April 24, 2006

Jazz and the art of connecting

NoteMost students of jazz will not go on to be professional players. And few students turned on by the creative arts in school will go on to be professional artists. And that's OK. Knowledge and understanding of the arts and the experience of pursuing excellence with, say, an instrument or a brush, etc. can teach students a lot about life and the value of focused effort, patience, teamwork, perspective, creativity, problem solving, and a million other things. All things that will serve the student well no matter what profession(s) she ends up dedicating herself to.

I made barely enough money with music to pay for my college years. Though music is not my profession today, jazz still inspires me in my professional life as well as in my personal/spiritual life. Jazz, of course, is about dialog and a kind of conversation with other musicians and a connection with the audience. Jazz is inspiring to me; it's lessons can be applied to other aspects of life, even the art of presentation. Below, then, are eleven quotes by jazz greats of yesterday and today which I find particularly inspiring and applicable. Following the list is a short video clip of a gig I did in Osaka earlier this month with some very accomplished musicians.

(1) “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen.” (Duke-Ellington) 
The best communicators in the world are almost always the best listeners. Talking is easy; any dope can do that. But listening is hard. The lessons learned in life come more from when we open our ears not our mouths.

(2) “Writing is like jazz. It can be learned, but it can’t be taught.”

I'm not sure I've ever been taught anything about making presentations, but I have learned a ton from observing great presenters, from people like Steve Jobs to scores of people far less famous, such as college professors, etc.

(3) “Don’t bullshit… just play.” (Wynton-Marsalis)
Audiences today are busier than ever and have developed built-in "crap detectors" to filter out anything remotely insincere or shallow. They may not interrupt you or walk out of the room, but that doesn't mean they have not stopped listening. Guy Kawasaki has some good tips for those presenting to venture capitalists. If you're asking an audience for money, it is a safe bet that they will have zero tolerance for any overly optimistic views of future results unless you have strong evidence.

(4) “If they act too hip, you know they can’t play shit!” (Louis-Armstrong)
With practice we can become more polished. But too much polish turns a presentation into a TV-like infomercial unworthy of an audience's trust. Presentation is a very human thing. Practice, rehearse and make it great. But keep it real. Keep it human. And remember that it is about them (the audience), not us.

(5) “Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.” (Charlie-Parker)
Studying design and presentation, communication, etc. is crucial. But when we present, all that matters is that moment and that audience. Get to the point. Tell us something memorable. Quit worrying and just inspire us or teach us (or better yet, both).

(6) “It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.” (Dizzy-Gillespie)

Most presentations are too long or filled with information that was unnecessary and included for the wrong reasons (such as fear). Knowing what to leave out takes work. Again, anyone can include everything and say everything, it is the master presenters (or writers, etc.) who know what to cut and have the courage to cut it.

(7) “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.” (John-Coltrane)

In most situations, you don't need the latest technology or the best equipment in the world. Showing that you are well prepared and ready to present naked is far more important. A poor presentation is not any better simply because expensive equipment is used to project images. Sincerity and respect for the audience matter far more.

(8) "When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them."
(Don Cherry)

Many books give prescriptions for the "best way" to present. There is no "best way" or "the correct way" to make a presentation. There are only two kinds really: good ones and bad ones. You know the difference because you've seen them both. Don't be afraid to be unconventional if you think "unconventional" will work best for your situation. Conventional wisdom is often the unwisest choice of all. "Conventional wisdom" about presentations is at best a prescription for mediocrity.

(9) “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.” (Charles Mingus)
This is my favorite quote of all. Many presenters -- very smart people -- either take something essentially simple and confuse an audience or simply fail to make their more complicated material meaningful to their audience. Simplicity ain't easy. In fact it's hard.

(10) “I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession. If you can, then it ain’t music..." (Billie-Holiday)
Even if you have the same set of slides or the same key points from one night to the next, every presentation is different because every audience is different. We must avoid the "canned presentation" or the "canned pitch" at all cost. If we focus on the audience and place priority on their needs, we're on the right path.

(11) “A great teacher is one who realizes that he himself is also a student and whose goal is not to dictate the answers, but to stimulate his students creativity enough so that they go out and find the answers themselves.”

My best teachers as a child and my favorite presenters of today have this in common: they inspire, stimulate, motivate, provoke, and lead...but they do not dictate.

Live at Savannah's
Below you can see and hear a little taste of Hiroshi Hata (guitar) and Paul Fleisher (sax). It was an honor to play with these gentlemen -- it was the first timed I'd ever played with them. Very low resolution and low audio quality, but not bad for a cheap little still camera. (Clip is almost five-minutes long and about 9MB for the download.)

Download File

December 13, 2005

Talking at them vs. talking with them

Last week, Harold Pinter's Nobel Lecture was shown in Stockholm. You can see the video of his speech as well as the transcripts (English, Swedish, French, German). Depending on your political leanings, your appreciation for the content of his speech may vary greatly indeed. But I think it is quite provocative, important, and worth a look.

Pinter on political theatre
I found Pinter's thoughts on writing political theatre interesting. With regards to political theatre, Pinter says,

"Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles,  from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will."

Again, Pinter is talking about writing good political theatre, of course. Still, he is talking about communication of ideas and I think we can apply a bit of his thinking to our own presentation approach. For example, is this (below) not good advice for many of us when presenting?

  • Avoid sermonizing
  • Be as objective as possible
  • Do not constrict or confine your audience, but engage them
  • Approach your topic and your engagement with the audience from a variety of angles. Surprise them. Allow them the opportunity to challenge, clarify, and offer up other opinions.

In part because of the "cognitive-style" of PowerPoint, many business and academic presentations inhibit engagement, interaction, and an "open-minded exploration of the truth." The "death-by-PowerPoint" approach treats the audience as if they were drones. And if not drones already, at least the presenter can hope with this approach that with enough didactic pitching of data, and ambiguous and superfluous visual material, the audience will become drone-like. In this presentation approach, you subdue the audience, beat them to death. Then in the end when there are few objections, you say that you are successful. You say that your audience got it. Understood it. And agree with it. Look, no objections!

An important question to ask
We should ask this question: Are we speaking at our audience or with them? If a speaker assumes he already knows all there is to know about the topic — or is simply not interested in hearing another side — he will tend to speak at an audience. This could be true regardless of whether slideware is used or not, though slideware may emphasize his dominance. Slideware itself, if one is not careful, could indeed make the presenter's whole approach seem pushy, overbearing, and one uninterested in debate or discussion. Says Edward Tufte, "PowerPoint's pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers...." Tufte goes on to say in this Wired article from 2003, "Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?"

I don't know about Stalin, put the PowerPoint-aided presentation approach of many business people and academics today — and the rhetorical approach of many politicians today behind the podium or in front of the camera — reminds me of the scene from the Nineteen Eighty-Four
inspired TV commercial (called "1984") created to launch the first Macintosh computer. This commercial was created long before people used slideware (1983), but it is interesting to see how the "big brother" figure, energized with belief, conviction, and sound bites, dominates and talks at his dazed audience.

      1984_head   1984_ppt
Both screen shots above are from the actual commercial. Left: The "big brother" figure gives his "presentation" complete with text (running below his chin) and other on-screen "data." Right: A passive audience absorbs the speakers wisdom (as the heroine enters to save the day). Notice the slideware-like text of the speech projected on the back of the auditorium. It seems the creators thought this would be the kind of multimedia communication experience you would see in a nightmarish, didactic, presentation in a future dystopian society. It is quite interesting — some would say disturbing — that many presentation situations today are not too dissimilar to the fictitious, far-fetched scene in this 60-second TV commercial created in 1983 for a computer company.

Above: A screen shot edited in Photoshop with the text of the speaker's content appearing in bullet point slideware style.
"We shall prevail." I assume this is an intentionally ironic choice of words since this kind of communication approach is not interested in "we" except in the sense that "we" (that is, "us") must capitulate. And in real life, too, often audiences do capitulate, or at least appear to do so either out of boredom, resignation, or simple relief (joy?) that the speaker is finally finished.

See the original 1984 TV commercial here. The Curt's Media site also has a good discussion on the making of the video. This is still regarded as the "best commercial ever" in many circles.   

(In this post I did not elaborate at all on the real meat of Pinter's speech for it is far outside the scope of this site. Two quick comments, however: (1) Seeing the speech on video, after having read the transcripts, made it very clear to me how much Aristotle was right — the pathos and the ethos are extremely powerful proofs. Reading the contents was one thing, but listening to the man and seeing his face and getting the content was quite another. Actually, I am quite interested to hear your thoughts on the "presentation" of his ideas in Sweeden as well. For example, how different might it have played in front of a live audience? (2) I feel a bit uneasy even referencing Pinter's speech at all because the importance of his content — whether you agree with him or not — is infinitely more important than the simple contents of this website, presentation design. In the whole scheme of things, of course, the items we talk about on this website don't amount to much at all really.) 

October 26, 2005

More on getting naked

Piano"Presenting naked" involves being lost in the moment. I do not mean lost as in losing your place. I mean being so "in the moment" — without worry of the past or future — that you are as demonstrably interested (or moved, impassioned, excited, etc.) as your audience has (or will) become. This is a true connection.

A fantastic book on creativity, Brenda Ueland's If you Want to Write, speaks of the importance of being "in the moment" to maximize our creativity and impact on an audience. The harnessing of this creative energy and being fully present is more of an intuitive activity, not an intellectual one. Ueland compares this kind of creativity and connection to a wonderful musical performance.

In playing a musical instrument such as the piano, for example, sometimes you play at it and sometimes you play in it. The goal is not to repeat the notes on a page but to play beautiful music. To be in it, not separate from it. Great musicians play in it (even if not always technically perfect). The same thing holds for presentations. The aim should be to be in it completely at that moment in time. Perfection of technique is not obtainable perhaps (or even desirable), but a kind of "perfect" connection can exist between the audience and artist (or presenter) when she "plays in it."

"Only when you play in a thing, do people listen and hear you and are moved."

                                                             — Brenda Ueland

"Only when you play in a thing," Ueland says, "do people listen and hear you and are moved." Your music is believable and authentic because you are "lost in it" not intellectualizing it or following a set of prescribe rules (notes, instructions). We are moved because the artist is clearly and authentically moved as well. Can this not hold true for presentations? With presentations, you are believable because you too are moved. You have to believe in your message completely or no one else will. You must believe in yourself fully and be "lost in the moment" of engaging your audience.

BathMore on the "naked truth" in Japan
Since we were talking about "presenting naked" and Hadaka no Tsukiai in the previous post, I thought I'd point you to some photos from my friend Markuz Wernli Saito. Markuz, a fantastic presenter by the way, is a designer and photographer from Switzerland who divides his time between San Francisco and Kyoto. He is the photographer and designer for the new book Mirei Shigemori: Modernizing the Japanese Garden.

Onsens (hot springs) are not the only place to get nude and speak the "naked truth" in Japan. The sento (public bath) is a common feature in Japanese cities and towns as well, although their numbers are decreasing. Markuz does a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of this slice of traditional Japan in a way that is fresh and, well...naked.

See a photographic essay on the Japanese sento by Markuz Wernli Saito. The sento is "an unpretentious communal space for cleaning one’s body and soul," says Markuz.

October 22, 2005

Make your next presentation naked

Naked_comOnsens (hot springs) are ubiquitous in Japan and part of the culture. The act of getting naked and soaking in the bath with others is a means of communication. In Japanese it's called "Hadaka no tsukiai" (Communication in the nude). With "Hadaka no tsukiai," to soak with others in your in-group is to freely expose everything and communicate the "naked truth." Naked, we are all the same regardless of rank. In theory at least, this kind of "exposure" leads to better, more honest communication.

This got me thinking: What if we thought of designing and delivering business presentations in a way that was more "naked" as well? A way that was simpler, fresher — perhaps even a bit cheeky — and far more satisfying to both presenter and audience. That is, in a way that was freer. Free from worry. Free from anxiety over what other people will think. Free from self-doubt. Free from tricks and gimmicks and the pressure to pull those off. Free from hiding behind anything (including slides) and the fear of possible exposure that accompanies such hiding. Remove all encumbrances, be in the moment, naked...and connect.

Being naked
Naked_man_1Being naked involves stripping away all that is unnecessary to get at the essence of your message. The naked presenter approaches the presentation task embracing the ideas of simplicity, clarity, honesty, integrity, and passion. She presents with a certain freshness. The ideas may or may not be radical, earth shattering, or new. But there is a "newness" and freshness to her approach and to her content. And if she uses slideware, her slides fit well with her talk and are harmonious with her message. The slides are in synch, and are simple and beautifully designed, yet never steal the show or rise above serving a strong but simple supportive role.

Why are we afraid to be naked?
Presenting naked is hard to do. But it wasn't always this way. When we were younger and we performed "show and tell" at the front of the class in elementary school, we were honest and engaged — sometimes our candor even made the children laugh and the teacher blush. But it was real. We told great stories...and we were only six. Now we are experienced and mature, we have advanced degrees and deep knowledge in important fields...and we are boring.

One reason we are so dull as adult presenters is because we are overly cautious. We are afraid. We want it all to be so safe and perfect, so we over think it and put up a great many barriers. Or we retreat, however unconsciously, and play it safe by hiding behind a stack of bulleted lists in a darken room in a style void of emotion. After all, no one ever got fired for just stating the facts, right?

Next time, to be different — to separate yourself from the crowd — try presenting naked.

How to present naked
This is not an exhaustive list (so please send me your naked ideas), but here are a few things to keep in mind when trying to present naked.

Naked_pptBe present in the moment. Right here right now. Do not be occupied with thoughts of the future, of thoughts concerning what the results of your presentation might lead to. Do not ask about origins and ends leaving the moment forgotten. When you are with your audience, all that matters is that moment.

Don't try to impress. Instead try to, share, help, inspire, teach, inform, guide, persuade, motivate... or make the world a little bit better.

Keep the lights on. Find a compromise between a bright screen and enough room light for you to be seen. Do not hide in the dark — the audience came to see you as well as hear you.

Forget the podium. Move away from obstacles that are between you and the audience.

Use a small remote allowing you to have the freedom to move around the room/stage as you like.

Don't attempt to hide. What's the point? Do not be evasive intellectually or physically. 

Do not become attached to your software — if your computer crashes, screw it...the show must go on immediately, not after you have rebooted. Stuff happens, move on. Your message is far greater than the technology helping you.

Keep it simple. All of it. Simple goals, clear messages, and moderation in length.

Are you just a bit cheeky? Then that should show in your presentations too. Let your personality shine through. Why hide one of your biggest differentiators?

Be credible.

Do not use "corporate-speak" — speak like a human being. You can not be naked if you say something like "best practices" or "empowering a new paradigm."

Think of your audience as being active participants not passive listeners ("Passive listener" = oxymoron?).

Nude_cat Be comfortable with yourself being "naked." It takes practice and it takes confidence. The confidence comes with practice. Audiences hate arrogance and cockiness, but they love confidence...if it is genuine.

Never decorate your messages or your supporting visuals. Decoration is veneer. Think design, but never decoration. Design is soul deep, decoration is "Happy Birthday" placed atop a sponge cake.

Think in terms of what makes a good meal and good design. Think balance, harmony, variety...and content that leaves them satisfied and delighted, yet wanting more.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Therefore, I hope you will share your ideas here on other ways to "present naked." I'd love to hear from you.

Presenting 100% naked may not be appropriate for every case, but stripping down as much as we can often will make a huge, refreshing difference. The result will be a presentation that is different and somehow more real, "real" like a frank conversation among friends. In my experience, the higher up the management chain you go, the less real the talk. People at the highest level of management do not often present naked, but I wish they would.

October 19, 2005

Presentation, blues, and tapping into your creative soul

Blues_osakaI worked my way through college playing drums in different jazz groups. I have not played music fulltime for many years, but it is important I think for working professionals — no matter their field — to stay in touch with their "creative soul" and to nurture it. What a waste it would be to ignore one of your passions or talents. Frankly, you just never know where inspiration will come from. Inspiration, clarity, or a new perspective may materialize unforced as you climb that mountain in Nepal, paint that portrait, photograph that sunset, write that novel...or find that "pocket" while swinging with fellow musicians in a downtown nightclub.

I am a jazz guy, but over the weekend I played live with the GMS Blues Band, comprising of myself on drums and a fantastic blues guitarist/singer from the U.S. and a great studio bassist visiting Japan from Switzerland. It's so good for the creative soul to play live and connect with other musicians and an audience. Blues especially is about connecting and telling a story through the words and music. It's about feelings.

Playing the blues well is similar to making great presentations: it's not about technique. Once you begin to focus on technique and tricks and flash and making an impression...all is lost.

I like to play with people who can play simple and are not threatened by other musicians thinking they can't play. And that eliminates 99 percent of all musicians.
                         — Neil Young

Garr_jazztrioB.B. King is a legend. No one does it like he does. He's not flashy and he doesn't try to impress with speed or technique. That's not what it's about. That's not what the blues is about. It's about telling a story and making a connection in a way that can not be duplicated by anyone else. If you are being true to yourself and the audience, if you are authentic, how could it possibly be duplicated?

Many people can play good technique. With study, technique is not too difficult for many people. Computers, for example, can play "perfect technique." But even with perfect technique, computer-generated blues would lack substance and would seem empty. It would seem empty because there is no "feel" to it. To me "feel" is that kind of perfectly imperfect human quality that conveys emotion and the spontaneity of the time. That one moment in time that can not be repeated the same way again. And that's beautiful.

Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel.

                         — Jimi Hendrix

Do you have enough confidence to ignore 90% of PowerPoint?
PowerPoint is easy to use, especially if you ignore 90% of its functions. The technique required to make the slides accompanying many of the presentations highlighted on this website (e.g., Kawasaki, Jobs, Lessig, etc.) and all my presentations visually are very simple: simple/few transitions, few or no animations, a few words and high quality graphics, and maybe a video or two inserted. Even if you never used PowerPoint in your life, you could master the 10% of it you actually need in an hour or two with a tutor. Most of my coaching involves getting clients to unlearn and forget what they already know. When it comes to slideware functions, I don't think the challenge is to learn more, but rather to ignore more and forget more.

It is not about technique alone. Never. Yes, the basics of software are important to know. Delivery techniques and "dos & don'ts" are useful to understand. But the truly great presenters approach the whole process as an art. The "art of presentation" transcends technique and enables an individual to remove walls and connect with an audience to inform or persuade in a very meaningful, unique moment in time. Sometimes, at least in a small way,...a good presenter can even change the world.

Characterizing master swordsman Odagiri Ichiun's ideas on technique, Zen scholar Daisetzu Suzuki says, "...the first principle of the art is not to rely  on tricks of technique. Most swordsmen make too much of technique, sometimes making it their chief concern ..." And most presenters make the slideware their chief concern in the preparation process and in the delivery. This often ends up in a wasted opportunity to connect and "find that pocket" with an audience.

September 08, 2005

Guy Kawasaki: Presenter extraordinaire

Guykawasaki3_3You have heard me praise the presentation skills of Steve Jobs many times before. He's the high priest of presentations. But there is another master communicator with a strong Apple history known for his engaging and charismatic presentations: Guy Kawasaki. Guy is a Silicon Valley legend of sorts. He first gained fame over twenty years ago as a tech evangelist for Apple, "leading the charge against world-wide domination by IBM." Currently Guy is Managing Director of Garage Technology Ventures and the author of many popular business books including his latest, The Art of the Start. He is a sought-after speaker because he brings the rare combination of experience, great content, and a wonderful engaging style.

Presentation advice from the frontlines
I recommend you buy Art of the Start for two reasons: (1) because it is a relevant, useful book for any business person, especially entrepreneurs or future entrepreneurs, and (2) because Guy devotes an entire chapter to the "Art of the Pitch" which contains solid tips and advice for making effective presentations to people who can help or invest in your ideas. And when you think about it, most presentations are pitches, are they not? Most presentations are (or should be) about selling your idea to get buy in, agreement, financial support, research funding, and so on. Great content is necessary, but it is not going to sell itself. Not usually. We've got to pitch or sell our data and ideas to be effective. So Guy's tips on "pitching" are applicable to most business or technical presentations.

Allow me here to highlight just one idea (among many) from Guy's chapter on pitching. "Pitch constantly," Guy says. Forget about the idea of "rising to the occasion" on the presentation day. If you shuffle badly through practice and give it a half-hearted effort in preparation, you will surely be lousy on the day of the presentation. The best musicians and athletes, for example, perform in practice just like they do during the actual concert or event. There are no shortcuts. Says Guy:

"Familiarity breeds content. It's when you are actually familiar and comfortable with your pitch that you'll be able to give it most effectively. There are no shortcuts to achieving familiarity — you simply have to pitch a lot of times.

"Twenty-five times is what it takes for most people to reach this point. All these pitches don't have to be to your intended audiences — your co-founders, employees, relatives, friends, and even your dog are fine auditors."

Slide simplicity
Sample_slideGuy takes a very "zen approach" to his presentations and the supporting PowerPoint. His talks usually evolve around ten key points, no matter the topic. His visuals, then, will consist of ten slides each with one key message spelled out. That's it. Simple. The visuals keep Guy on track and help him tell his story and give a strong feeling of organization to the tone of the talk. Guy kindly agreed to do a couple of presentations for me while I was at Apple. His 10-points/10-slides approach was very effective and allowed the audience to focus on his words, his face, and his personality...this made his content far more accessible. You can download slides from Guy's keynote presentation for the WOMMA 2005. In this presentation his visuals follow the 10-point/10-slides guide (though he includes an eleventh, "be a mensch" for good measure).

Brendon Wilson has posted transcripts of "The Art of Positioning & Presentation" talk from the Art of the Start Conference. Scroll to the middle to find the section on presenting.You can download the audio files from Guy's presentations (and others too) from the 2005 Art Of the Start Conference.

Business Training Direct has a good article featuring Guy's ideas on presentation simplicity. Cliff Atkinson also has a good, short interview with Guy worth reading. And here in an interview with Technation, Guy talks about "The Art of the Start" and many other things as well.

Mensch extraordinaire
Garrguy_2Guy talks often about being a Mensch — and from what I've seen he backs it up. When I first met Guy in his office at Garage in 2001, before I ever had a chance to ask if he'd like to present at one of our future Macworld events, he volunteered. He then accepted several other opportunities to give of his time to user groups. Guy can make a lot of money by public speaking, no doubt. But he also "gives it away" quite often. Now that's a Mensch.

August 09, 2005

Jazz and simplifying complication

Starbucks_1Last week, a great Osaka-based bass player and I backed a couple of cool jazz guitarists in one of the biggest Starbucks cafes in Kansai. We all had a blast. I deeply enjoy playing music for people. I love it because I'm energized by communicating and connecting in creative ways with new people. It's a feeling that is hard to put into words. Sometimes a great seminar or presentation will leave me feeling exhilarated too because I feel that, in my own little way, I made a difference in someone's life. Maybe I inspired them, or helped them in some small measure.

Playing music is a performance and also very much a presentation. Good presentations are after all about conversing, sharing, and connecting at an emotional level in an honest and sincere way. It doesn't get much more honest than jazz. It is even easier to connect when playing music since everything is really laid right out there in front for everyone to see and hear. There are no politics, no walls. The music may touch them or it may not, but there is never even the hint of insincerity, questionable motives, or of being anything other than what people see before them at that moment. The smiles, the heads nodding in agreement, and the feet tapping under the tables tell me that we are connecting. It's a fantastic feeling.

Usually when I play a jazz or a blues gig in the city, I have a larger kit of drums. But moving drums is quite problematic in such an urban jungle like Osaka. So for the Starbucks sessions I followed a Zen-like principle of using only what is absolutely necessary to get the job done. I employed a kind of drumming minimalism, if you will.

I knew that to support the guitar and bass, I would only need the essentials. So, a month ago I purchased another drum kit to go along with my regular set. The new set is designed for portability and is called the Pearl Rhythm Traveler. I only used the 14" bass drum from this kit and added my vintage 1966 Ludwig snare, and Paiste high-hats and ride cymbal. This was all I needed for this particular situation.

Having fewer drums is easier to move, of course, but it also was very liberating musically. The fewer drums and cymbals I use, the more I get out of what I have. It is more challenging and creative. And most importantly, a minimal kit was the most appropriate choice for the moment.

MingusThe great jazz bassist, Charles Mingus, once said that "Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity." I like that quote so much that I have used it in some presentations. I am not only looking to simplify messages, but simplify logistics as well

Just as a minimal, yet high-quality, drum kit was the most appropriate equipment choice for the Starbucks venue, there are also times when I decide that I will use a whiteboard for a particular presentation and leave the projector at home. Or I may bring some high-quality lap visuals to pass around the table, or a combination of whiteboard and paper. It all depends on the context and circumstance. There are certainly occasions when using a projector in a boardroom is like bringing in an 18-piece drum kit to a small jazz club. It will work, but it's unnecessary...and it can serve as a wall. You will be surprised how free and creative you can become sometimes without the use slides and the hum of a projector. And since the competition is likely using a standard deck of bulletpoint-filled slides, your analog, minimalist approach may just differentiate you and demonstrate that you have thought more about your client's needs.

August 08, 2005

Learning about presentation from Cirque du Soleil

Alegria_3Earlier this summer I read Peak Performance Presentations by Richard Olivier & Nicholas Janni. There are two fundamental beliefs behind this book. The first is that all presentations are performance. The second is that most of us are not operating anywhere near our peak presentation performance. I agree with this, of course, and I too am always looking for ways to be inspired and kick my own presentation skills up a level or two. Over the weekend I attended Cirque du Soleil in Osaka and came away amazed and inspired.

Frankly, had I not been invited, I probably would have never seen Cirque du Soleil in Japan. But since I always encourage people to stretch themselves and try new things outside the office — you just never know where inspiration will come from — I welcomed the chance to experience something new myself. We were the guests of marketing manager, Montse Moré, who has been with "Cirque" for several years and has been instrumental in making the Japan tour a big hit. Montse was a most gracious host.

The show touring Japan is called "Alegria 2." By definition the show is a circus, but honestly, I did not feel like I was at a circus at any point. Instead, I felt I was at the theatre. From costume and make-up, to stage design and special effects and lighting, the entire production was a testament to the creative human spirit.

The music is what really brought it all together for me. Rather than have the band in a pit, for example, the band was a part of the show, dressed in costume and placed at the rear of the elevated stage in full view of the audience. The two female vocalists had stunning and powerful voices, yet somehow their singing had a soothingly mystical quality that fit perfectly with the fantasy world we entered. The vocalists, too, moved all around the stage and throughout the audience.

After the show, Montse took us back stage and gave us a tour of the whole traveling show. Go to the Fuji TV site to view some behind the scenes photos and a feel for what it is like on the road in Japan.

Even if you think you are not a fan of the circus, your will love Cirque du Soleil's Alegria. If I had a team of creatives — or a team of sales people — I'd take them all out to Cirque du Soleil. Entertaining and fun, yes. But also inspiring.

So what does any of this have to do with business presentations? Here are the lessons I learned (or rather had reinforced) from the Alegria 2 performance:

TumbleDon't let technology or props take away from the experience. In Alegria 2, there are many scene changes requiring different equipment and prop set-ups. Usually in live entertainment, such as during concerts, we see men dressed in black t-shirts lurking near the stage and darting in and out to set-up equipment changes. But at Alegria 2, from the the moment we entered the circus tent we never once were aware of the technical support, though it was certainly there in the dark. And on stage, all prop and equipment changes were done by the cast members themselves in full character so that the illusion of the fantasy was never broken.

Too often in presentations given with PowerPoint, we are all too aware of the software and computer, but the technology should be as invisible as possible. While setting up, for example, don't have the screen on until your first slide is already in play mode. Many presenters actually allow the audience to see the computer screen boot up and then watch them mouse around for their PPT file. We also have a chance to glimpse the desktop picture of the presenter's new baby before the first slide appears. How wonderful...and how irrelevant. All of this subtlety takes away from the moment and from the purpose of the presentation, which is about the message and the story, not what software you are using.

Connect with the audience. Mingle among them. Bring them "on stage" from time to time. At Alegria 2, I felt the cast was not apart from us, instead they were a part of us. We were not just watching a show, we were a member of a live event. There are many things we can do to engage with our audiences too, big or small. From eye contact to smiles, to asking questions and asking for volunteers to help with a demo. Each case is different, but one thing is clear: An audience that feels they are a part of it and shown the respect of engagement from the presenter (or artists) are more likely to pay attention, to listen, and in the end, to "get it."

Pace. At no time did the show drag. The two-hour show went by in a flash. Every act ended with you wanting to see just a bit more, yet the show never felt rushed. In the business world, many presentations drag on and on with superfluous or gratuitous points. Better to have the audience wanting a little more, rather than filling them up to the satiated point.

Little mistakes can happen, so what? Move on immediately to what is important. I noticed one slip and gracious fall on to the net during the Super Aerial High Bar. The point was not the one slip, the point is amazing the audience with the 1000 other things that are going right. The audience does not even notice small mistake as they are often engrossed in the big picture. In a presentation context, the audience does not know (or care) if you forgot to insert a slide or if the color is not as perfect as it was on your PC. Why dwell on the small imperfections? Sure, if there is a mistake or change in the data, that can not be over looked. But when small technical errors occur, remember the "show must go on."

Next time you see a professional performance of some kind, ask yourself how you can incorporate some of their technique and skill in your next presentation. To some degree, every presentation is a performance. In the mean time, try to see a live performance of Alegria if you can.

July 26, 2005

Dana Atchley (1941-2000): A Digital Storytelling Pioneer

Dana_atchleyHave you heard of Dana Atchley? Before his death in 2000, Atchley was a bit of a legend and certainly a pioneer in the digital-storytelling front. His clients included Coke, EDS, Adobe, Silicon Graphics and many others. He even worked with Apple as a charter member of the AppleMasters program. In the '90s, Atchley was helping senior executives create emotional, compelling talks that used the latest technology to create "digital stories" that connected and appealed to audiences in a more visceral, visual, emotional...and real way.

Dana Atchley's ideas about technology and storytelling were beginning to shake things up in the '90s. If Atchley would not have sadly passed at the young age of 59 back in 2000, presentations — even in the world of business — would be far more appropriate, engaging, and effective today.

Here's what Dana Atchley said about digital storytelling:

"...digital storytelling combines the best of two worlds: the 'new world' of digitized video, photography and art, and the "old world" of telling stories. This means the "old world" of PowerPoint slides filled with bullet point statements will be replaced by a "new world" of examples via stories, accompanied by evocative images and sounds."

Read more of this article.

Take a look at what FastCompany was saying about Dana Atchley in 1999 in the article What's Your Story?

"Tired of delivering the same old business presentations in the same old way? Then join the Digital Storytelling movement, and take a lesson from its founder, Dana Winslow Atchley III. You may never use slides again."

"So why does communication about business remain so tedious? Most businesspeople describe their dreams and strategies — their stories — just as they've been doing it for decades: stiffly, from behind a podium, and maybe with a few slides. Call it Corporate Sominex."

"Digital storytelling is more than a technique. In fact, it's become something of a movement among both artists and businesspeople."

These bits from the FastCompany article sound so promising, don't they? I get excited reading this, thinking about the possibilities. Yet, since 1999, how much has really changed? Nearly seven years have passed. Some people are indeed using the digital technology in presentations the way Atchley envisioned. But there is such a long, long way to go before we rid the business world of the "corporate Sominex" phenomenon.

This year the Digital Storytelling Festival, founded by Dana Atchley and his wife, Denise, in 1995, continues in beautiful San Francisco. There is a lot to learn there. I hope the festival is, once again, the start of something big.

June 30, 2005

Not a fair fight: Your data vs. your audience's experiences and emotions

BoredYou've heard me speak about the importance of connecting with the emotional right brain of your audience members before. It's fundamental, yet often neglected. Here's what the authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots say:

In business, our natural instincts are always left-brained. We create tight arguments and knock the audience into submission with facts, fiqures, historical graphs, and logic....The bad news is that the barrage of facts often works against you. My facts against your experiences, emotions, and perceptual filters. Not a fair fight —facts will lose every time (emphasis mine).

If your presentation does not connect, if you bore and are not memorable, then all your great data will likely be for naught. People have a tendency to over interpret their own personal and vivid experiences, and may ignore or be very skeptical of new information — no matter how scientific or objective — that is contrary to their current belief.

Professor Richard Brislin (my graduate school mentor) of the University of Hawaii, touches on a very similar phenomenon in his book Understanding Culture's Influence on Behavior. In a section on theoretical concepts in intercultural communication, Dr. Brislin discusses why people make incorrect attributions or dubious conclusions in spite of evidence to the contrary.

For example, let's say you read many reports in respectable periodicals that conclude Seattle is a very good place for young graphic designers to find high-paying jobs. Complete with this evidence, you begin sending off your resume, contacting companies, and looking into housing in the Seattle area. Later, while talking to one of your best friends, Lisa, and informing her of your desire to relocate to Seattle, she becomes practically apoplectic. "What?" she says. "My brother has a design degree from Berkeley and has been up in Seattle for over a year without finding a full-time design gig!" Lisa then goes on to tell her brother's horror story in Seattle.

So now you have the word of one friend vs. loads of factual, detailed documented information which runs contrary to your friend's opinion. Who do you believe?

Citing early work by Sherman, Judd, and Park (1989) on social cognition, Brislin suggests that it is highly likely we will be more persuaded by our friend's testimony, which was surely more colorful, emotional, and vivid compared to the reading of labor reports in periodicals. Also, I would say that the fact Lisa is "telling her story" about her brother makes her information memorable.

So what does this have to do with presentations? Two things: (1) As presenters, we have our work cut out for us. Our audiences bring emotions, experiences, biases, and perceptual filters that are no match for data and facts alone. And (2) we must not make the mistake of thinking that our data can speak for itself, no matter how convincing, obvious, or strong it may seem to us. We may indeed have the best product or best research, etc. But if we "plan" a boring, ego-centric, "death by PPT" snooze-fest, we will lose. The best presenters target both the logical left and the emotional right. The audience, after all, is comprised of human beings, is it not?