Speaking in Church: Lectern or No Lectern?
What do you do when you prefer not to use a lectern, but its use is implied by the nature of your speaking engagement?
Do you follow convention and stand behind it?
Or, do you go with your gut and break free?
Ask Six Minutes
That’s the question posed in a message I recently received from a Six Minutes subscriber. He writes:
I am planning a speech to about 2,000 people where I will be asking for a significant donation. The venue is a pulpit where clergy perform their work from behind lecterns. As a speaker, I am more comfortable moving around but do not want to appear too casual or disrespectful to the clergy. Any thoughts or coaching will be appreciated.
Lectern or No Lectern? 8 Factors to Consider
There’s no definitive answer here because every church is different.
So, let’s examine 8 factors you might consider if you were faced with this situation.
- The Elevation Advantage
- Sound Amplification
- Symbolic “Weight” of the Lectern
- Your Height
- Sensitivity of the Clergy
- Expectations of the Audience
- Visibility of Gestures
- Vulnerability and Audience Connection
1. The Elevation Advantage
Speaking from the lectern usually means you can be seen. Sometimes, the area around the lectern is raised higher than its surroundings. Sometimes, there is a step or two to ascend. The lectern itself is usually placed in a location with clear sight lines to most of the congregation.
Stepping away from the lectern may not provide the same elevation advantage. If it doesn’t, you become harder to see, particularly for people farther away.
2. Sound Amplification
There’s usually a microphone at the lectern that allows you to be heard without straining your voice. With an audience of 2,000 people, you definitely need help to reach people in the back of the church.
If you step away from the lectern, you may put yourself at a disadvantage:
- If there is a portable microphone that can be worn or held, you can probably compensate.
- If there is not, I would definitely advise staying at the lectern. Even with a very strong voice, it would be difficult for you to be heard, particularly if you speaking longer than a minute or two.
3. Symbolic “Weight” of the Lectern
There’s a reason that lecterns are used in many religious settings, as well as by CEOs and politicians. By its nature, a lectern carries significant weight (both real and metaphorical). When you speak from behind the lectern, your credibility can be heightened, provided your message and delivery is dignified and respectful.
In this particular context (asking for a donation), credibility is critical.
4. Your Height
The “weight” advantage afforded by the lectern is maximized by speakers who have the physical presence to match it.
Tall speakers have an advantage in this scenario. Shorter speakers, on the other hand, may find themselves overwhelmed by the size of the lectern. In a worst case scenario, a very short speaker may appear to only be peeking over the top of the lectern. It is definitely worth swallowing your pride and compensating with a step stool if necessary.
Of course, stepping out from behind the lectern eliminates this entirely.
5. Sensitivity of the Clergy
If the presiding clergy member would take offense to you stepping out from behind the lectern, then you would be ill-advised to do it. Remember that you are a guest in this setting, and it isn’t a good idea to offend your host.
The best (and only) way to assess their sensitivity is to ask them beforehand. (In general, you should always include questions like this as part of your audience analysis.) Explain where you’d like to stand, and why you’d like to avoid the lectern. I think this is a case where it is better to ask for permission rather than beg for forgiveness.
6. Expectations of the Audience
Depending on the culture and accepted practices within your congregation, you may be expected to speak from the lectern. If nobody ever speaks away from the lectern, some may take offense. Again, the only way to gauge this is to talk with members of the congregation ahead of time.
Having said that, shocking the expectations of your audience may be to your advantage. If nobody ever speaks away from the lectern, they will certainly notice if you do! For a bit of (appropriate) drama, you might consider starting at the lectern and then moving away during your delivery. Perhaps this “breaking of convention” ties into your core message? Maybe the visual shock of moving away from the lectern complements your desire to shock your audience to abandon their preconceived opinions about the cause to which you would like them to donate?
Whatever you choose, be respectful.
7. Visibility of Gestures
Provided there is no extreme elevation disadvantage in moving away from the lectern, there’s no question that you can employ a wider range of gestures if you free yourself.
Standing behind a lectern hides a significant fraction of your body. Depending on your height, the only gestures that are visible are likely those made at or above the level of your chest. Further, the “weight” of the lectern will tend to diminish any gesture you deliver.
On the other hand, being free from the lectern makes your entire body visible. (Again, this depends on sight lines.) You will have a wider range of gestures at your disposal, and they will appear larger and more effective.
8. Vulnerability and Audience Connection
Stepping away from the lectern enhances your vulnerability. As mentioned by Nick Morgan, moving closer to your audience often aids your attempts to connect with them. In addition to moving physically closer, you will also be free of the symbolic barrier which the lectern creates between you and your audience. Eliminating barriers — physical or symbolic — makes you more effective.
What Do You Think?
Do you have experience speaking in church? What did you do?
If you were in the congregation, would you encourage the speaker to step away from the lectern, or expect them to stay behind it?