Performing in public
- Prepare and perform compelling oral presentations
- Approach presentations with structure, purpose, and personality
Sooner or later, if you’re doing work of interest to others, you’ll be asked to get up on the
stage and perform for an audience. Whether you’re giving a conference,
moderating a panel, pushing your ideas in front of a distinguished assembly of
colleagues or board members, fulfilling a mundane obligation by making a toast,
or pitching a project to potential funders, it’s all pretty much the same show
business. If you hoped that you could read laboriously from a paper, then save
everyone the pain: send your input by email and stay home. And if you thought
of yourself as someone who shines naturally, with no need for prompts or
preparation, well, ask yourself: you wouldn’t want to watch a spectacle that
hasn’t been rehearsed, so why impose one upon others?
Performing has a
purpose and a structure. Its raison d’etre is the function you are expected to
assume, whatever that may be given the context: typically, it’s a mix of
informing, entertaining and convincing, packaged in different ways according to
the nature of the event. Fundamentally, the stakes are akin to writing: What do
you know that the audience doesn’t know and should know? Why do you believe
that it is so important that they do? And what’s the best way of leaving, in
that respect, a lasting impression on them?
The means to that
end bring the structure into play. Any oral intervention has an opening, a body
and a punchline. In the case of a substantial oration, the opening very quickly
does three things: it checks some formal box, typically by offering succinct
thanks for the opportunity to speak; it creates, whenever appropriate, a more
personal and emotional connection to the public—through an anecdote, a joke or
some form of confession; and it frames the rest of your intervention, by
stating upfront the pertinence of what you have to say.
By contrast, the
aimless “throat clearing” of meandering introductions only leaves your audience
wondering what on earth this is about and how long they are going to have to
put up with it. The endgame must therefore be clear from the outset: your
opening is there to tell people why they should hear you out. The public must
feel that you’re taking them somewhere that arouses their curiosity. Of course
you don’t have to say everything from the start: you’re introducing a form of
calculated suspense, which suggests a direction and sparks an expectation that
you tacitly pledge will be met.
What do you know that the audience doesn’t know and should know?
The body will vary
considerably per the format of the exercise. An hour-long lecture will require
a lot of “filling”, with ample illustrations, digressions, discussion of
nuances, references to other people’s work and so on. A five-minute pitch will
be packed only with punch. You’ll organize your intervention based not on how
much you have to say, but on how long you can or must retain your audience’s
attention. The very distinct challenges posed by an auditorium of students who
have no choice but to sit there and a dinner where people will grow impatient
within minutes will naturally lead to entirely different deliveries.
That said, the
actual structure, the rhythmicity of your performance will always flow from the
sequence of your arguments. As in analytic writing, that’s the backbone of your
message, and the rest is simply there to give it life. This is why any oral
presentation, whether prepared or off-the-cuff, can be brought down to core
arguments, quickly memorized or carefully jotted down—a maximum of two or three
in a brief and spontaneous interjection, all the way to the interlocking
components of a complex theory spelled out in an amphitheater.
organize the flow of your intervention, these arguments must stand out, as if
you were speaking in bold. That doesn’t allow you to belabor the point. Make
your case as quickly and effectively as possible, with just enough explanations
and illustrations to establish your argument, and move on to the next one, in a
sequence whose cadence greatly contributes to retaining your public’s
attention. People generally get an idea fast or not at all. Dwelling on it
doesn’t help; usually it only reveals that you’re not quite sure of what you’re
saying in the first place.
presentations often string together a compilation of thoughts you’ve already
conveyed and tried out on other occasions—in interviews or meetings, maybe.
These are components you already feel comfortable with, can pick from, narrate
more vibrantly and “storify.” Your focus then becomes the transitions from one
to another and the general flow of your intervention.
The punchline is something mildly dramatic to end on. You could be circling back to your opening, and nailing in your original message. You could sum up what you’ve said with something witty—a catchphrase that grabs people’s imagination. You could reinject humor. Basically, come up with anything that signals you’re done. The power of your punchline will come from the climax that hopefully occurred just before, as you wrapped up your argumentation to rest your case.
What a privilege it is to speak publicly about issues we take to heart
Beyond its purpose
and its structure, a good performance can’t do without a personal touch. People
will listen keenly to you not just because the substance of your intervention
is interesting, but because they feel they are connecting with you as a person.
An important rule, therefore, is to accept that you, as a “performer,” must
give away something of yourself. A businessman put it starkly, as he coached
the guest-of-honor ahead of a fundraising dinner: “you don’t have to sell your
body, but you do have to show your legs.”
In truth, there is
nothing debasing to it: what the public wants is no striptease, but a form of
communication that is reasonably intimate and sincere. Techniques such as deep
breathing, posture, eye-contact and so on only help remove what would get in
the way of a more controlled expression of your personality. Too much technique
turns you into another droid speaking on CNN or giving a TED talk. Admitting
your limits, sharing more personal views, experiences and doubts, can all be
part of a good delivery.
In sum: make
strong, structured points in convivial ways. The easiest way to do that is to
remember what a privilege it is to speak publicly about issues we take to
heart. If we are grateful to the public and enjoy the moment, we’ll make it
enjoyable to (almost) everyone.
9 February 2017