How to Be Engaging When You Are Stuck Behind a Podium or Best Practices for a Worst Case Scenario

It’s possible there are worse set-ups for a presenter than being stuck behind a podium with a fixed mic, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head. Unless the speaker is also on a stage, which compounds the separation-and the human connection. That said, you have a problem. You’re a scientist about to present at a conference and you know the scenario will be exactly as I’ve described. What to do?

For starters, find out if in fact, standing behind the podium is a requirement. It may be tradition-but not a real requirement. Ask for a lavalier or lapel mic or a wireless hand-held mic to free you from the constraints of the podium. Ask-because that podium is more than a physical barrier; it’s a psychological barrier too. It literally and metaphorically separates you from your audience making it very hard to connect. Real audience engagement comes from the connection with the speaker.

So let’s say you must stand like a potted plant behind your barrier-separated from your audience and standing above them. How can you overcome the connection issues? Here are some suggestions that will help.

1. Organize your presentation so it is memorable and easy to follow. You don’t want the audience looking at handouts or reading your slides as you speak, so be sure the whole presentation is constructed simply and logically. Structure the content into 3 major sections, as I describe in other articles.

2. Maximize eye contact. Practice your delivery until you can speak without reading every word from your notes. When you talk, look at your audience. Make real eye contact with one individual and hold it for a couple of seconds before randomly moving to another audience member.

3. Create an engaging opening. Begin with a story, a stunning fact, or an eye-opening finding. Open with a quote or an anecdote. Whatever you do, grab them from the get-go and they’ll listen attentively throughout. Your position on stage may be a requirement, but how you handle your topic is not pre-ordained. Be creative, engaging and charming.

4. Eliminate as many words as possible from your PowerPoint. Use key words only, to keep you on track and keep audience attention on you-not on the screen. The font size required for a big room is 60-72 points which means small fonts must go; eye tests are out. If you are delivering a paper, don’t put the whole thing on screen. Hand it out after you speak and your audience can read it later-or perhaps they’ve read it already. Either way, you want them looking at you during your presentation.

5. Go for professional looking graphics on screen. I’ve written lots about that and how easy it is to achieve-and it’s a “must do.”

6. Be your warmest, friendliest, most charming self. Avoid sounding stuffy, stilted or pretentious. Authenticity is engaging. Use ordinary, everyday language-yes, even for scientists. People connect with people they like and they like friendly, unpretentious people-even at a distance. Smile broadly–so your smile can be seen from the back of the room.

7. Convey energy, enthusiasm and excitement. If you must be glued in place, the least you can do is inject energy into the space. Vary the volume, inflection and pace of your words. If you’re simply going to read to your audience in a coma-inducing monotone, you might as well have emailed the talk and stayed home.

8. Gesture broadly. The body language of the speaker is an important part of the subliminal feedback loop-and the audience responds positively to openness. Since a podium hides the speaker’s body, an important component of that loop is lost. If your hands are stuck in place and your body is hidden, you risk looking like a talking head. Not good for connecting. Don’t overdo it, of course, but use broad, open-handed gestures to counter the problem.

9. Share something personal. In a formal setting, it’s more important than ever to reach out to your audience and bring them close. To do it, give away something of yourself. I’m not talking about listing your credentials or bragging about your fantastic bio. I’m suggesting you share a short, personal story that adds a human element and underscores a point you are making.

10. Move from behind the podium for Q and A if at all possible. More questions will be forthcoming if you do.

It’s true that being stuck behind a podium with a fixed mic is not ideal. But you can circumvent the obstacles with some creativity, energy, and a sincere effort to engage your audience-because they came to hear you and because they deserve it.