Guest article by Elias, the Great
Imagine a late Sunday evening, as if it was already Monday. The schoolboy takes out his timetable; the executive, her weekly planner. You adjust, like everyone else, into the drone of the coming week. And like everyone else, you sometimes have to prepare for a presentation.
Good presentations are hard work. So as evening lapses into night, you work on making yours a success—the minimalistic slideshow, the deep baritone voice, the sophisticated gestures. Perhaps, a catchphrase, or a joke, or a twist at the end will do the trick. Steve Jobs, TED Talks, and a whole profusion of inspirational speakers come to mind. You recall their passionate appeal, cool mannerisms, famous lines, and, yes, wow factor. With practice, some snacks, and more practice, you are now ready. It’s late, you’re tired. But tomorrow, you will—with a little bit of luck—impress your audience!
I began like this, seduced by presentations and personas that took the world by storm. When they spoke, audiences held their breath; people were sitting on the edge of their seats, nodding their heads in agreement, before breaking into a tumultuous roar of applause. It’s tempting to emulate them. So I copied them. Sometimes, it worked. But for each successful presentation, many more problematic ones followed. Too often, extrapolating features and techniques simply doesn’t work. They risk appearing banal and pathetic.
Thankfully, I still believed in a good presentation. I still loved telling stories. I still enjoyed sharing the latest, most fascinating developments. With much care and deliberation, and through many discussions, I’ve arrived at some thoughts that I find helpful. Please consider them.
What are presentations primarily about?
Here is an empty frame and a caption.
What will you fill it with? A stage, a lectern, or a visionary leader waving his hands with the confidence of a man from the future? Forget these. Consign them to the bin. These impressions lead to arbitrary, thoughtless imitations.
Consider this instead: Presentations are about thinking—working out the infinite factors that go into a coherent, relevant, effective delivery. It is the relentless process of winnowing out the ill-conceived, the cliché, the elements that don’t quite fit perfectly, whether they be words you say, words you display, lighting, colour, gestures, stance, transitions, beginning, ending, climax—nothing is too precious to be exempt from this question: Why? Why like this and not like that? Everything deserves a why.
Presentations are about thinking. Without it, nothing you say can be truly significant, no matter how sincere you feel about it. Your job isn’t to simply accept overused techniques that tirelessly volunteer themselves. Your job is to give your ideas—so delicate, so sensitive—the best chance of flourishing in the world of your audience, under the glare of their contemplative and scrutinising, analytical and emotional minds. You don’t do that by copying what great speakers do. As your ideas will be received with much thought, so should your delivery of these ideas be conceived with much thought.
What exactly should we be thinking about?
Obviously, the possibilities are endless. But every presentation centres around one thing: attention. This isn’t your teacher telling you “to pay attention”, or the strained focus necessary to solve a tedious problem. This is your interest taking you by the hand, leading you like the rhythms of a city that electrifies a wandering traveller in all its novelty, intrigue, and endless wonder. Attention roams free, blessed with agency. And somewhere along the way, it will most probably meet with chance or even discovery. Attention occupies itself with a range of concerns: surprise and familiarity, totality and particularity, clarity and mystery. Good presentations handle attention with great care. Your chief concern is to develop an intimate relationship with it. And this is done through observation. What do you notice? How do you feel?
Remember the time when you flipped open a children’s storybook? And there, lying on the next page, was a charming little red-bricked house, nestled at the corner of a country town. From outside, you could see a wooden door, lots of trees, colourful flowers, and square windows flanked by white curtains. The characters were rather pleasant and affable (even the big bad ones). A small but charming kitchen faced the river bank. An imposing black oven took prominence of place beside a rustic wooden table; the fireplace had just begun its seasonal roar. Raspberry shortbread, cinnamon rolls, lemon scones, and marzipan tarts spread across the table, while a tray of freshly baked gingerbread men lay next to the oven, and a bowl of icing at the ready. The air was sweetened with vanilla, spiced with ginger. Evening sunlight filtered into the kitchen, gilding each Christmas treat with the tired satisfaction of the day’s efforts.
Remember that? How did you feel? What made you stay on that page? Observation and attention go hand in hand. To understand how to coax your audience’s attention, handle it, and sustain it, you’ve got to observe. The wonderful and frightening, the elusive and astonishing things of our world give us the best lessons in attention—you need only to pause, take a breath, and let it wash around you like music that fills a room. Observation. Everywhere. How do you feel when you wind through the dark, circular corridors of Old Trafford, before emerging from a tiny tunnel and into the bright Sunday afternoon of match day frenzy? How do you feel when you ease into a black and white film noir, in which the silhouette of a mysterious lady quickly disappears into an alley opposite Boulevard Saint-Germain? How do you feel when you amble down the narrow streets of Marrakech, Morocco, amazed by the colours and aromas of shops selling spices, tea, handicrafts, and antiques? How do you feel when guys and girls cycle to the top of a hill, just overlooking Stockholm city, with the wind in their hair, as the sky darkens into a purplish-orange glow, marking the end of a summer’s romance?
In the places you go, books you read, films you watch, ask yourself: How did you feel about it? And what made you feel that way? These questions—and their answers—are more helpful than any list of prescribed presentation techniques or features. Every presentation centres around attention. To understand it, you need to observe.