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Calling an audible: The art of changing the play

Ny_qbMarketing guru (and hater of bad PowerPoint), Seth Godin, reminds us this week that the best presentation might be no presentation. If you are good at synching your slides effortlessly (a la Steve Jobs, etc.) and creating a more informal conversational tone and connection with your audience, then there is nothing wrong with using PowerPoint/Keynote. Visuals used this way can help. But there are surely times when even the best slides and brightest projector are just not appropriate. Sometimes, it may be better to just leave your cool PowerBook or SONY Viao in your bag. Here we can take a lesson from the best quarterbacks in American football (called "football" in the US): Sometimes it's best to just toss your plans and "call an audible."

A good presenter is like a good quarterback

Good presenters are like good quarterbacks: they are good at reading the situation live and making adjustments on the spot. Quarterbacks are not usually the best athletes on the field, but they are skilled at reading situations and being able to change plans under great stress. When the offense approaches the line, a plan (a play called in the huddle) is already set, but as the QB surveys the defense before him he may see threats or opportunities which require changing the play immediately. The QB then yells special code words or signals down the line to the left and right so that his players now know the new play. The QB uses "the facts" before him to make adjustments, but sometimes the decision to "call an audible" is based on a "gut feel" for the situation. Some of the greatest plays ever have resulted from the QB calling an audible and changing the play. Also, some of the greatest failures have resulted from the QB failing to adjust to the defense before him. Adjustments matter.

PowerPoint presentation or fireside chat?

FiresideI made a presentation for a user group in California shortly after I started at Apple where I "called an audible." I prepared a slide presentation on marketing and branding of organizations such as user groups for this particular group. I was really looking forward to the presentation and took care to make sure the visuals were in line with Apple's standards. But when I arrived at the venue the lighting and acoustics and the overall look and feel of the room were not what I had imagined. Nonetheless, I set up the equipment as planned.

I mingled around and talked to many members before the presentation. They were gracious hosts, a common characteristic of Apple user groups. During this time I realized that my "pre-packaged" talk -- as good as I thought it was -- was not going to be a good fit for this particular group. I was disappointed but was determined to push ahead with my presentation. After all, I was from Apple and people expect a kind of "mini-me" version of a Steve Jobs presentation, don't they? Still, somehow the projector-and-computer accompaniment did not feel right for the context.

At the moment I was introduced, then, I "called an audible": I put down the remote control and pulled up a stool and sat down in the center, close to the front row and proceeded to have what amounted to a fireside chat about Apple, usergroups, the group's needs, their complaints, etc. I listened more than talked during the hour. As I thought, the questions were quite different from the material I had prepared. Going completely naked and analog was a much better approach for this particular case. In this case, even the best PowerPoint slides in the world would have been a barrier between me and the audience.

It is hard to let go of our plans
Being fully aware of the "here and now" at this moment in time is not easy. Letting go of our carefully organized plans is hard. After all, we put so much time and effort into the plans. However, through experience we learn that clinging to preconceived outcomes can often cause great angst and pain, not only concerning presentations but in our lives in general as well. This does not mean we shouldn't plan. We must. But we must be mindful too not to let our own plans become a bondage of rules, limiting our ability to see the possibilities in the moment.

Related to this post
"Stop your presentation before it kills again" by Kathy Sierra.
"The best PowerPoint presentation is the one you don't have to give" by me.

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