Founded in 1636, Harvard University is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Although never formally affiliated with a denomination, Harvard’s primary aim was to train Congregationalist and Unitarian clergy. Their faculty educated students much the same way that professors and coaches teach today: They modeled the types of professional behaviors the students needed to become persuasive ministers and preachers.
Professors were tasked with teaching their students hard skills (bodies of knowledge) and soft skills (techniques for how to properly communicate that body of knowledge). Students were instructed to stand behind a lectern on an elevated pedestal, often positioned far from their congregants, and use their “platform” to pass their knowledge on to the masses. They preached, professed, or otherwise instructed, while their congregation was expected to sit, listen, and absorb all of the wisdom being delivered to them from the pulpit. Given Harvard’s success at training fine Christian gentlemen, this educational model gained traction quickly. Other institutions of higher learning followed and began modeling their own teaching methods after what was going on in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Tradition Isn’t Always Best
You’ll find that college lectures as well as speeches in the business world are often conducted in similar ways. A speaker stands behind a lectern, keeping plenty of distance from his or her students, while offering minimal audience engagement or interaction.
It’s unfortunate, because speech communication doesn’t have to look and feel like a seventeenth-century sermon—in fact, it shouldn’t. I encourage my clients to stop blindly following conventions and instead think about what they’re actually trying to accomplish when giving a speech, asking themselves, “What is my goal? What will be different after communication has taken place?”
As the cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman pointed out in his book Social, our need to connect with others is as basic as our need for food and water. While many experts proclaim that individuals are driven by self-interest, Lieberman implies that we suffer a great deal when our social bonds are threatened or severed. He asserts that the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has made social connections a necessity, not a luxury.
Think about the mottos of countless organizations, which say things like “We aim to please,” “We’re here for you,” or “Exceptional personal service is our only goal.” What does this suggest to you about how people should converse or deliver presentations?
Removing the Physical and Emotional Barrier
A speaker’s primary goal should not only be to communicate information, but to connect with others. When you begin with that goal in mind, you’ll find that everything else flows organically from there. Why then do many speakers create barriers between themselves and their audience? Podiums. Lecterns. Tables. Any time you deliver a speech while standing behind an obstruction, you’re reducing the chances of making a connection before you even begin. If possible, arrange to stand center stage with your body fully exposed to the audience. Although you might feel uncomfortable, you will look more open, vulnerable, and surprisingly more powerful.