Podium vs. Lectern

No, today’s post is not about a new sci-fi movie. Rather, it’s about the distinction between two mainstays of public speaking: the podium and the lectern.

A podium (pl. podiums or podia) is the raised platform on which the speaker stands to deliver his or her speech. “Podium” is derived from the Greek word πόδι (pothi) which means “foot”. The word “podiatrist” (foot doctor) comes from the same source.

A lectern is a raised, slanted stand on which a speaker can place his or her notes. “Lectern” is derived from the Latin word lectus, the past participle of the verb legere, which means “to read”. The word “lecture” comes from the same source.

There are tabletop lecterns and there are standalone lecterns. They come in all sizes.

Small

Photo courtesy of Nathan Colquhoun (nathancolquhoun / Flickr)

Medium

Photo courtesy of Andrew Feinberg (Andrew Feinberg / Flickr)

Large

Photo courtesy of Jeff Hitchcock (Arbron / Flickr)

It is important to make the distinction between a lectern and a podium. And yet, many people say “podium” when they are actually referring to a lectern. (Conversely, I have never heard anyone say “lectern” when referring to a podium.)

Some might say that I am just quibbling over semantics. But suppose you’re giving a speech. You phone the event organizer and ask if there will be a “podium” when you actually mean a lectern. If the organizer is not on the same (incorrect) wavelength and says “No”, you might end up needlessly scrambling to find your own lectern. If the organizer says says “Yes”, you might arrive to find a real podium but no lectern.

To summarize: You stand at or behind the lectern; you stand on the podium.

About John Zimmer

I am passionate about public speaking and helping others improve their public speaking and presentation skills.
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33 Responses to Podium vs. Lectern

  1. Don Perry says:

    Aloha John, bless you for this! Your brief, concise and non judgemental summary is the perfect takeaway; it’s all about the prepositions, yes? Mahalo!, Don

    Like

  2. Lecterns says:

    Thanks for the nice information. I fully agree with you. But both lecterns and podiums are very good for expressing your thoughts to the audience. Both creates a welcoming atmosphere in the auditorium or conference hall.

    Like

  3. “What is the difference between a podium and a lectern?” was an interview question when I applied for my job as an event manager. I didn’t know the answer, I got the job anyway, my boss explained the correct answer and I’ve never forgotten it! It’s now a huge pet peeve of mine when people mix up the two.

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  5. Jenny D says:

    Hi John,

    I had been unclear on the difference between podiums and lecterns but am now unlikely to forget their relative positions in the world of debate. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on affect and effect sometime in the future if you would care to tackle that topic. I avoid using them if able to do so.

    A fun read,

    Thanks, Jenny

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks very much, Jenny. Glad you liked the post. As I said in one of the discussions, even though the word “podium” has morphed in the United States to now also mean “lectern”, I have decided to be a traditionalist on this one.

      As for “affect” vs “effect”, in fact I wrote a short post about those words some time ago. I dug it up and you can read it here.

      Cheers!

      John

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  9. John Parker says:

    I’m the Technical Director for a Performing Arts Venue and as we have both lecterns for speakers and podiums for conductors for example, the distinction is often quite necessary.

    And my defense in the argument has always been that the first definition in most dictionaries for lectern is something you stand behind, and that is the second or further down definition for podium. So, podium may be correct, but lectern is MORE correct ;-)

    I also only use lectern for lectern even in conversations when the other person is not. I get strange looks, but always smile and never force MY term.

    Maybe a losing battle, but it wont die with me!

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  10. Lisa says:

    I’m just going to say “stand” to eliminate confusion. Seldom do I need to ensure or even know if a podium is available.

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  12. John:

    At my friendly local university library (Boise State) I looked up podium in Fowler’s.

    The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition, edited by R. W. Burchfield, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996 has an entry on page 603 for podium:

    “A podium is a platform or rostrum (e.g. for a speaker or an orchestral conductor). A lectern is a stand for holding a book (usu. the Bible) in church or a similar stand for a lecturer, etc.“

    Then I checked to see it was there in the 1965 2nd edition edited by Sir Ernest Gower, or the 1944 1st edition by H. W. Fowler (both titled the Dictionary of Modern English Usage). It was not. All they said about podium was:

    “Podium Pronounce pō; pl. -ia.”

    Perhaps Mr. Burchfield was irritated that the lectern meaning had gotten into dictionaries. I think he was trying to lock the barn after the horse was stolen. Pick an edition!

    Richard

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Richard,

      I admire your tenacity and willingness to keep drilling down on this issue until you hit bedrock! Thanks for taking the time to leave such an extensive comment. I will keep my eye out for anything that can further the discussion, but for now I suspect that the lines of demarcation are (more or less) clearly drawn. Whether or not they are drawn in sand is another question.

      Cheers!

      John

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  13. Bob Byrd says:

    John,

    Thanks for this. I might be revealing my ignorance but I’d never heard the term ‘lectern’ actually used in conversation. I definitely like the differentiation and plan to use it in future … if I can remember.

    Cheers,

    Bob

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hey, Bob. Great to hear from you. You were missed at the recent Geneva Writers Conference.

      “Podium” is one of those words that has just evolved to take on a different meaning in (most of) North America. As long as everyone understands what is meant, it really doesn’t matter. But I figure that every now and then you have to take a stand on some issues and so I’ve decided to take a stand here … on the podium.

      Cheers!

      John

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      • JeopardyGeorge says:

        Podium v. lectern is also one of my pet peeves. I refuse to yield on this as I feel it contributes to the slippery slope of improper usage. I also offer up interpreter v. translator and home in on v. hone in on. Please don’t get me started on factoid.

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        • John Zimmer says:

          Thanks for the comment, George. I stand shoulder to shoulder with you on podium / lectern and interpreter / translator. (When you have worked in the United Nations system, you know the difference between the two.) But I have to say that I also greatly appreciated this piece by Stephen Fry on the evolution of language. See what you think.

          John

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  14. Faisal says:

    John, I fully agree with your definition, unless someone wants to put his notes on an elevated stage and deliver his speech :)

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  15. John:

    I’m not sure what goes on in Europe, but North American usage really doesn’t distinguish between lectern and podium. Webster’s started that way back in 1961, and the Oxford English Dictionary later agreed.

    A longer discussion appears in this blog post: http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/03/what-should-we-call-stage-furniture-on.html

    Richard

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Richard. Thanks for the comment and the (as always) constructive contribution to the discussion. Being North American myself, I know that many people there don’t make the distinction. I can also tell you that many people in Europe don’t make the distinction, either. But on this point I’m a traditionalist … or a purist … or maybe just stubborn! I recognize that language is not a rigid construct and that the meaning of words can change and evolve. An example that comes to mind is “hopefully”, which started out as meaning “in a hopeful manner” but is not more commonly used as “it is to be hoped”.

      Still, I was surprised to learn about Merriam-Webster when I was writing the post (see my answer to the previous comment) but believe that it is a case of succumbing to popular usage as opposed to having an etymological basis. But, as you rightly intimate in your post, etymology does not always trump lexicography. For my money, I’ll stick with the distinction, comforted by the fact that I have Fowler’s Modern English Usage on my side. And if you want to take this further, I’ll see you on the podium … or at the lectern … or wherever. ;-)

      Cheers!

      John

      PS – No relation to Ben.

      Like

  16. chris daly says:

    Hi John, I loved your comedy speeches and would love to hear more of your material.

    Cheers, Chris

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  17. Donn King says:

    Thanks, John! This is one of my pet peeves–I constantly correct students, for the same reason, and cringe when I hear educated colleagues say “podium” when they mean “lectern.” For my own purposes, when I ask an event organizer about facilities, I ask about a “speaker’s stand” and a “platform” just to make sure there’s no potential confusion. However, nothing is idiot-proof–some “idiots” are just plain ingenious! (No insult intended to anyone, just commenting on human nature.)

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Donn. I’m with you. I was surprised (and disappointed) when writing this post to learn that Merriam-Webster lists “lectern” as a synonym for “podium”. You read the definition here. I think that they just adopted an “If you can beat ‘em, join ‘em” position, which is unfortunate. I’ll stick with Fowler’s, which makes the clear distinction between the two.

      Cheers!

      John

      Like

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