Presentations as performance art

posted by Jeff | Friday, August 7, 2020, 10:21 PM | comments: 0

I had a pretty big presentation to make at work to 40 or so people this week. Most of them I had never met, and they included everyone up the chain. It went really well, with great follow ups from a number of people. I haven't had that experience in years, which is an interesting thing to write about another time, but the particularly strange part of it was the positive feedback on style. That got me thinking a little more deeply about how I approach presentation.

I've been getting up in front of people and presenting stuff for basically my entire professional life. I think I'm at a dozen or so conference-like presentations and countless events within my various jobs. I really enjoy doing it, though I'm not sure exactly why. I'll get back to that. Let me unpack first by looking at the experience.

My first week of college, I got to be on the radio. I was both fearless and terrible at it, but within a few weeks, I quickly tried to understand how to emulate what I had been hearing on radio for my whole life, without making it into a caricature. The first thing was to realize that my "natural" tone was a little deadpan, but maybe I could use that. The next thing was the realization that sounding like you were having fun was a lot easier if you were actually having fun. My first program director in a real job emphasized this too. He described a guy who he worked with that was the saddest son-of-a-bitch he ever knew, but when he keyed on that mic, his face looked like a circus clown. So the first rule of performance was basically that acting is the key to good performance. If I go back and listen to those old air checks, I can hear it... I was having fun, even if I might have been faking it.

I never got really deep into visual performance, but I did that too. I remember my freshman year I went out to cover a house fire for our news show. Again, "reporting" was largely a function of emulating what I had seen on TV, so I did that. But it was depressing as hell, and if sadness came through in my stand-up, it's because it was really sad. I knew that day I never wanted that job. But after college, doing government TV, I did a lot of stand-ups, because there was no one else to do it. Again, I enjoyed it, even if I wasn't very good at it.

I was four years out of school when I flipped to this software thing, and while I grasped the promise of the Internet early on, my first big job after that was at a media company where people had no idea what to do with the online world. I found myself pitching things to old school print publishers and editors on a regular basis. Powerpoint was already a thing, but because few people had laptops, not many people used it. You had to rely on your in-person sell. Selling was familiar to me, because that's the only way you could land radio gigs. Again, I really enjoyed it, and started to win hearts and minds. Presenting to business folk was not that different from broadcast media. To my great surprise, these were still valuable skills even with the career pivot.

Many years later I would start presenting at conferences and user groups and such. While I enjoyed the performance aspect of it, what I really started to concentrate on was how to communicate with the greatest clarity things that I had learned, that were hopefully valuable to others. This has formed much of my professional m.o. for a number of years: I've learned a ton from others, and I believe there's a moral obligation to pass knowledge on.

I haven't presented anything since Codemash in January (it's a really great conference, by the way, and easily the best run of any you'll ever attend). This time, at our growing company, I was presenting some things that I had implemented with my team and stakeholders around some light project management, with the hope that others would find value in the solutions to problems that I observed. I don't think I was inventing anything truly novel, but maybe how I applied it was valuable. I've been meaning to do a presentation on presenting for literally years across many jobs, and never did it. So here's what I think I do:

  • First pass: Make a deck that outlines everything you want to get out. Nothing is off the table, just get it out.
  • Nobody wants to read all of that shit, so don't be precious about it. Start cutting all of the stuff that strays too far from the core things you want to address. If there are more than three or four big objectives, it's too many.
  • Each frame has to tell a story... verbally. Your outline as written has to be reduced to bullet points, not what you're going to say. Otherwise, you could just write a blog post.
  • Your first rehearsal pass should try to riff on those points. By the second or third try, you'll know what to cut and start feeling what you'll actually say. Watch the time.
  • Is it boring? Try a little humor. I hesitate to advise this. You might not be very funny. I'm not very funny, but I seem able to get away with one attempt at humor each time I present.
  • Rehearse it again. It's too long, I promise.
  • Riff again, don't read. Watch your time.

I have a method, but I don't know if it works for others. When I really think about it, what I do is rooted in my radio days. Each time I had to talk, I figured out in advance what I had to do next. ID, recap the song, self-identify, do the weather, tease and move on to the break. If I did this twice, or three times when I was only doing it on weekends, I could generally nail it with no mistakes. A presentation to others has more content to cover, but you've got more than a song to figure it out. You can do it!

Why would I enjoy this? I'm not entirely sure. As a person who has always straddled the introvert-extrovert line (this is apparently an ambivert), I wouldn't say that I crave attention. If anything, I'm probably too indifferent about being perceived. Chalk it up to my likely ASD. What it probably gets back to is the joy I feel from coaching. I still think one of my greatest human achievements is wrangling a bunch of teenage girls to embrace a volleyball system that led them to unlikely middling success, and while I enjoyed it, I don't think I can really take credit for it. So the idea that I can enable people by successfully transmitting knowledge to others, that thrills me. That they can even enjoy the presentation of that knowledge is gold validation.

I can't imagine any real connection to people who actually act, but there's a part of me that wonders if I could do that. Until then, I will enjoy the opportunity to present stuff to others, in the hope that I'm giving them something useful.


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