I'm not a fan of the podium. Yes, it has its place, and sometimes its use is unavoidable. But in almost every speaking situation, standing behind a podium is like standing behind a wall.
While we were flying back on United Airlines from Honolulu to Osaka a few weeks ago, I caught an interview with Phil Collins on EM's Performance Theater on one of the in-flight audio channels. Phil was discussing his career and life in the musical trenches in between songs performed in front of a small, intimate audience. You may know Phil Collins as a singer, of course, but he originally started out playing the drums. As his musical career progressed he eventually would sing from behind the drums, and in time he would have to come out from behind the drums completely and take center stage. Phil is a fantastic drummer, so the interviewer asked Phil about the idea of singing lead vocal and playing drums at the same time:
"Most songs are vocally driven. Yes, it is physically possible to sing from behind the drums... But they [audience] want to see you. When you're behind a drum kit, it is very difficult to connect to people. That is why I am out in front."
— Phil Collins
Collins said that while with Genesis early on, singing from behind the drums was his "security blanket." Sitting behind the drums is indeed a pretty secure place to be. Karen Carpenter (remember The Carpenters?) was very hesitant to come out from behind the drums back in the '70s. It's scary to stand front and center, naked.
Presenting from a podium is like singing lead vocal behind the drums
Physically, it's possible to sing lead from behind the drums and you can sound just as great, but what of the connection with the audience? Likewise, if you present from behind a podium, you may, more or less, sound the same and the media may look the same, but it's not ideal. Far from it. The connection is lost. Imagine if your favorite singer performed from behind a podium. Ridiculous, of course. Imagine, too, if Steve Jobs gave keynotes with the same slides and same video clips, same jeans and black turtleneck, but did all the talking from behind a podium/lectern. He may sound the same. The visuals may look the same. But the connection is not there. A connection with the audience is not a sufficient condition, but in the "Presentation Zen" approach, it is a necessary one. A podium is fine for a fifteen-minute speech at a university graduation ceremony, but it's a barrier in almost every other setting. (Of course, there are exceptions.)
What if Steve did his world-famous keynotes behind the podium? Would they be just as good? (Podium is a vector image from iStockphoto.com, $1.00 US)
If we make the podium a little more Apple-like, does it fit the Steve Jobs keynote style now?
Podiums, however, can make a speaker look authoritative and in command. This is why politicians love speaking from behind a podium in most cases. If you are aiming to look "large and in charge" then perhaps a podium is appropriate for you. But for most of us — conference presenters, lecturers, sales reps, etc. — the last place we want to be is behind a wall.
Also, podiums are often placed to the side and back from the edge of the stage. In this case, then, you are not only behind a barrier, your slides (if you use any) are the main focus, your physical presence is now very much playing second fiddle. It's possible for both you and the screen to be front and center, which is where people are naturally going to focus their attention. Next time you have a choice and decide to speak from behind the podium, ask yourself if you are doing so for your benefit (security blanket, etc.) or because it is indeed the most appropriate way to deliver your particular message to the particular audience in front of you.
Recently I attended a Toastmasters' speech contest in Japan (I was the keynoter the day before). Toastmasters is rather traditional, you may be thinking. However, I found it very interesting that not one of the contestants spoke from the podium, not a single person. All speakers placed themselves front and center (inches from the edge of the stage) and gave excellent talks, many of them moving slowly to different sides of the stage as they spoke, connecting with the whole audience.
Removing the podium: Going from good to great?
If you have the time, take a look at this presentation by Michael Crichton entitled "Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century." I am biased because I am keenly interested in the content of his talk, so I enjoyed the talk very much in spite of the imperfections. However, I am not pointing out this presentation because Michael Crichton makes good use of visuals (he does a better-than-most job of it) or because it is a superbly delivered talk; I think the delivery is merely adequate under the circumstances. I point to this presentation because it's a good example of a very good presentation that could have been insanely great if the speaker moved away from the podium and stood in front. Even sitting on a stool up front would be preferable. Michael Crichton instead sat at the podium. Now, Michael Crichton can get away with it because he is, well...Michael Crichton. The audience seemed very pleased indeed and the content was provocative and a bit (some would say a lot) controversial. However, for the rest of us without the fame and celebrity of Michael Crichton, burying ourselves behind a podium and reading notes, is usually not going to fly with our audience, even if the content is more or less solid. (Note: Michael Crichton is an extremely tall man, he may indeed have a physical need for sitting for such a long presentation. Again, my point is not to critique Michael Crichton's talk here so much as to give you a very visual example of "podium-as-a-barrier." Thanks to Stephanie Allen for the tip.)
And the walls came tumbling down
Generally the podium, if I may put it in the vernacular, "is so last millennium." Yet, there are times when the use of a podium is perfectly acceptable, such as when you are one of many speakers taking their turn at the center stage at a formal ceremony. But in cases where the people have walked in that room specifically to hear you, to learn from you, to be convinced or inspired by you, then you've got to do whatever you can to remove all walls —literally and figuratively — between you and the audience. It's scary. It takes practice. But it's worth it.
Below are some visuals I'm preparing for a talk which touches on similar themes. As usual, all photos are from iStockphoto (the image of the man climbing the podium is a composite of three photos).
Less walls, more connections. Nature provides us with plenty of walls...we need not build more.
Let people see you. All of you. Let them see you naked.
Walls are for climbing, not for speaking behind.
• Top five singing drummers
• Present naked