Real Leaders

What Reagan and The Queen Learned About Podium Speeches

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Each week, speech coach and leadership mentor James Rosebush will answer a question on how to improve your public speaking.

Ben Press, a Television and Film Producer from Los Angeles, asks: “When speaking at a podium, is it an effective tool to move aside and speak more face-to-face with the audience or even in front of the podium?” 


Dear Ben,

When I worked in the White House for President Reagan, I learned that the big podium presidents typically speak from what is called “The Blue Goose.” That’s because it’s wrapped in blue cloth to which the presidential seal is affixed. It travels wherever the president goes and is a clearly identifiable symbol of power. Presidents rarely deviate from speaking behind the podium because they often read tele-prompters which are positioned with close proximity of the podium. Occasionally the president uses what is called a “toast lectern’ which is a music stand sort of column with a small desktop affixed. These are for more causal remarks.

Now, most of us are mere mortals and not presidents of countries so being positioned behind a huge podium might seem to distance you from the audience and seem pretentious. The first rule, however, is to make sure you can be seen well above the podium. It should not come higher than mid-chest.  If it does you will want to find a riser to stand on. The military officer who plans south lawn ceremonials at the White House almost lost his job when he positioned a podium so high that visiting Queen Elizbeth could not even be seen when she spoke from behind it! That speech was dubbed the “talking hat speech” and was an embarrassment to her which she did not soon forget!

Podiums can be good places for your notes or if you will refer to a written script or if you are reading from a book, which I often do. It can also feel like a nice protection. You do not want it to be a barrier to and from your audience, however. To stand and deliver behind a podium will require you to make an extra effort at energy and imagination. If a boring and dull speaker presents behind a big podium after dinner you may have a recipe for nap-taking. If you are behind one you may have to show your arms and shoulders moving a bit more to give confidence and energy as you build your bridge to those in the room.  There is one more plus to being behind the podium and that is the likelihood that the microphone will work without much fuss, as it is typically solidly affixed. When in doubt remain behind the podium.

If at a certain point in your presentation you would like to move out to the side of the podium, make sure you do not appear to favor one side over the other! I have seen this happen and you would need to compensate for that. If you want to step out in front to appear more friendly and if you have a hand held or lavier mic to enable you to do this, then do it at a point when you want to say something more personal or to help draw your audience up close — as if you want to tell them a secret —which is a smart tool.

It can be fun to do that but be careful you do not lose your place in your remarks and fumble. That would make you lose the value of moving around in the first place. TED talks require that the speaker uses no podium, and this is ideal when telling stories, which TED talks always do. By being completely out in the open you make yourself more vulnerable to the audience and that typically gains more acceptance and connection. It put you in the same plane as the audience. It also fits with the more causal style of public speaking today. One caveat is: it must be done well. Otherwise get a podium.

Have some fun with it and be warm and approachable but always maintain your position as the authority on your topic. Podiums can help with that.

Have a question you’ve always wanted to ask about public speaking? Email James at and your answer may feature here.

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