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Ban the lectern

Bore: one who has the power of speech but not the capacity for conversation. Benjamin Disraeli

Computerized slideshows have been much maligned of late. No more bullet points. Death by PowerPoint. PowerPointlessness. You've heard them all. And probably seen more than a few examples of poor slide show use.

But let me tell you, the only thing worse than a bad speech with PowerPoint is a bad speech without it. Not long ago I listened to a very smart man with very good ideas give a very poor keynote. He started off by bragging of his "lack of slides," but then went on to read (yes, read) his talk directly from the text he assured us would be online verbatim in a few days. Uniformly formal, ceaselessly forceful, and demeaningly parental, this audience member left feeling unconnected, unmoved, and feeling like a kid who was read the riot act by the principal for about an hour. When the speaker later asked me what I thought of his talk, I tactfully replied, "It was challenging." I didn't elaborate that the challenging part was staying for all of it.

I wonder if the speaker might have been more natural and made a better connection had he not been provided a lectern on which to prop his notes. Just might a major cause of bad "speeches" be the lectern itself - that large slab of wood originally designed to protect speakers' vital organs from sharp objects thrown by displeased listeners? (I just made that up.)

While I always request a wireless lapel microphone so I can wander a bit when speech - ifying, there are time when the only voice amplification is hardwired right to the lecture and one is pretty much forced to stay behind it in one place. And as much as I try to overcome it, this restraint changes my message:

  • I am more formal.
  • I am more likely to "read" the slides on my laptop sitting right in front of me.
  • There is less give and take between the audience and me.
  • There is a physical barrier creating a "me, the expert" and "you, the receiver" rather than an open space that says "let's form a partnership though which we can solve some mutual problems."

OK, it is somewhat comforting to know that when using a lectern the second "Is my fly zipped?" check is not necessary and that most lecterns are slimming. But let's expand our suggestions for the improvement of public speaking beyond "ban the bullet points." Whether the message is read from paper on a lectern or digits in a PowerPoint screen, it's all poor communication.

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Reader Comments (10)

Right on! And the people who are most notorious for doing this are university professors! And, I hate to say this, but these are often professors in the education departments. Many professors stand up there and talk about the importance of engaging students with a variety of methods and we read studies that say we should not "stand and deliver." But, then what do we do...we stand and deliver! Time to expand our tools for delivering/sharing instruction whether in a class setting or in front of an audience of 500! So, let's make the list! Here is the first one: have participants do "Think-Pair-Share" where they think about what has been said and discuss this with a person nearby, so they begin to internalize the message.

April 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRob Darrow

Thank you for this timely post - I just finished a series of oral reports with my students, and a number of them decided to hide and/or lean on the podium. Although many of their oral report were average, those who did the hide and/or lean were worse. I had once considered removing the podium from the front of the room, but need to leave it there in case an administrator comes by (so it looks like I spend most of my time at the front of the room - more about that at another time).

I am planning on using this post, giving you full credit, before my students start their next round of reports.

April 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

It's not the lectern, it's the reading - you can be the most movable speaker, but if you're reading a script rather than riffing from notes, you're doing yourself, your topic and your audience a disservice. At MPOW, I have people hand out something and then read it to me (perhaps they assume that all this 2.0 stuff means I'm now illiterate?). UGH.

April 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLazygal

If I give a presentation, it's based on notes, not read verbatim, but it also doesn't go over 15 to 20 minutes. I've been watching all the Ted Talks, and even the most engaging fade out of my consciousness around 15 minutes. My only exception to this length is when I'm leading a cemetery tour. I'll be leading six of those in May for 3rd graders. For cemetery tours, we're on the move with short (no longer than 5 minute) lectures at the graves. The tour takes 45 minutes (I've been doing it for 10 years). With 3rd graders, it's easy to judge the point at which you lose them. Visual aids for the cemetery tour are portable, and the greatest challenges to attention spans are 1) the weather and 2) that one time they started a funeral before we finished.

April 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJude not Hey Jude

At a recent series of presos (45 mins each, 2 per day), I found myself tethered to the front of the room by my mouse. I'd lost my remote unit (found it now, though). Rather than stand behind the podium, I slung the mouse over the top of the podium and just clicked when I needed to advance. Since I knew my preso, I felt comfortable clicking and talking away from the preso with my back to the presentation.

I can't imagine doing this with a text-laden powerpoint presentation or reading from a sheaf of notes. In fact, I've done both of those and it's NOTHING like how I present now...thank goodness for the audience! One of my favorite quotes is, "If the sermon is boring, and folks are sleeping in the pews, someone needs to poke the pastor and wake him up." (paraphrased).

Take care,
Miguel Guhlin
Around the

April 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel Guhlin

I really appreciate this post. I hope other leaders of education who are invited to present to their colleagues have read this post and taken note. I too was recently at a keynote where I felt reprimanded rather than inspired. Keynote speakers have a tough job; the worse they can do is make their audience feel small. That pedagogy thankfully/hopefully has been removed yet is reminiscent of the days when nuns carried rulers. In contrast, I really appreciate the keynote speaker who is engaging, funny, and down-to-earth real.

April 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Krembs

Hi Rob,

I share your observation that academics seem to use a formal lecture approach more than the rest of us.

When I did some workshops for BER, the coach insisted that a good workshop presenter had some sort of "activity" like the pair and share at least once every 30 minutes! Good practice.

All the best,


Hi Kenn,

You make an interesting point about what constitutes good teaching in administrator's eyes. I remember "classroom control" was always a big part of my job performance eval.

Change is tough unless it happens at the top as well.

All the best,


Hi Lazy,

Yup. I learned to read some time ago. A double whammy of printouts of the slides with long exposition on each of them is even worse. Why bother to stay to have the slides read aloud?

All the best,


Hi Jude,

I think you make a good point - you can keep someone's attention for 45 minutes - but it as to be in 3 15 minute chunks! I learned that teaching library classes to primary students.

Thanks for the comment,


Hi Miguel,

Yeah, my remote I call my "Dumbo's feather." Just like Dumbo couldn't fly without his feather, I can't speak without my remote in hand.

Great quote about the sermon.


Hi Ann,

I think we may both be referring to the same speech/speaker!


April 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

@ Doug
A great post. I recently attended a conference that had some very good speakers and a few of the better ones complained about being pinned in behind the podium as the structure of the room provided a large variety of barriers between the speaker and the audience. They adapted well but alas it could have been better.

April 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie A. Roy

I recently attended a national education conference where a panel of experts convened; however, I was less than impressed. These folks were the leaders in each of their own fields but all connected to education; however, only one of the presenters was compelling. While the other presenters experienced technical difficulties, lacked passion in their presentation, or chose an inappropriate method for sharing the presentation (word document of typed notes displayed on overhead - single-spaced, 12 pt font), only one woman delivered a moving speech. What set her apart from the others was her connection to the audience, both with the content of the panel and by bringing in historical event both relevant to the theme and the location of the conference. She delivered her presentation from behind the lectern, but it worked. The word document fellow did not keep to the lectern, but this only minimally improved the delivery of information. So why is this so important? In the field of education, we should be able to expect the leaders to lead not only in research, but also in their ability to connect with their students. After all, if tomorrow's teachers are learning from today's experts, they should be prepared with research, theory, and the ability to engage their students. I may not be a fan of the lectern, but the amount of preparation and creativity that one brings to the presentation is what really counts.

April 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKristina

Hi Charlie,

A real professional, whether speaker or teacher, usually manages to adapt to any environment. Too bad we can't maximize the potential for success instead of creating barriers.

As always I appreciate the comment!


Hi Kristina,

Yes, I've always thought that the presenters at education conferences ought to be the very best since these are real teachers doing the workshops and presentations. How scary to think that this might be true!


April 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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