forth with the podium or propping you feet on the podium’s base. These are distracting movements that will take the audience’s attention off your speech’s subject matter.
Check your height! I “tower” 5 ft. 2″ on a ‘tall’ day, and 5’5″ with some serious height-enhancing footwear. Most podiums are too tall for me and I end up looking like, just a “talking head.” That’s why it is useful to travel with a little “step” (I have a 3 inch platform I keep in my trunk for speaking events) that I could bring in when I have the case of the overwhelming podium. It is another reason table top podiums can be a better choice.
If you are using a microphone: Check the audio before the audience arrives. “Check, check, can you hear me?” is not ethos-enhancing for any speaker. Have a back-up in case the audio fails.
Standing in the Center or Front of the Room without a Podium
This can be a good option for a pat “stump speech” or a very informal event, especially one that you are trying to create a positive personal reaction to you. For example, if you are running for office, it is useful to create a close or as immediate a connection as possible between you and your audience. This is not a good option, however, if you need to rely on your notes a lot (you will be looking down instead of at your audience) or if you need or want to create an impression of authority. If you are too much a populist, critics may argue that you are not enough of a leader. Women in particular have to guard against appearing too teacher-like, especially when angling for careers or positions that are male-dominated.
Using a Teleprompter
A funny parody of President Obama shows him using a teleprompter at home to communicate with his family about soccer practice, homework and other domestic events. With the proliferation of television communication using a teleprompter is likely for any of us. So if your speech is to be televised, consider this option.
The way a teleprompter works is to display the text on a monitor mounted on the camera, beneath the lens. It is a mirror image that is reflected up to a glass panel in front of the camera lens which flips it the right way round and makes it readable. The text is scrolled bottom to top by an operator on a laptop. There may be a little cursor on the screen, towards top left to give a guide. The speed of the scroll is controlled by the operator and the operator will follow the speaker. If you pause, they will pause.Ask the operator to set the font size to suit your eyesight. The bigger the font the fewer words on the screen, so the less chance you have of seeing what’s coming up. Too small and you’ll be struggling to read accurately. You should read the script beforehand and be familiar with it on paper. Of course if you’ve written it yourself, you should be familiar with it, but still, read it again. Keep your head, neck, and shoulders relaxed. If you lock your head into a rigid position, only your eyes can move to read the text. If the camera is fairly close it’s very obvious you are reading, and it reduces your credibility. Move your head naturally. Some teleprompter users become so skilled in using it, that the audience believes the speaker is simply speaking. Used properly the teleprompter can take away a lot of stress and can ensure that if your speech will go down in history or if it needs to be legally accurate, it won’t harm you or your organization.
So consider your options carefully — podium, table-top or floor model, amplified or not; standing and delivering without a podium or the use of a tele-prompter.
Of course, there is always simply sitting at a kitchen table, where I think many great speeches have no doubt been delivered, though likely to very limited-size audiences. This morning my daughter, Emi asked where the glass top for the kitchen table got to. When the kids were little I had piece of glass cut to fit on top of the kitchen table. Because it belonged to my parents, the old kitchen set is one of my prized possessions. Under the chairs to the table reads a decal dated “1942” and the name of the furniture store where my parents purchased the lovely oak set. I told Emi that I put the glass top away after I realized that she and her brother posed no threat to the table since they had long left their crayons, Play-Doh and markers behind. It would be me—in a mad rush to quickly iron a table-cloth before guests arrived—who would cause a burn mark on the top of the table. If you want to leave your mark as a public speaker (and not a burn mark), choose your speaking delivery style carefully.