Imagine if someone would refuse to talk to you unless they had notes and something to put in between you during the conversation. That person would be considered rather odd.
Yet, so many debaters do the exact same thing: hide behind their notes and a lectern.
Now before I infuriate a bunch of people, obviously the analogy doesn’t completely apply, and some people really should use a lectern. So let me start with the exceptions to the rule.
1. If you’re a novice
I only know of a couple of novices that were good enough their first year to pull this off. What usually happens is that they start to turn their head to wherever they put the lectern in order to see their notes. All. The. Time.
Now instead of looking at the judge, they have their head turned 45 degrees to the left or right. That ruins eye contact and makes them less effective.
It also often has the effect of making a novice nervous, which is the last thing they need. When I was a novice, I was focused more on not having a mental breakdown, not on putting the lectern to the side and being an amazing speaker.
Please don’t take this as a condescending pat on the head with a baby-talking voice saying “oooh aren’t you just a cute wittle novice….” That’s not how I mean it at all. But I want the best for everyone, and unless you are ready to step away from the lectern, it’s best to focus on other parts of speaking first.
2. If you really just don’t want to
If you are not comfortable with it yet and it makes you extremely nervous, then it will do more harm than good.
Keep in mind that people have won first place speaker at nationals without putting the lectern to the side. It does give you an advantage, but it’s possible to win without it.
3. If you’re too tall/close to the judge
There was a guy in my club that was 6 foot 8 inches. He was a giant of a man. If he were to stand close to the judge without a lectern in between them, that would be extremely intimidating. If you’re tall and the room is small, you might be too intimidating of a presence.
This is rarely the case (I’m six foot two inches and it happened twice), but if it does then just keep the lectern in place and only come out from behind it a few times. (Or you can make it into a joke, which is an even better idea).
How to pull it off
When you go up for your speech, move the lectern to the side if it’s a music stand or similarly portable lectern. I once saw someone move a large glass lectern on the stage in finals, and I can tell you that’s not a good idea or necessary. How far you move it is your choice, but generally within a step is a safe bet. I also suggest angling it towards yourself so you can see it from where you’re standing.
If you’re about to be cross-examined, move it back to the center and stand behind it as usual. It would look odd to leave it to the side. (And rude to your opponent).
When you need to read evidence, just pick up the paper from the lectern and read it in front of the judge. That way you can still look at them directly. Be careful, do not use this as a way to display the evidence as a prop. I’ve seen a team point to the evidence in their hand to show the judges a chart, and that can get you disqualified.
When I did this, I still used an outline of my speech and had prewritten introductions and conclusions. If you need to glance at or read something on your notes, just step back behind the lectern to do so. It’s very easy to make it look natural, so don’t fret about these details.
The psychology behind it
1. It displays confidence
If there are four speakers and you are the only one who moves the lectern to the side, it communicates to the judge that you’re confident enough in your abilities to set aside the notes and just talk to them.
2. It makes you more confident
Acting confident makes you feel more confident. As long as this doesn’t make you nervous (see exception 2), it can easily boost your confidence and help you get out of your box.
3. It creates a connection with your judge
Putting the lectern in between you and the judge is creating a barrier between you two. Although lecterns can make someone seem authoritative, someone who stays behind the lectern the entire talk just looks nervous and uncomfortable.
Also, a huge part of communication is not just in the parts of you that the judge can still see (face, hands, sometimes feet), but also your entire body posture. Your words have more impact if the judge can see you in your entirety.
Don’t just take my word for it, here’s an entire article on the same subject. (And you can find plenty more if you search, this is a well-known fact and I’m surprised at how many people still think lecterns should stay in between you and the judge).
4. It sets you apart from everyone else
As I’ve talked about before, sometimes judges are just looking for easy excuses to give people extra speaker points. A lot of judges are too inexperienced to accurately rate speakers, so they take the most obvious clues and use them to determine speaker points.
If both you and your partner set aside the lectern and move around while the other team doesn’t, this will usually give you brownie points in that judge’s mind. Of course, that only applies if you pull it off well. As I said earlier, someone who is uncomfortable speaking with the lectern set aside will suffer in speaker points.
I think the argument that setting aside the lectern is not helpful is a difficult one to make. All evidence points to the additional boost in speaker points it can provide.
The comparison image above, although exaggerated for effect, shows you the difference between with a lectern and without a lectern in front of a speaker.
Give it a try once you’re comfortable enough to do it!