Presenting is performance
so rehearse like it's a show

A large empty auditorium about to fill up with people

Every time someone asks me or one of my friends for advice about writing a presentation, the first thing we’re likely to do is point them to Russell’s useful blog posts.

They are:

  1. Doing the hard work to make it big
  2. Doing the hard work to make it clear
  3. Doing the hard work to make it bearable
  4. One more thing

You can’t go wrong if you follow Russell’s advice. But there’s another thing I think needs to be said explicitly, and it's this:

When you’re presenting, you’re performing

As a presenter, you are there to tell your audience something they don’t already know. And unless you want them to pull their phones out and start checking Twitter two minutes after you’ve started, you need to do that in an entertaining and engaging way.

Your slides, assuming you follow Russell’s advice, are not there to do the telling. That’s your job.

The focus of the audience should be on you. Not on the slides.

Each slide is a means of grabbing their attention for the next thing you’re going to say.

Of course the slides can also do things that would be hard for you to say with words. They can show pictures, or charts, or diagrams. (Simple, clear ones - of course.)

When you want the audience to focus on the slides, you should shut up. Just before you show the picture or chart or the diagram, say something like: “And this is what it looks like / This is what we found.”

Then pause for a few seconds and allow your audience to look at the slide and take it in.

The audience’s capacity for attention is finite. They can’t read long chunks of text on a slide and listen to you at the same time. If you try to make them do that, you’ll fail - because the audience won’t hear everything you have to say, and they won’t read everything on the screen. They’ll come away with a partial understanding of what you were saying. Or with different interpretations of it. Or with no idea what you were saying at all.

How to perform well

Like any performer (singer, musician, actor), the key to good performance is rehearsal.

You have to put the time in before the event. Practice your talk often. Practice it early, even when it’s only half-written. (Saying it out loud will help you spot where it’s weak, or where bits are missing.)

Practice it while you’re in the shower. Practice it while walking the dog. Practice with colleagues, with friends or loved ones.

The more you rehearse, the clearer the story will get in your head. You’ll start to remember which bits go where, and how they tie in with the slides.

What you show and what you say

When you’re writing a presentation, you have to think about two things: what you show on your slides, and what you say out loud. They are not the same things, but they are interlinked.

The stuff you say out loud is the story you want to tell. It’s the thing you want your audience to listen to. It’s the thing you'll have to spend the most time rehearsing.

The stuff on your slides is a nudge, a visual interruption. As you flip to the next slide, the audience is given another tiny jolt. Putting something interesting, new or funny on your slides rewards the audience for their attention - so they keep paying attention, because they’re hoping the next slide will be equally interesting, new or funny. Maybe, if they’re lucky, even funnier.

And because they’re keen to see what the next slide will be, they’ll pay more attention to you. You’re telling the story that provides the links from one slide to the next.

Rehearsals - many of them, throughout the writing process - are the best way to work out the difference between what you want to say and what you want to show. They’re the best way to see how those two things are intertwined, how to get the message across by reinforcing one with the other without repeating yourself.

So as well as doing everything Russell says, you should also write your slides out loud. As you write the content of each slide, practice saying what you’ll say when it’s in front of an audience. Practice the stories and jokes you’ll tell along the way. Practice the beginning, where you introduce yourself and the organisation you represent. And practice the end, where you sum everything up and wind your way to a conclusion.

Presenting is performance. Rehearse like it’s a show, and your audience will listen.

Filed under: work
(14 Mar 2016)