Torchbearers

duarte-leadI’ll follow you to the ends of the earth. Or, at least to the nearest pub. Anywhere there might be whisky, you can count on me to be close behind. Otherwise, you may have to work for it.

Well, you should work for it! Leading people is difficult — but following a leader without vision is the hardest thing in the world. If we can’t see the torch through the fog, we’re not necessarily going to be with you when you arrive.

Last week, I participated in a webinar led by my presentation hero, Nancy Duarte. Her Vision Talk webcast focused on the need for leaders to communicate their organization’s vision with effective persuasion. It can mean the difference between having a team of inspired co-travellers or a bunch of disengaged staff who’d rather follow a lemming off a cliff.

“Where there is no vision, people perish. It’s amazing, the power of hopelessness.”

The webinar, which you can see here, outlined the value and benefits of holding an annual “Vision Talk”, where leaders light the flame and show their teams where they’re heading and, more importantly, why they’re going there. She describes leaders as “torchbearers”, and the teams that follow them as “co-travellers”. What I found most interesting was the notion that, as a leader, even if you see clearly the opportunity ahead, your co-travellers will also see the barriers, the hazards, the risks and dangers.

It’s an important lesson, and one I continue to learn. As a leader, I often feel like my team should be right behind me, all the time. After all, I’ve inspired them, right? “Remember that speech, back then, in the boardroom, you were all so excited!” Well, yes, but, that was a long time ago, and the road has gotten much darker since.

Sometimes people get so caught up in their own vision, they just keep going. They don’t look back. Co-travelers need constant engagement, every leg of the journey. Continued communication is key because otherwise all the negative influences, the fear and anxiety, will take hold and cloud the way.

Keep the torch lit and in sight, and whenever someone seems a bit lost, go back and remind them why they’re doing this, and how great it’s going to be a the end.

Otherwise you’ll arrive to find nobody else is there with you, and you’ll sit solemnly at the bar, drinking whisky.

Alone.

The Empty Space

img_0460Ah, the empty space, how its stillness beckons. Those few precious moments prior the arrival of an audience — so full of promise and anticipation. They are beautifully quiet, wonderfully serene. I cherish them madly.

Yeah, right.

Let’s be honest… these moments are not filled with silent wonder — they are ridden with anxiety, fear and I usually want to puke.

On those rare occasions where it’s possible, I like to arrive early for a presentation to test the technology and hopefully sneak in a rehearsal, acclimatize to the setting, get a feel for the environment. But, like most things in life, it’s the waiting that kills you. My mind races with all the possible scenarios where everything goes wrong.

But, perhaps this is simply a matter of perspective. Recently I found myself in exactly such a situation. Instead of shivering in the corner with my hands over my head, I used the time for some quiet reflection and contemplation.

It occurred to me that the empty space in the auditorium was a bare stage, and on it was nothing but possibility. Very soon, the hall would be filled and every person in attendance would come with an expectation. Some expectations, no doubt, would be loftier than others — but in the world I work in, nobody really expects much from a presentation. We’ve been subject to so many “deadly” works of mind-numbing boredom that our expectations are pretty low.

And yet… there was that possibility. And in possibility, there is hope.

This is going to sound pretentious (actually, that’s because it is pretentious), but I was reminded of my early days as a theatre student. One of the premier voices in dramatic theory is stage director Peter Brook, whose book The Empty Space provided the foundation to my theatrical career. In it, he writes:

I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.

Yeah, I used to quote Brook a lot back then (I was sooo scholarly!). But the application of his theory to presentations is worth, at the very least, some consideration. The empty space is a gift. It’s untarnished, unspoiled. A bare stage in front of a blank screen or the whitespace of a yet-to-be-filled PowerPoint slide… is the opportunity to engage. And all it takes is for someone to walk into that space and suddenly — he or she is a presenter.

We have such a tendency to over-fill this space with information. Like the theatre of the day, too much drama, grandeur and spectacle. Too many damn bullets. Certainly in my business, presenters feel like every inch of whitespace needs to be filled with incomprehensible information. The basic practice is that if something doesn’t fit, change the font size until it does. I’ve actually seen fine print on a slide. FINE PRINT!

This is a travesty. It’s waste — wasted time and wasted opportunity.

If we simply shift our outlook a little, and respect the promise of the empty space, not only will presenting become easier, and far less stressful, but better — because our focus will shift too. Instead of focusing on filling the void, we’ll engage the listener.

All a presenter needs is an empty space, a story to tell, and an audience.