There was a remarkable comparison that just happened at the Democratic convention that provides a terrific lesson for anyone who speaks at a podium.
The comparison was between Elizabeth Warren, who is a candidate for Senate in Massachusetts and former President Bill Clinton. Warren’s job was to gain some visibility in front of the cameras and the nation. She also had to introduce Bill Clinton.
Warren spoke for about 10 minutes and gave, more or less, her traditional stump speech. I was struck by her poor podium skills. She stared straight ahead over the center of the podium; rarely looking right or left. She kept her hands and arms mostly quiet and by her side. She rarely smiled. She was nervous and perhaps with good reason. This was her first time at a national political convention and the first time on prime time TV and the first time introducing the former president. Her voiced quivered, at times. She seemed out of breath. She needed a sip of water.
Warren wasn’t terrible and we can all understand what it must be like the first time in such a high visibility situation. As I watched her I thought about all of the guidelines for speaking at a podium. She violated each one of them, and, to paraphrase Woody Allen, it was not a moving violation.
And, it was all accentuated when she introduced possibly the finest political speaker in the universe.
Bill Clinton walked out to the podium with the swagger of a hero. He had a huge grin on his face. He took in the thunderous ovation and then got right down to business. Bill smiled almost the whole time- all 48 minutes of his speech. That smile conveyed an enormous sense of confidence. When he spoke, he had a very controlled pace. Not too fast, but not slow. The following night we saw a demonstration of too slow from Joe Biden.
Clinton worked the room as he talked. He looked to the left, to the right, back to center, and then started all over again. And, he didn’t just look towards one section of the audience; he turned his body and squared up to them, then shifted again to the other side and back to the center. This body language said that he acknowledged that the people in the audience were important. He didn’t just glance at them, he faced them.
As he spoke his hands were always visible above the podium. He enumerated items with his fingers. He pointed, he clasped. Because a podium tends to hide much of the speaker, it is very important to show your hands when you speak at a podium, otherwise you look like a talking head.
He did another thing that I admired. He kept his hands off the podium. He would often allow one arm to just hang at his side while he gestured with the other. Speakers who hold on to the podium do themselves a disservice. Grasping the podium on the edges distorts the body, ruins the posture, crumples the suit, and just plain looks bad. What Clinton mostly did was use the podium as a convenience to hold his notes and a glass of water. He really didn’t need it.
He did a hundred other things right as well, but this blog is primarily about his podium work. I have been thinking about recording a video to demonstrate the best way to speak at a podium. There’s no reason to do that now. Clinton wrote the book.
Here are three podium lessons from this comparison:
-Appear to make eye contact with everyone in the room. Don’t just stare straight out.
-Show your hands as you speak. Keep them above the podium.
-Don’t hold onto the podium. Stand tall as if it weren’t there.