Presenting yourself

I gave a presentation to a roomful of clients last month.  Shortly after this I was reading Josh Holmes’ blog on Public speaking and movement onstage.  The following week I watched the first play with my kids in it (they were playing workhouse boys in Oliver!).  This sudden influx of public performance related information and experience got me thinking about basic stagecraft and how it relates to presentations.

In Josh’s blog, he talked a bit about wandering onstage.  I won’t rehash that here, but the school play was a great opportunity to watch talented, but green actors deal with performing in front of a crowd.  You see a lot of the same behavior… pacing back and forth, wringing of hands, various and sundry nervous habits.  These are natural behaviors that we all revert to when we’re inexperienced, unsure of what we’re doing, and nervous.  I started thinking about other things that inexperienced actors and public speakers have in common.

Continuing with the theatre analogy, I’m starting to think about presentations as if they were a play.  I don’t mean that in terms of telling a story in the "beyond bullet points" sense.  I mean in terms of process and preparation.

There are a few rare humans that can deliver a convincing presentation the day after someone springs the assignment on them (Yes, I’m talking about you, Brian).  In real life, though, no-one performs a show the day after reading the script for the first time, and you shouldn’t try it either.  You need to know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and how you’re going to keep the audience’s attention so they don’t tune out and start twittering with their colleagues behind (Or rather in front of) your back.  Just as no-one wants to watch you pacing around, unsure of what to say next, no-one wants to watch you reading your bullet points at them because you don’t already know what you’re supposed to say next.  If you don’t have what you’re going to say down, don’t count on your slides to make you interesting.

Set Design:
I like to animate all my bullet points, not because I think the eye candy keeps people tuned in, but because it keeps people from reading ahead, and turns a presentation into a conversation rather than a lecture.  If the screen just so happens to magically reveal bullet points right when I just so happen to be talking about what they say, then the bullet points are supporting my conversation, not driving it.

Don’t forget to rehearse your set changes either.  Just as a play will have multiple sets, you’re probably going to be switching in and out of different programs during your presentation, for example switching between PowerPoint and Visual Studio.  You’ll probably want to pre-load your different "scenes" so that you can simply alt-tab between programs, or pick them off the task bar.  Don’t just tell yourself that you’ll do this when the presentation rolls around, actually try it head of time.  What is the "critical mass" of Demo instances you can pre-load before your computer’s performance begins to suffer?

Noises Off:
"Noises off" is a theater term for noises coming from off-stage;  stage hands moving stuff around, off-stage actors conversing or knocking things over.  These are all death on-stage.  They snap the audience out of "the moment" and back to the reality of sitting in a theater.  For a presentation this would equate to things as simple as your cell-phone ringing, or as subtle as background processes that might disrupt your presentation.  No-one in the audience wants to see a notification detailing your latest batch of spam… unless of course you’re demonstrating the notification itself.  Shut down your anti-malware applications as well, as they can slow down your system during the demo, and make your slide transitions look crappy.  Anti-virus software likes to wake up when the computer seems to be idle, such as while you are talking.  Take your mesh offline, shut down FolderShare, close your instant messenger and Twitter clients.  Nothing could be more embarrassing than a well-placed "Your mom!" sent from a colleague while you’re presenting.

Character development:
You may not think of presentations as acting, but they are.  You’re playing yourself, of course, but it’s a bigger you.  The you that sits across the table and explains something to me face to face is a different person than the one that addresses a whole crowd.  It’s like the difference between movie and stage acting.  In a movie, the camera can zoom right in on your face, and the microphone can pick up very subtle inflections and intonations.  You can’t do that in the theatre because no-one will be able to hear you, or see that tiny little detailed lip snarl you practiced in the mirror. 

There’s a very fine line you have to walk as an actor between Acting (With a capital ‘A’, that’s bad) and being normal, which is boring.  Somewhere in the middle is "acting" (With a small ‘a’, that’s good).  No-one wants to watch you being boring, nor do they want to watch you being a melodramatic caricature.  What people want is to see you being interesting and exciting.  In the world of presentations, that means being interested in, and excited about, your topic.  So unless you are an overly excitable person, that means you’re going to need to step it up a bit.  That means keeping your hands out of your pockets, and no pacing allowed.

Your character can vary according to the subject matter and format as well.  When the next set of CONDG lightning talks rolls around, I intend to deliver my 15 minutes in an over-the-top infomercial style because I think it will lend itself to the format and be different than anything they’ve seen before.  Technical talks aren’t usually given in a way that makes people say "I’ve GOT to look into that, it looks awesome".

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