or… An Audience Loves Performances Not Presentations
Did you know that the word “bunny” actually comes from the English word “bun” which once meant “squirrel” and was also used as a term of endearment? Mind blown 🤯
This bit of trivia, which one of my children recently educated me on, got me thinking about how often we use words without giving much thought to where they came from. We so easily lose sight of the etymology of a word as its meaning evolves – sometimes it becomes richer; other times it reduces into a label.
Here’s a more timely example: Presentation.
Talk about a word that fills people with dread. Why is that? I believe it’s because many of us interpret the word “presentation” in a way that is a far cry from its original meaning. What do you think about when you hear it? Slide decks built from outdated templates, bullet point overload, cheesy clip art…?
If you ask me, we have settled for a very poor substandard – and that’s a mistake. Today, with so much communication now taking place via video conferencing in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the art of presenting is taking on a new level of importance in our day-to-day work. For most of us, that means it’s time to level up our presentation skills – and that starts with getting back to the heart of what it actually means to deliver a “presentation.”
Let’s take a look at the original meaning of the word
Think about it in these terms and it’s clear that the act of presenting has become a lost art. Imagine, for a moment, what a speaking request might look like under the original definition:
Hope you are doing well. I am hosting a “lunch and learn” for my team in a couple of weeks and would love to have you put on a theatrical show, complete with dramatic elements, bringing to life the power of Unified Data Analytics Platforms in the world of analytics.
Sound absurd? It shouldn’t. In fact, this is exactly what great presentations are all about. Can you imagine going to see Hamilton with a cast that only puts a couple of hours into planning and rehearsing? Actors, scripts in hand, fumbling through lines on stage, missing cues, unsure of the melodies… No way! It would be a disaster.
And yet, that’s how so many people today approach presentations – slapping together a slide deck, giving it a once-through, and then boring their audience to death (or at least misery).
That may have worked in pre-Covid days when your audience was held physically captive. Back then, we at least had social norms and pressures keeping the audience from getting too distracted. But not anymore. Speakers today have a much shorter window of opportunity to capture people’s attention, and a lot more competition for it. You can almost imagine today’s remote audiences sitting in an auditorium listening to you present… Two people are taking phone calls, another is shopping for garden supplies, one watching Tiger King, another bidding for toilet paper on eBay – and that’s just the front row!
Now that virtually every speaking engagement for the foreseeable future is taking place remotely, we are seeing something really interesting happen: the very definition of what it means to “present” is changing. And I don’t just mean the way that presentations are being organized or the technology used to run them. Something much bigger is going on here. The who, what, where, when, and why are all changing as the term “presentation” expands to include a much wider range of activity.
Against this backdrop, everyone today must rethink their technique as a presenter and adapt to the new realities created by Covid-19. This means thinking of yourself as a performer – not a presenter.
Being a capable
presenter performer is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s essential. Your ability to work with others, successfully communicate ideas, and convince people to value your contributions depends on your ability to package and deliver those ideas – and that, in a nutshell, is what performing is all about.
Saying “Oh, I’m not a performer” is not an option anymore. You can either be a capable performer or a bad one – the choice is yours. Natural gifts don’t have anything to do with it. Ultimately, it’s a matter of whether you are willing to put in the work or not.
Where do you start? For those who are ready to level up, here are a few pointers to help you on your way:
Don’t Sweat Looking Silly
The first barrier to a great performance is not wanting to look silly. We have these strange ideas in our heads that we have to look “cool” – especially in front of complete strangers. The irony is that it often leads to the exact opposite and we just end up looking like a sullen teenager.
Here’s the truth: To be a capable performer, you need to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. You must be willing to take risks with your image.
When performing in front of a live, in-person audience, for example, it helps to use gestures that go well beyond what you would consider normal in other situations. It may feel uncomfortable to you in the moment – waving your arms around and making pronounced gestures with your hands – but from the audience’s perspective, the body language is actually very helpful. And that’s what matters most – giving your audience an experience that is engaging, memorable, and easy to follow.
In virtual settings, it’s even harder. There’s less feedback in the moment, everything is being recorded, and everyone is staring at a closeup of your face. Now, instead of using your arms to communicate with body language, you have to do it all with facial expressions – adding color to what you are saying with frequent, deliberate, and somewhat exaggerated movements in your eyes and brows, forehead, jaw, mouth, and cheeks, etc. What you’re looking to do is communicate passion – the passion you have for the content and ideas you are sharing; content that you believe they need to hear.
Yes, it will feel unnatural at first, and that’s okay. Embrace it. Practice it. I guarantee it will feel natural in no time. Why? Because whether you realize it or not, facial expressions that feel “exaggerated” in this setting are actually pretty normal in your day-to-day life – it just feels uncomfortable because you aren’t used to watching yourself.
Having trouble embracing the embarrassment? That’s okay. It’s totally normal. To get past the embarrassment, I find it helps to ask for help from someone you trust – someone who can serve as a sounding board and provide honest, productive feedback as you practice. This is a person who you feel comfortable being vulnerable in front of and whose opinions about your image you trust. When practicing in front of them, push your exaggeration facial expressions to the extreme – and then have them reel you back to something more natural.
Practice the Right Parts
A lot of people assume that memorization and dry runs are the best way to practice for a big performance. They stand in front of a mirror, envision the room and audience, and then run through their talk track from start to finish. This continues on repeat until they feel comfortable enough to deliver the performance without embarrassing themselves in the process.
It’s a logical approach – but is it the right one? I think not. Yes, self-confidence matters, but that’s not what practice should be about. What you should be thinking about instead is the comfort of your audience – how they will experience your performance.
To do that well, you have to spend less time thinking about the individual pieces of content and more time on the storytelling: the story arc and how everything connects, the specific beats and transitions, the pace and timing, the emotions you want to stir up. This is how you deliver a performance that sticks with people. This is the path to mastery.
I cannot stress the importance of storytelling enough. Without it, all you have are facts. Don’t get me wrong, facts matter – but they don’t necessarily inspire people to action. People are not moved by what is said so much as how it is said. They do not retain information in bullet points as well as they do when it is placed within a story. If you just need to give people tactical information to act upon in the moment, then facts alone can do the trick. But if you want something to stick with them for years, tell a story. Knock it out of the park and they’ll even go out spreading that message for you.
Focus on Your Own Growth and Improvement
When it comes to being a skilled performer, it’s easy to get caught up in the wrong metrics for growth and improvement. People watch speakers on a TED stage and then use that as their benchmark for success. But that’s all wrong. It’s not a matter of whether you can perform at their level, it’s about whether you are willing to do the work to get there – and that is 100% about you.
Don’t fall into the trap of attributing the mastery of an amazing performance to “natural talent” on the part of the speaker. While that may be true in a few edge cases, for the overwhelming majority of speakers it’s the product of hard work, effort, and determination over a long period of time – not to mention healthy doses of frustration, failure, and self-doubt along the way. As a member of the audience, you don’t get to witness this struggle, but make no mistake about it: no finished product ever started out that way.
So, what do you do? What is the right way to think about metrics and benchmarks for growth and improvement as a speaker? I find it helps to think about it on three levels:
- Level 1: Productive self-assessment: Record your practice sessions and give yourself honest assessments. Pick 1-2 areas for improvement at a time, and focus intently on mastering them. For example, perhaps you notice lots of verbal fillers like “uh” and “um” during the replay. The next time you run through the performance, aim for 50% fewer verbal fillers. After that, aim for 25%. Repeat until you reach a level that feels appropriate for your own personal goals. Celebrate those accomplishments. You earned them.
- Level 2: Trusted sounding boards: Self-assessment is a great starting point, but soliciting thoughtful feedback from another person – someone you trust and whose opinion you respect – is even more constructive. Pick 1-2 specific areas for improvement at a time and work with this person to set goals and measure your progress.
Side note: Beware of people who only tell you how great you are doing. Having an endless source of positive feedback can be helpful in certain moments (like immediately before you perform), but such voices do not help you lift yourself to new heights.
- Level 3: Audience feedback: Nothing beats direct feedback from your audience. When people start reaching out proactively to tell you they loved the performance, it’s the ultimate sign that you are on the right track. Granted, it can take some time to start coming in, but if you keep at it long enough and practice the right way, audience feedback will follow. With this type of feedback, it’s important to consider both what the audience tells you they love, and areas for improvement. All the better if you can get feedback on the content and the delivery.
Side note: Don’t go fishing for feedback from the audience. If they aren’t volunteering thoughts, then it’s not likely they will provide thoughtful and productive feedback anyway.
Finally, keep in mind that there is a thin line between being inspired by other people vs having your self-esteem crushed by them. Look to others for feedback and inspiration, no doubt, but only look to yourself when measuring growth and improvement. Take care to celebrate incremental progress along the way and always take a longer view. And remember: no matter how good you are, there will always be someone better – always – and that is a-okay.