Have you ever wondered why some speakers always speak from behind a lectern or a podium and others don't like to have anything between themselves and the audience? Is it just personal preference? Are some speakers more comfortable when they can get right down among their listeners and look them in the eye? Do others feel they should always maintain a safe distance between them? Are there any rules that govern when there should be something between you and the audience and when there shouldn't?
To be or not to be closer to your audience? That is the question.
The answer is: it depends.
First, just what is the difference between a lectern and a podium? And does it matter?
Here's the simple difference: If you can stand behind it, but not on it, it's a lectern. The confusion comes with the size: a lectern may be portable and sit on a table. It may also be full-sized and stand on the floor.
If you can stand on it, it's a podium. A podium always stands on the floor because as part of its construction is has a platform attached behind it on which the speaker can stand. No attached platform? It's not a podium.
But that doesn't answer the question of which one to use on any given occasion.
Here are some questions to ask:
Is the speech formal or informal? If it's a formal speech, it's most likely expected that you'll use a lectern (or podium) on which you'll have a copy of your speech as well as any materials that you may be handing out to the audience. If your set-up includes a teleprompter, you need always to be able to see it, which will keep you from moving around very much.
If it's an informal speech, whether or not you use a lectern is your choice. If your talk is interactive with lots of Q&A, you might prefer to get closer to the audience and move freely among them to engage them eye-to-eye. However, if you feel more secure with a barrier between you and them, the lectern is perfect. You may then choose specific moments to come out from behind it to speak to the audience and then return to continue on.
Are you using a slide program? Same as above. If it's a formal speech, and you have a clicker to change the slides, you can exercise full control without having to move away from the lectern. If it's a more informal presentation, and you may be using your computer to change slides with or without a clicker, you'll probably be more comfortable with the freedom to move closer to the audience as you talk about the material the slides present.
How large is the audience? If you're speaking to a small group in a conference room, using a lectern may seem like overkill. With a larger audience, you can choose to use a lectern for your notes or stand before them with nothing between you but air. The audience came to see and hear you. Make it easy for them.
How is the audience seated? If you're facing rows of listeners theater-style, and you prefer to use a lectern, you can move out from behind it at specific moments to emphasize key points in your talk. If you choose not to use a lectern, keep in mind that your space for movement is horizontal and limited, and you want to be careful as you walk back and forth not to make them seasick.
If they're seated at individual tables luncheon style, you have a lot more room to move about. It's your choice. If your talk is informal, you might feel more comfortable being closer to individuals and engaging them eye to eye. If it's a formal speech, a lectern is appropriate.
The key is visibility and clarity. You want the audience to see you and hear you easily and clearly so they get every word you say without a struggle. Your job, when you're in front of them, is to give them the gift of your knowledge. Whether you do it standing behind a lectern or there's nothing between you and them but air, remember that it's all about them. Make yourself as comfortable as possible so you can focus on giving them what they came for.