Sunday, June 15, 2014

Presenting Performance, or "Tonight, We Improvise!"

In previous posts on creating great presentations, I've mentioned that nothing is more boring than watching someone read from their notes. Here are two other awful "mosts":
  • Second most boring: Watching someone recite a memorized presentation
  • Most agonizing: Watching someone try to recover from an error in the presentation
So, what can you do to avoid these problems? First thing: DON'T MEMORIZE YOUR PRESENTATION. Don't even try.

With a memorized presentation, you stop being engaged with the presentation and are, instead, simply concerned with getting from the current "right" word to the next "right" word. Time spent time memorizing is time spent guaranteeing that you'll turn your audience off by draining all the life out of your presentation.

Instead of memorizing, rehearse: give your presentation to yourself, over and over again. You can do this by abandoning your notes and your slides and rehearsing without them--this lets you rehearse anywhere. I get a lot of rehearsal time in while driving my car, for instance. Public transit is another good opportunity (don't move your lips, however, or people will think you're odd. Unless you're in New York City. There, you'll fit right in). And recognize that you don't have to rehearse your whole presentation every time: you can rehearse bits of it that you're having trouble with, or the opening bit, or the closing bit, or a bit you really like, or, really, whatever makes sense to you. That means that you can rehearse your presentation while, for example, during TV commercials.

What's great about these situations is that you can't read your notes (especially while driving your car. I find that the honking is really distracting). But it also means that you can start forgetting to do parts of your presentation. So, after doing a couple of rehearsals, you should go back to your slides (or notes) and make sure that you haven't forgotten about some key point that you've started omitting from your presentation.

Secondly, every time you rehearse, don't try to repeat your last performance. Instead, try to do it differently from the last time. Is there some material that you've realized that you want to drop? Try that. Something you'd like to add? Try that. What happens if you change around the order of your material? If you change the emphasis you're putting on the parts of some key sentence?

For real fun and to gain real insights into your presentation, try giving it like some other person. I find giving my presentation as a tent revivalist preacher often helps me understand how I can make my presentation work better ("Can I get a "YA-YES!"). That presentation style exists for a reason: It works. Try delivering your presentation in a monotone -- that highlights the parts that really do jump out on their own. It's also sort of funny.

Every time you rehearse your presentation, you'll come to understand it better and realize what you need to tweak. That tweaking will never stop and, as a result, every rehearsal will be different (though, after a while, you'll notice that your tweaks are getting smaller and smaller because you do get closer to perfection). If you're doing it right, you simply can't rehearse enough.

When it comes time to give your presentation, it will just be another rehearsal and you'll be fully engaged. You won't do it the way you did it last time but that's OK.

The Biggest Secret in Giving Presentations

The reason it's OK is because of the biggest secret in giving presentations: No one knows what presentation you were going to give. They only know the presentation you actually gave. If you've varied your presentation every time you've rehearsed, you'll find you've actually built up an inventory of stock material that you can use when you come to give your presentation to an audience.

These blocks of material (I call them "shtick") turn out to be tremendously flexible: you can insert them anywhere in your presentation. I have some shtick that I happily recycle into virtually all of my presentations (provided I'm either giving the presentations to different audiences OR building up a "running gag" with one particular audience).

This means that if you do forget something, it won't be a little thing: It will probably be an entire shtick. But, because you've rehearsed with that shtick in a variety of ways and placed it in a variety of places in your presentation, when you realize that (a) you've skipped some shtick, and (b) that you really can't afford to leave it out, you'll have a ready-made way of integrating that bit into some other part of your presentation. You will never be that guy recovering from a mistake in front of an audience -- you will just be the guy doing yet another version of the presentation.

I have some standard shtick that I use at the end of a presentation when wrapping up. A friend of mine was walking past a room where I was speaking, heard one of these bits, and thought to himself "Wow, that's great material. And Peter's coming up with it on the fly!" I wasn't, of course, but since I didn't have it memorized, it sounded like I was making it up as I went along: I was saying it slightly differently, putting it in a different order, or doing something different with it. Sadly (for me), my friend discovered the truth when he sat in on a session I was giving later in the day and heard me do very similar material at the end of that session. That gave away my secret, of course: he realized that I was pulling from a stock of shtick that I had built up and that I was just massaging it every time I used it.

Of course, he wasn't completely wrong with his first impression: To a certain extent, I am making it up as I go along -- I just don't start from scratch.

And, sure, after some speeches or presentations I've sometimes realized that there were things I wanted to say that I'd omitted. But, in the end, that doesn't happen very often and I've never omitted anything important. More importantly: Because no one knows the presentation I was originally going to give, no one knows what I left out.

As a side benefit, this process makes your presentations more professional. In a class I was taking, for example, we were required to make a presentation that run between 4.5 and 5 minutes--not a big window to hit. But, because of my frequent rehearsals, I knew exactly how long my presentation was going to take. When it was my turn to speak, I stood up, spoke without notes, "made it up as I went along", and took my bow at 4:45, right in the middle of the window.

I've spoken at weddings and funerals and I've never spoken with notes (of course, on these occasions I'm speaking for ten minutes or less). People frequently comment on this but that's only because they haven't followed me around for the prior two weeks. At the start of the process, I did do some planning: I took a first cut at what I wanted to say, stories I wanted to include, and the order I wanted to cover my topics in. But after that initial planning session, whenever I had a chance, I was rehearsing my speech (or parts of it) over and over again, doing it differently every time. The final result has a family resemblance to the original plan...but it's a distant relation.

More importantly: It's always come out alright at the occasion. Always. And it also gives me room to speak from the heart when I finally stand up to speak. And that, as it turns out, matters more often than you might think.

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