Break Away From the Podium to Connect with Your Audience

Last Updated Mar 30, 2010 7:24 PM EDT

get close to your audience
Like many top teaching institutions, Harvard Business School invests heavily in training faculty to become dynamic classroom presenters. Observing the best of them at work is like watching a master actor take command of the theater.

HBS professors rarely stand still, often sprinting from student to student to tease out insights on a case study. Their hands fly over a half-dozen blackboards that raise and lower for emphasis. There may be a podium in the room, but the teacher is not behind it for long.

Leaving the podium lectern behind, getting physically nearer your audience, is one key to making sure you're being listened to. In particular, you want to get within 12 feet of at least some of your audience, and the closer, the better.

Why 12 feet? It's biology. If someone is a dozen or more feet away from us, our automatic personal security system regards them as non threatening -- another way of saying they're far enough away not to be of interest, reports speechmeister Nick Morgan:

"Standing behind a podium means that you're almost guaranteed to be more than twelve feet from everyone. That means that no one is very interested in you, at the unconscious level," Morgan writes on HBR.org. "So one of the easiest ways to up the ante on your performance is to warm up the connections between you and your audience by leaving the podium and entering into carefully chosen audience member's personal space." Personal space is defined as between four and 12 feet.
One simple technique: When making an important point, move toward your audience or particular audience members. Move away to signal a change in subject.
"This choreography is a simple, easy way to enormously improve the connection you make with your audience, without even raising your voice."
Morgan has several other great presentation tips. Read his full post, Three Steps to Make Your Next Speech Your Best.

Have a favorite speaking tip to engage your audience? Do share.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Lauren Murphy, CC 2.0

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.