Minor moans about lecterns

After some welcome time away, I’ve spoken at several conferences recently, notably An Event Apart in Austin, Milton Keynes Geek Night in, err and last week’s Smashing Conference in Oxford. With those events still fresh in mind, I have a few minor moans about lecterns.

Make lecterns movable

I’ve been at events where—instead of being positioned parallel to the audience—the lectern is turned at an angle towards the centre of the audience/stage. I guess this suits speakers who stay put firmly behind the lectern, but it means trouble for those who move around the stage and still need access to notes on a laptop. To make matters worse, some lecterns are fixed to the floor1. When you’re setting up a lectern, please make sure that it can be rotated to an angle away from the centre of the audience/stage, so that speakers can see their notes from anywhere on the stage.

Speaking of inflexibility, when a lectern can’t be moved, speakers sometimes like to put their laptops somewhere other than the top of the lectern. In the past I’ve put my laptop on the floor, which is hardly ideal, or on a stool. However this isn’t possible when the VGA cable that connects a laptop to a projector is either too short or too tightly fitted to the lectern.

Watch that lip

Almost every lectern I’ve used has a lip around the top, to keep cable clutter out of sight of the audience and, I assume, to prevent laptops from sliding off. There’s no reason why a lip has to be more than a couple of centimetres high, but lecterns at the recent Milton Keynes Geek Night and last week’s Smashing Conference, both had lips so tall—around half the height of a laptop screen—that it was impossible to see notes on the screen without perching the laptop on a box. If you must have a high lip, please keep the side nearest to the speaker low.

Provide an extra fold-back display

The stage at the Wales Millennium Centre for last year’s Handheld Conference was so wide that notes on the lectern were impossible to read from the centre of the stage. Fortunately Handheld’s organisers also placed a 32" TV fold-back/comfort display at the front/centre of the stage. This display mirrored what was presented on the big screen behind the speaker.

When I speak ‘without slides,’ it doesn’t mean that I don’t have slides, just that I’m the only person who sees them. Keynote’s Presenter Display never provided the degree of control that I’d like—for example showing notes reversed out with white text on a dark background—and the latest version is even worse. So I use the slides layer, rather than notes on the Presenter Display, to show my notes and I use bold, white Helvetica type that’s readable on my Macbook Pro’s screen from about six feet away.

The fold-back display at Handheld was perfect for this set up. The large display meant that I could see my notes from anywhere on the stage. It was almost as good as having an auto-cue prompter. I like fold-back displays so much that I now always ask that one be provided.

The only thing I can find fault with at last week’s Smashing Conference was that the stage was shallow and their fold-back display was therefore a little too close, meaning looking down further than was comfortable. An Event Apart offer a similar arrangement and because their stage is also shallow, they place their fold-back display on a box just in-front of the first row. This means that speakers can maintain eye-contact with the audience and only have to lower their eyes. This is far better than looking away from the audience towards notes on a lectern.

Finally though, some positives. All three of these events got parts of their lectern set-ups perfect:

Mac power adapters (both versions of Magsafe) already on the lectern. This not only saves time switching between speakers, it means no one leaves theirs behind after they speak.

The same goes for VGA adapters, ready and waiting on the lectern, as speakers often forget them or leave them. I know I have.

A house presenter remote. I always travel with my favourite clicker but I’ve been caught out with dud batteries a couple of times and swapping to the house clicker is faster than swapping in new batteries.

  1. I assume that’s to ensure that their branding or sponsor logos always face the audience. Please don’t do that. There are plenty of possible places for an audience to see your logo and those of your sponsors and the lectern needn’t be one of them. The audience should be paying attention to a speaker and shouldn’t be needlessly distracted by unnecessary branding.


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