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.

Presenting to Teenagers

shutterstock_46488256
Teenagers must be the toughest audience you could ever have. I’ve always had a high regard for teachers, but after presenting to a group of 14-year olds at a “take your hormone-ridden, emotionally charged, and self-image obsessed kids to work day”, I have a full-on admiration for them. Managing to keep the attention of kids who’d rather be anywhere but listening to a government bureaucrat tell them how important they are is no small feat, and if you can pull it off (especially daily in a classroom), you’re a hero. A goddamn hero.

The astonishing truth, though, is that their apathy and lack of focus is mostly an illusion. It’s very possible that they do care, are actually paying attention, and are interested in what you have to say. But they have a code to live by, and that requires them to look aloof, never smile, and for god’s sake — don’t ask a bloody question. Even if they find something funny, they need approval from the class to visibly react. Laughter is an agreed upon response that requires buy-in from the collective.

On the other hand, it can be fun. It’s a challenge, but think of the opportunity. When tasked with presenting to teenagers, you can actually influence the future. You can inspire ideas, incite vision, give hope. These are all great things, and when done with savvy, you can leave the stage feeling like you’ve engaged a generation and have ensured us all a better future.

Here are a few tips that helped me:

  • Don’t even try to be cool by using their lingo. That’s death, because it’ll show. You’re more than likely a decade behind on current language. You’ll look like that awkward uncle who says stuff like, “Dude, that is so sick. You should jam it on the one!”
  • Don’t lecture them. They’re always being told what to do, and face it, you’re not the boss of them. Just speak to them like THEY’RE adults. Respect their intelligence, no matter how lacking it may appear.

  • Give them coffee. Yes, a 14-year old on caffeine is a sight to see. Most of them won’t be used to it, and will come to life in ways they’ve never experienced.
  • Let them turn on their cell-phones. I know! Crazy! But think about it. They’re always being told to turn them off, and it kills them. Take away their phone, and you take away their lifeline — because nothing happens unless they can post it on their social media network.  (If you really want to engage them, give them a Twitter #hashtag they can use to tweet some of your points — you’d be surprised at how focused they can suddenly be).

But the number one rule of presenting to teenagers — don’t be boring.

That’s lit, man.

Tough Crowd

shutterstock_334388789
You know that moment when you’re standing alone on stage or giving a presentation, and someone in the audience challenges your ideas or your knowledge or your information, and you want to have security quietly escort that person out of the auditorium and help them (gently) into the trunk of a car…

You’re not alone. It happens. But guess what. It’s your fault, not theirs, and there is nothing that will kill a presentation faster than responding negatively to dissent.

This week I witnessed what has been described as a colossal presentation FAIL… a panel of three experts in the field of digital transformation speaking to a group of developing future leaders. While there is no doubt the panel had nothing but the best of intentions and were rather generous with their time in making the effort to come speak to us, their message was off-point and off-putting. In the end, a few challenging questions and anecdotes from audience members sent them astray. One presenter said he felt “demoralized” by hearing some of the stories from the crowd.

Keep in mind, these people work in IT. Yes, it’s true, IT professionals in every organization are everybody’s favourite enemy. Frankly, we blame IT the way we used to blame the Soviet Union during the cold war– for everything. Hell, I break a pencil and I’m all like, “Bloody IT!”

So, if I’m in IT, and I’m giving a presentation about my “transformation success” to a group of end users… I’m probably going to be prepared for some tough questions. And I’m NOT going to blame them for not understanding what I’m trying to say.

I think what was most concerning was that the panel became fixated on the negative, rather than working to turn it all around. There were several opportunities for them to do so, but they chose to focus on the problem and react defensively instead of 1. empathizing with the audience, and 2. offering some potential solutions.

Remember, when you’re presenting in front of a large group of people from diverse backgrounds, there is a solid chance there may be a challenger or two among them. Be prepared. Know your audience before you present, and when those tough questions or criticisms come up — NEVER get defensive. Never. You’d be better off to to eat a bucket of broken glass.

A simple way to handle it:

“Yes, thank you for raising that. It’s a good question and I understand your frustration completely. In fact, we’ve heard that from others, so you’re not alone. Here are a few things we’re doing to try to fix that problem — and with your help and understanding, I think we can get there. I’d be happy to discuss this with you further if you’d like to chat later.”

Or, just have security escort your new friend to the lobby, and have someone beat them with a bat. Responding negatively or defensively has about the same effect. Either way, your presentation is going to leave a blood stain on the floor.

 

Perfect Moments

IMG_0045This was a perfect moment. A closed sidewalk, a dog-friendly police officer, and the beginning of a wonderful friendship. All captured in a photo.

I’m not sure when or how but I will use this image in a presentation. Not because it’s cute and it’s full of joy and you can’t help but smile (even the condom in the background is smiling) but because it tells a story.

You get a good idea of who the police officer might be.  Someone engaging, pleasant, who loves dogs and is willing to take the time to connect with people and their pets. She’s one of Toronto Police Service’s finest. The dog – Luna The Tuna – is in her glory. She’s people friendly, cuddly and full of life.

By using this shot in a presentation, it gives my audience some insight into who I am as a person.  My life, my character, my values – including the fact that I’ll exploit a cute puppy so I don’t have to cross the street and use the other sidewalk. By using this image in a presentation, I’m connecting with the audience on a personal level — something many presenters fail to do.

Sure, it’s easier to sift through stock images or to resort to clip art. And it’s often difficult to find that perfect graphic – the one that will enhance what you’re saying and not distract or disengage your audience. But there is a resource that is almost always overlooked – you’re personal photo library.

Some of the most impressive presentations I’ve seen include photos of the presenter’s family, friends and pets. Images of real life, experienced directly, can connect you in ways that a stock photo cannot. They convey value, passion, and humanity. An audience can relate to a thoughtful person with feelings more than an impersonal corporate voice. They will listen closer and be more engaged.

In an age where everyone is walking around with a camera, looking for those moments to capture and share with the world on Instagram and Facebook, it’s surprising that more of those images don’t make their way to boardroom projectors.

The next time you find yourself taking the easy route and slapping a stick figure in your presentation, don’t.  Take a minute to determine what you want to convey and find a personal image that helps you tell your story.  And if you don’t have one, create one.   Because convincing people of your ideas takes time and effort and a little piece of  yourself. The power of persuasion lies in the personal.

Letting Go

shutterstock_386267536Letting go.  It’s the hardest thing to do.  Whether it’s a person, a thing, an idea or a fear, it takes a lot of effort and often times tears are shed.

Here are a few of the things I can’t let go of:

  • an off-key note in the shower
  • the fact that some people think the world is flat
  • getting dumped for a golfer by a college girlfriend (and he sucked)
  • the Royals beating the Jays in 1985
  • the Royals beating the Jays in 2015
  • getting cutoff while riding my motorbike
  • a grudge
  • a presentation

So, you can imagine my dilemma when, a short while ago, I was forced to abdicate my appearance at a conference and allow someone else to deliver one of my presentations. I developed the slide deck, spent weeks working on the slides, creating what some might call a PowerPoint masterpiece…

Only to let it go.  I had to be out of town and there was no way to reschedule.

It was so difficult. Ridiculously difficult. I say that because there was no decent reason for me to feel that kind of separation anxiety. The person delivering in my place is fully capable and accomplished. I worked with her, coached her and remained in contact with her through the whole process.  (Yah, maybe I didn’t totally let go).

So why did I feel like someone had just kidnapped my child and made it to love her more than me?

It’s called ego.   Something that plagues many people who remain emotionally attached to their work and can’t. let. it. go.

I learned this a long time ago when I was writing plays and getting produced in Montreal. As a playwright, I needed to step away from the stage and allow the director and the actors make my words their own.   And I mean their own.  There was always a moment in a production where the cast knew the play better than I did.  They had transformed into something bigger than me. They owned it. They lived it.  And, for the sake of the play, I had to let them have it.  I no longer mattered.

(Possibly the reason I no longer work in theatre).

It’s the same in the business world. Leaders who are committed (as they should be) on developing staff, nurturing talent, and building a stronger, more vibrant workforce, need to let their team members go. Give them the tools they need to succeed and watch them soar.

Interestingly enough, the result of my letting go of the presentation made it better.  The presenter brought a new, fresh perspective to the piece that connected with the audience.

Here’s a little exercise.   All you need is a piece of paper.

Goal: craft the best paper airplane you can.

Spend a few minutes getting the folds right.   Make it as aerodynamical as possible.

Then hold it up above your head.

Now, I challenge you to not throw it. Not to let it fly.  Instead, just crumple it up.

You can’t do it, can you?

You have to let it go.

Stage Fright

stage fright

I gave the presentation of my life last week.   Standing there, among a group of senior executives looking at me expectantly I felt invincible, like a Cy Young winning pitcher throwing a perfect game.   Actually, nah.   The only thing I wanted to throw was my breakfast all over the floor. I wanted to vomit, and this isn’t a rare occurrence. It happens every time, without fail.

You wouldn’t think of it to look at me.  At least, that’s what people tell me.   They say things like ‘but it’s so effortless for you’ or ‘it’s easy for you because you’re an extrovert.’  But this is an illusion.  One, I’m a textbook introvert.  And two, no matter  how often I present, no matter how good I am at it, no matter how well I perform… I feel like puking my guts out.

Every single time.

Fear is a major adversary for anyone who stands in front of a group of people ready to be judged.  Even that sentence makes me sweat.   The fear of judgement, of screwing up, of forgetting your ‘lines’, of looking nervous plays on  ‘repeat’ in your mind, takes form in your guts and stays there. It is the number one killer of presentations today. It’s no wonder that so many people list fear of public speaking as their primary dread… over spiders, snakes, and homicidal clowns.

But fear can also be your friend.

Let me tell you a story…

Years ago, during my days in the theatre, I was performing in a one-man show called Tintin Untold — a play that I wrote myself so had no excuse for not knowing the lines.   About mid-way through one of the performances, in front of a sold-out house, I lost my place in the script and froze.  Without a clue of what to say next.

Time stopped and panic set in. The only sound I could hear was the heavy thumping of my heart in my ears (and my inner voice screaming HOLY SHIT). My stomach simmered and gurgled and I could feel whatever I ate that morning slowly working its way into my throat. I was sure I was about to do something far worse than forget my lines on stage. I was about to puke on the audience.

Now, every time I’m about to start a presentation, I remember that moment. I see myself standing on the edge of failure about to vomit on innocent spectators. But instead of letting it get the better of me, I use it. Because I remember what happened next.

While I did throw up a little in my mouth, the release actually gave me the chance to take a breath, shake it off, and say to the audience, “I’m so glad we could share this moment of reflection.” It got a nice laugh and some very kind, forgiving applause. And the moment allowed me to gather my thoughts, find my place in the script and carry on with my performance.

It also taught me that nothing is ever as bad as it seems, and sometimes all you need to do breathe. It makes a world of difference.

Whenever someone tells me they’re not nervous before a presentation, I wonder if they’re lying, not taking it seriously enough or they’re a sociopath.  We are naturally social beings engineered to care what other people think – to one extent or another.

But instead of allowing fear to be a barrier, we can use it to motivate us to be at our best – to put in the time, to practice, to perfect, to be fully prepared before we take to the stage. If we have done all that, then no matter what happens, we will be able to recover, and we’ll get through it.

Remember, when you are presenting, you are never alone. There is a room full of people who actually want you to succeed. You have all kinds of tools at your disposal to help you recover if necessary. Take a sip of water. Ask for questions from the audience. Or, just stop in your tracks, shut your eyes, take a deep breath, throw up a little bit in your mouth and carry on. Most people won’t notice and those that do, won’t mind.

What’s more, it’s okay to be nervous. Your fear is a good thing — it gets your adrenaline going, your blood pumping, your energy up. It doesn’t own you. It’s your fear, you own it. You are here for a reason. This is your show.

So take a breath, look to your audience, and engage.

Unless, of course, your audience happens to be a group of homicidal clowns.

Look Into My Eyes

IMG_2006

Feed me.  This is what every dog is saying when you look into their eyes. You know they’re playing you in the hope of getting that extra treat. But that moment when your eyes meet feels so heartwarming that it renders their manipulation superfluous (OR that it makes their manipulation feel incidental) and has you reaching into the doggie cupboard for the dried liver.

It comes to dogs instinctively and necessarily.   Since we don’t speak each other’s language, their methods of communication are limited to their eyes (and maybe their tails and teeth, if you get too energetic).   And as humans, it’s also one of the most powerful forms of non-verbal engagement. It connects and conveys sentiment – desire, happiness, surprise, anger, sadness, aggression. And love.  Our eyes say, “You’re important to me, and I care about you.”

So it baffles me that so many presenters do not use this tool in their arsenal when speaking with their audience.   I’ve noticed that many focused on anything BUT the audience, the people they’re there to engage. Instead they’re looking at inanimate objects – their speaking notes on a podium or a desk, the slides on their computer or in what I consider a worst case scenario, their PowerPoint presentation on a screen, while their backs are turned to their audience.

When this happens and I’m in the audience, I feel like I don’t matter.  They matter.   Their insecurity, or overwhelming stage fright or lack of time to rehearse and commit at least some major points to memory are what matter.   Or – less generously – they simply didn’t care enough to put in the effort.

They’re not getting one of the basic tenets of presentations.   And life.   Practice makes perfect.   And getting the content of your presentation down cold leaves you with the confidence to actually engage with your audience.  To speak to them, not at them.  To look like you’re there with them.    And you  may not look adorable enough to get that liver treat but you will convey knowledge and confidence and engender trust.   People will want to listen to you instead of checking their Facebook account on their mobile phone or wondering what they’re feeding the kids tonight.

I know, it’s scary and daunting. Fear is a prime motivator of almost every shitty presentation that’s been read off a screen.   Like most people, unless you happen to be a sociopath, you’re afraid you’ll stumble over your words, forget what you’re supposed to say, skip essential information that makes your case.  And that’s why you practice.  Alone for the first few times in whatever way is comfortable.   Lying down and memorizing.  Standing up and pacing.   And then you practice again but this time in front of someone supportive who will give you props first and then some constructive criticism.  (Remind them you need the props first, even if it’s just ‘yah, that shirt suits you’).  And when you feel confident enough to take to the stage, practice one more time. And remember, once you’ve engaged your audience, there is nothing you can do that’s so wrong – minus illegal shit – that you can’t fix it because they’re rooting for you to succeed.   You’ve got them.  They’re engaged.

Liberate yourself from the podium.  Create a personal connection with each and every audience member.  LOOK at them. You’ll feel the love.

Just look into the puppy’s eyes and tell me I’m wrong.