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If all the world’s a stage, I want better slides

February 3, 2013
guest blogger


Over the past several years, if you have been to a public speaking engagement by my soul mate and partner Trish Hennessy, you might have seen me lurking in the shadows, usually wearing all black.

I help the love of my life in every way I can, using everything I have, and whenever possible. She invited me to post my thoughts on the secret to improving presentation skills here, and I am happy to oblige.

I’ll talk about some technical bits at first, but in a second post I’ll get to the truly interesting part of a presentation: its rhythm.

My background is in the technical production of theatre. I came to Toronto to train in this field at Ryerson University. I’ve studied other things and worked elsewhere, but I’ve always been drawn to the excitement and clarity of live performance, and work in the industry to this day. It’s a bug as they say, and you don’t need to be on stage to get infected; those backstage are vulnerable too.

When Trish made the decision to move from the backstage of strategic communications support to assume a more public role that would include public speaking, I jumped at the chance to employ skills I’d learned from my own work in theatre to support her during the transition. Below are some things we figured out together.

At first I helped her become comfortable with using a remote to advance slides.

A simple thing but the truth is most remotes are badly designed. They are bejeweled with buttons for seldom-used features and they do not fit naturally in the hand. Like many computer trinkets, they are designed by and for people who consider “tech stuff” a passion. And in the case of presentation remotes, by people who I seriously doubt have ever given a presentation.

A good remote allows you to stand back and away from the computer, and you can advance to the next slide mid-sentence and without thought or pause.

Lesson from theatre: it’s the talent who uses the props, they must be comfortable with them.

Then came the “presenter display” feature that comes with most PowerPoint and Keynote programs. Use this tool and you no longer have to look behind you to see what slide you’re on. And for that matter, you no longer need to use the slide the audience sees as speaking notes.

Because that’s what most PowerPoints are employed as: speaking notes, often read verbatim.

The better way to use PowerPoint or Keynote: a presenter display shows the current slide as seen by the audience, and it shows some notes that only the presenter can see.

The more we focused on this technique, the more Trish’s bullet points began to migrate to the private notes box on this presenter display, allowing the audience to see only a wake of pictures, single words (and sometimes nothing) on the main screen.

We reduced the verbiage on the public screen and began focusing on less distracting ways of unfolding the story. The more we did this, the more we discovered Trish was starting to own her presentation. It helped combat the anxiety that naturally comes from performing in front of an audience.

Lesson from theatre: prepare, prepare, prepare. Never turn your back on the audience. And for god’s sake don’t make them follow a script with you. Make them feel something, rather than ask them to read along with you.

Soon Trish and I found we were rehearsing more and spending increased effort on each presentation. Because the reality is that these measures aren’t a time-saving gimmick. They make you want to spend more time on presentations, not less. If you start polishing the silverware, why stop with the spoons?

Rehearsals should be rough and frustrating and tedious and trying. But they are instructive and necessary to the performance.

There is this myth that great presenters can do it “off the cuff”; unscripted and unprepared. Perhaps they can, but everything they’ve done to that point has built up an edifice of competency. We don’t see or are aware of that past struggle. We don’t hear about their terrible performances or their mangled deliveries.

Great performances look spontaneous and effortless because all the awkward bits have been smoothed out or cut altogether during the arduous repetition that unfolded in private.

Rehearsal will happen, its not a choice. Either it happens in front of your audience, or in the safety of your living room.

Lesson from theatre: bad rehearsal = great show

There is no shortage of presentation gurus and speaking coaches in this world, but, to me, one stands out: Nancy Duarte. Her firm created Al Gore’s original PowerPoint presentation that later became An Inconvenient Truth. In my next post I want to apply an analytical approach she devised to some Canadian speeches to see what happens. I don’t think this is being done anywhere else for this country, and, yes, I got Nancy’s permission to do this.

One email exchange and we’re on first name basis. That’s how we roll.

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