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Prometheus at the Disco Bowl

How to Prepare and Give a Presentation

However mean your [presentation] is, meet ... and [g]ive it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are.
— Thoreau

Anxiety

When I lived in Tokyo, my friends and I would go to “box” karaoke, where you sing in a private room, but when work colleagues visited, we’d usually take them to “stage” karaoke where you sing in front of an audience of strangers.

One fall a colleague (also named Robert) came to visit from our London office and we took him to stage karaoke in Shibuya. He picked out “Roxanne,” but had never done karaoke before, so he asked me to sing with him.

When we were done, we went back to our seats in the audience. In front of us, five women at a birthday party were whispering to each other and looking back at us like they wanted to ask a question. Finally, one of them turned around and said, “You guys were terrible.”

I think people worry that this is how their presentations will go.

Be So Good You're Better Than Bad Karaoke

Few people on the karaoke stage are mesmerizing singers, and people giving presentations are often paid professionals executing an important component of their jobs, but the risk of a bad time at the presentation is significantly higher. Why?

I hesitate to say how many books I read on presentation skills, slide design, stand-up comedy, improv, story-telling, and marketing because I don’t want to raise excessive expectations for any future talk I give. But I did absorb enough to compile a few hundred tips (which you can browse below), and to formulate a philosophy of presentation that includes (I think) at least one original insight.

The philosophy has three parts, encapsulated in the title of this essay:

  1. Define your relationship with your audience and how you will help them
  2. Craft your message and eliminate obstacles to its comprehension
  3. Reinforce your message through multiple communication channels

1. Wizard, Goddess, Titan, or Queen

The most important aspect of any presentation is the audience: Who are they, what do they need, and how can you help?

When you are thinking about how you can help your audience, everyone will benefit if you think big. Here are four personas you can inhabit to help you stretch your imagination:

Merlin

Wizard. Source of strategic advice, risk management, and occasional magic items for the hero’s (i.e., audience’s) journey.

Mentor

Advisor/Goddess. Famous counselor and spur to action for Odysseus’s son. Senior advisors are now generally called mentors after him — arguably a “mentee” should be called a “telemachus.” Mostly not actually Mentor but the goddess Athena in disguise.

Prometheus

Titan. Selfless benefactor who at great personal cost stole fire to give to humanity, sharing a tool to cheer, aid, and spark innovation in his audience.

Elizabeth I

Queen. Inspiring leader providing conviction, shared vision, and a rousing call to arms through artful use of language.

Why are these good role models?

First, these entities are important. Many presenters are nervous or apologetic about their presentation. Choosing one of these roles means unapologetically assuming responsibility for delivering a clear, engaging, potentially transformative message.

Second, they are not too important. With the exception of Elizabeth, they are not the heroes of the story — they are advisors or helpers, secondary to the main tale. It is the recipient of their advice that benefits and grows. In the Queen’s case, she is in fact the boss, but even here, unity of purpose among the audience is the goal, and that goal is more important than the leader’s status.

Finally, all of these figures provide something that benefits the audience: Whether it is advice, a spur to action, a shared vision, or a tool — the focus is on helping the listener.

If these personas seem too grandiose to channel, you can create a layer of distance by asking them for advice and thinking through their probable response.

Questions: What is my relationship to my audience? What benefit am I offering?

2. Bowl Strikes

Even though one of my hobbies is memorizing things, it’s distracting to keep all the good advice I’ve ever heard in mind when I am preparing or giving a speech, so I don’t. Instead, I use the bowling lane as a memory palace to remember to ask myself a few questions:

The pins

The pins are the audience. They are far away, you have an ineffective means of reaching them, success requires focus, power, finesse, and practice. Your goal is to bowl them over, floor them, knock them down: all these violent metaphors capture the idea of transforming as many of your audience members as possible in a single shot.

Questions: Am I focusing on my audience? How will my message change my listeners?

The ball

The ball is the message. Geometrically perfect, compact, dense, and polished, it includes everything you need to communicate your message effectively and eliminates anything extraneous.

Question: Is my message simple, substantial, condensed, and polished?

The lane

All the work that went into clearing, grading, constructing, sanding, and oiling the path to the pins is a reminder of everything you can do to clear the path for your message: Make sure the audience can hear you. Avoid jargon your audience is unfamiliar with (or explain it clearly). Don’t make them calculate. Make everything you say something they can evaluate directly themselves. Don’t rush. Signpost your talk, i.e., foreshadow and reiterate your points, and make the connections explicit. Make your slides legible all the way in the back. End on time or early, especially if it’s late in the day or the next session includes food or beer.

Question: What impediments to understanding or sources of distraction can I eliminate?

The bumpers

The inflatable guides that keep the ball out of the gutters are your responses to potential objections.

In order to fully convey a concept, it’s often necessary to let your audience test its boundaries, asking, “What about…?” and “What if…?” questions. Presentations don’t naturally allow for this kind of concept boundary-testing in real time, but you can create an effective substitute by raising and answering questions yourself. This has the useful side-effect of forcing you to refine your message even more carefully.

Question: How can I anticipate and respond to important questions and objections?

3. Communicate in Chords

Even a caricature of a bad speaker conveys much more than his ostensible message. As he twists his head over his shoulder to read aloud the dense cluster of bullet points that his audience already read as soon as those bullets peppered the screen, he is leaking information through his posture, his tone, his pace, and multiple other channels. The audience converts that information into overt or subconscious judgments about the speaker’s self-confidence, preparation, credibility, and competence.

Presentations become powerful and persuasive when speakers learn to use these multiple channels consciously to focus audience members’ minds on an idea, tell a dramatic story to heighten their emotional response, then resolve the tension they’ve introduced in a memorable, maybe even humorous way.

Pitch, volume, and tone of voice; posture, position, and movement across a stage; exposition, dialogue, physical and facial responses; humor, emotion, mystery, and surprise; and visuals like slides or props are all channels of communication that you can learn to use not just to convey an idea, but to clarify, amplify, and reinforce it.

Like an experienced carpenter who sets a nail with a tap, then drives it home with a bang, you can make a point through one channel of communication, then bang it home with the others.

So practice

Many presenters are playing Chopsticks, a hesitant two-note combination of speech and visuals that consumes their full attention. If you can practice enough to internalize your message, you will gain back some mental bandwidth that you can use to pay attention to your audience and gauge how well your message is coming across. Making eye contact becomes an integral part of your delivery, rather than a checklist item to tick off if you can remember; you end up talking more naturally and engagingly, like you’re in a conversation and your partner’s responses matter; and you get a chance to practice using your expressions, voice, gestures, and visuals to make your message clearer and more persuasive.

Communicating in chords is the “disco” part of the Prometheus metaphor: part of what makes a karaoke venue or a dance-flavored bowling lane fun are the lights, the music, a singer’s impromptu choreography, or a bowler’s body english and minor dance of triumph as the ball knocks down the pins — it’s fun to see people fully engage in something. Once you start to conduct the complete orchestra of communication possibilities, you will see how much speaking advice is just some concrete instantiation of this meta-advice to fully engage by communicating across multiple channels.

Question: How can I use multiple communication channels to clarify, amplify, and reinforce my message?

Summary x 3

I originally wanted to get better at presenting because I thought the tool itself was a dull knife that I should sharpen a little to avoid injury. Now, as the slightly corrupted epigraph from Thoreau at the head of this essay suggests, I think that a presentation can in fact be a very fine tool, and I just need to improve as a craftsman.

The more you work to improve your presentation skills, the more good advice you will collect. I hope this image of Prometheus at the Disco Bowl will give you a simple framework for connecting what you learn so you can use it fluently and effectively. I also hope that the idea itself represents the spirit of a good presentation and can help you make your next speech surprising, meaningful, and fun.

Here are three summaries of this advice framework, so you can use whichever resonates with you:

The metaphor: Prometheus at the Disco Bowl

The questions

Finally, if you prefer a linear checklist, I present...

The 7 R’s


All the Advice

Below I’ve compiled a few hundred recommendations for becoming a better speaker. Warning: This is a pretty long list and I haven't tried to make it entertaining.

My approach to creating a new talk is to use the simple Prometheus structure above as my primary guide, then to dive into the relevant section of the detailed advice if I need to solve a particular communication challenge. I’ve organized the advice by the phases and activities involved in preparing a presentation to make this easier.

I’ve extracted these lessons from the books and videos listed in the References section, from presentation coaches who have generously shared their expertise (thanks, Alan!), from my own experience addressing clients and work audiences, and from practice sessions with my colleagues (hi Hengni, Wenyu, Jay!).

Jump to Section

Know your Audience

Presentation Mindset

How to Find your Theme

Make your Message Simple, Clear, and Engaging

Practice

Logistics: Preparation

Deliver your Message

Visuals

Call to Action

Logistics: Q&A

Logistics: Follow-through

Acronyms

The 7 R’s 5 A’s for Anchors 9 C’s Storytelling Model [Valentine] Shorter Acronyms Review your message for...

References

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