When I’m giving workshops on presentation tips, I often get asked about the “proper way to speak at a podium.” I always answer with one sentence, “Unless you absolutely have to, never stand behind a podium.” This response normally gets met with looks of fear and alarm.
I then explain how speakers have a hard enough time creating a connection with their listeners without putting a tree in between themselves and their audience. It is very hard to appear as the authority on your subject when you hide behind a block of wood.
Many people feel the need to stand behind a podium because that is where the microphone is. If you ask ahead of time, normally there is another microphone option for speakers. There are lavaliere microphones, handheld ones and headsets. Or if the only microphone is on the podium, it is often adjustable. You can twist it to the side and stand beside the podium. That way the audience can see you and connect with you.
Other people want to stand behind the podium so they can see their notes. However, your slides are your notes. They are there to help illustrate your points. If you have practiced, the images and ideas on the slides should be sufficient to help you remember what you want to say. If you like to see what slide is coming up, and your laptop is on the podium, you can stand close enough to it to glance at the screen as needed.
Beyond logistics, people feel "safer" behind a podium. Nervous ticks are hidden from view. It gives people something stable to hold on to and ground themselves. However, you have to ask yourself what your ultimate goal is. If it is to feel safe, use the podium. But if your goal is to get people excited about your content, step out in front of people. It is worth feeling a little uncomfortable if it means people feel a connection to you and your ideas.
Experts know it is better to speak to an audience directly. During award shows, no one stands behind a podium. The microphone comes up from the floor, or if there is a “podium” it is clear so the audience can see through it. During TED Talks, people use headsets and walk around the stage. When CEOs like Elon Musk or Tim Cook launch a new product, they don’t stand behind anything. They are front and center.
A podium creates a physical barrier between you and your audience. Next time you give a speech and you see a podium, ditch it. Stand in clear view of your audience so they can connect with you and your content.