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My Best Presentation Tricks

My Best Presentation Tricks

Giving presentations can be a complete and utter thrill. Too bad attending them can be a complete and utter bore. If you are on the giving side, I want to offer you up a collection of my best presentation tricks to date. I’ve written on presentation and the storyteller’s promise before at my site. I’ve written what has oddly become my top-rated post of all time, Bring out your inner David Lee Roth. This will draw from these concepts and more.

Stories and Characters

With few exceptions, a presentation is an opportunity for you to tell a story to an audience. You have the conch shell. You are the wielder of the fire stick. And your audience enters into a relationship with you from the moment they choose to sit in your presence. (Here’s a hack- what if you gave a presentation and provided no chairs? What would a standing audience look and feel like?) As such, your audience is expecting a story.

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You’ve heard this before, and you understand, but apply it to your presentation. And no, I don’t mean, “Here’s what we’ll talk about, talk-talk, that’s what we talked about.” Stories also have characters. So, start your story at the beginning with a character. If you’re describing a product, start with the user of the product. Or start with the person who moves your product from one business to the other. But put PEOPLE in your story.

At the beginning, your character should have a problem. Maybe she has too many spreadsheets and not enough linking, and people are starting to give her information in ways that her spreadsheets are overflowing their banks. In the middle, your character meets the new product, a database, and now she’s really excited because the database can do EVERYTHING the spreadsheets were lacking. By the end of the story, your character is poised on all the great new ways the database will save her in the future, and she’s looking forward to applying her new skills to a new challenge.

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Ads are presentations. Watch TV for a few minutes and see the stories; think about them in terms of a story with a character, a structure, etc. Do you see it?

Touch Their Eyes

Presentations are not opportunities for people to read in a group setting. Your slides, if you choose to use them, should not be textual orgies. Use visual shorthand. Are you talking about budget numbers? How about a big picture of a cash register, with the numbers showing up as the register tape? If you can turn your information into a visual summation, even if you read actual statistics and numbers out over the presentation of the slide, that’s useful.

Remember that a slide deck doesn’t have to equal the handout provided after the presentation. You can send people off with a document containing all the textual support of your presentation. But truly, do you think people want to sit around the room and read complex graphs of numbers, huge text dumps regarding a new product, or anything else that requires an intense amount of leaning in and squinting? (Yes, exceptions to this concept exist in abundance, but please consider whether your presentation is the exception, or more likely, is a target for more imagery and fewer words).

There are all kinds of great sources for interesting graphics and images to add to your slide deck. Heck, even Flickr offers lots of material that’s licensed for use under Creative Commons. (I use them frequently)

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A Presentation Doesn’t Equal a PowerPoint Side Deck

I was once in an argument with someone over the fact that I didn’t have slide deck materials to give her. She said I couldn’t present without slides. I said that slides were merely one tool. In the end, she wouldn’t relent, so I sent her a slide deck with 24 slides of all black background with orange title headers. I knew she would be printing (call me spiteful), and yes, when I got there to present, she’d dutifully depleted the earth of several ink catridges to be faithful to her documentation bent.

You can present without a slide deck. It’s scary, because you are the focus of the audience. They are all staring at you, and every point you make, either causes eyeballs to refocus on you, or every time you lose them, it causes eyeballs to drift away and examine the walls, the ceiling, their BlackBerrys. It becomes much more of a “live without a net” feeling to have a presentation without a slide deck to serve as backup.

Which is why it’s really powerful.

If you can pull off this kind of presentation, it’s often very memorable. People will hold on to the words you used to paint stories in their heads. It will keep their visual memory working, which is why great radio programs can often engage more of our senses than you’d expect. Try it once in a while. You might find it truly terrifying, but you might also see a reward.

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You are an Entertainer

Presenting, even to your coworkers and colleagues, is an entertainment experience. If not, why are you standing there with a room full of people looking at you? You could just send an email, mail out a brochure. The presumption is that there’s something inherent in your presence that people can’t get from just browsing the brochure. Most people incorrectly assume that they ship a human along with the presentation merely for the Q&A session that follows.

Wrong.

This is your opportunity to breathe life into material that might not stand so well on its own. It’s a chance to give a face and a voice to something that might not be easily humanized. (What if you’re selling waste treatment engineering supplies? I’m doubting people can see the “story” in that easily). It’s a chance to connect with an audience and give them something that they’re never going to receive directly from the product or service or material you’re presenting about. Why present about your last quarter’s numbers? Because either you’re presenting the proud face of a group’s accomplishment, or you’re giving the story and the news behind why you didn’t measure up.

Entertainers are strong on giving their stories life, but they are also strong on reading the room. An entertainer will know whether the people in the audience are being bored by something you’re presenting, and perhaps they’ll mix it up a bit. This requires work. Again, if all you had to do was send an audio voiceover with the slides, you would. Entertainers, er, presenters, are there to make sure the audience is playing along at the same pace, and that everyone is connecting with the material. It goes back to the relationship I mentioned in the storytelling section.

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Why Not You?

If you think your presentations can’t benefit from the above, why not? What line of work are you in that humans don’t want to be engaged? What serious business do you conduct that can’t be brought to riveting and rapt attention by giving your information a flair? Do you doubt for a moment that even the most grave information you see on the news isn’t built into a presentation? Even there, the aspect of storytelling and connection to the audience through a human character is the point that brings back great feedback and connection.

Humans want to connect. They are built to want to belong. A great presentation is a fire to gather around and share an experience. Use every opportunity you have to present to tell a story, and I guarantee that you will be sought out to present material of more and more importance. As a presenter, you have the opportunity to give a rockstar performance that gives people something to think about. Why not? Are you saving your performance for some other venue?

–Chris Brogan writes about self-improvement and creativity at [chrisbrogan.com]. He recently launched the Grasshopper Factory.

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Last Updated on November 14, 2019

A Review of “The Art of Learning”

A Review of “The Art of Learning”

Review of Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  New York: Free Press, 2007.

    Josh Waitzkin has led a full life as a chess master and international martial arts champion, and as of this writing he isn’t yet 35.  The Art of Learning chronicles his journey from chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with important lessons identified and explained along the way.  Marketing expert Seth Godin has written and said that one should resolve to change three things as a result of reading a business book; the reader will find many lessons in Waitzkin’s volume.  Waitzkin has a list of principles that appear throughout the book, but it isn’t always clear exactly what the principles are and how they tie together.  This doesn’t really hurt the book’s readability, though, and it is at best a minor inconvenience.  There are many lessons for the educator or leader, and as one who teaches college, was president of the chess club in middle school, and who started studying martial arts about two years ago, I found the book engaging, edifying, and instructive.

    Waitzkin’s chess career began among the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square, and he learned how to concentrate among the noise and distractions this brings. This experience taught him the ins and outs of aggressive chess-playing as well as the importance of endurance from the cagey players with whom he interacted.  He was discovered in Washington Square by chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who became his first coach and developed him from a prodigious talent into one of the best young players in the world.

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    The book presents Waitzkin’s life as a study in contrasts; perhaps this is intentional given Waitzkin’s admitted fascination with eastern philosophy.  Among the most useful lessons concern the aggression of the park chess players and young prodigies who brought their queens into the action early or who set elaborate traps and then pounced on opponents’ mistakes.  These are excellent ways to rapidly dispatch weaker players, but it does not build endurance or skill.  He contrasts these approaches with the attention to detail that leads to genuine mastery over the long run.

    According to Waitzkin, an unfortunate reality in chess and martial arts—and perhaps by extension in education—is that people learn many superficial and sometimes impressive tricks and techniques without developing a subtle, nuanced command of the fundamental principles.  Tricks and traps can impress (or vanquish) the credulous, but they are of limited usefulness against someone who really knows what he or she is doing. Strategies that rely on quick checkmates are likely to falter against players who can deflect attacks and get one into a long middle-game.  Smashing inferior players with four-move checkmates is superficially satisfying, but it does little to better one’s game.

    He offers one child as an anecdote who won many games against inferior opposition but who refused to embrace real challenges, settling for a long string of victories over clearly inferior players (pp. 36-37).  This reminds me of advice I got from a friend recently: always try to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room so that you’re always learning.  Many of us, though, draw our self-worth from being big fish in small ponds.

    Waitzkin’s discussions cast chess as an intellectual boxing match, and they are particularly apt given his discussion of martial arts later in the book.  Those familiar with boxing will remember Muhammad Ali’s strategy against George Foreman in the 1970s: Foreman was a heavy hitter, but he had never been in a long bout before.  Ali won with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, patiently absorbing Foreman’s blows and waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself.  His lesson from chess is apt (p. 34-36) as he discusses promising young players who focused more intensely on winning fast rather than developing their games.

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    Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to our understanding of learning in chapter two by discussing the “entity” and “incremental” approaches to learning. Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so.  Therefore, failure is deeply personal.  By contrast, “incremental theorists” view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (p. 30).  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time.  Entity theorists collapse under pressure.  Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies
    where both players had very few pieces.  By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations.  This damaged their games over the long run: “(m)any very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.  When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared.”  For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral (pp. 60, 62).  As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

    A fatal flaw of the shock-and-awe, blitzkrieg approach to chess, martial arts, and ultimately anything that has to be learned is that everything can be learned by rote.  Waitzkin derides martial arts practitioners who become “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value” (p. 117).  One might say the same thing about problem sets.  This is not to gainsay fundamentals—Waitzkin’s focus in Tai Chi was “to refine certain fundamental principles” (p. 117)—but there is a profound difference between technical proficiency and true understanding.  Knowing the moves is one thing, but knowing how to determine what to do next is quite another.  Waitzkin’s intense focus on refined fundamentals and processes meant that he remained strong in later round while his opponents withered.  His approach to martial arts is summarized in this passage (p. 123):

    “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.  The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.  It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.  Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

    This is about much more than smelling blood in the water.  In chapter 14, he discusses “the illusion of the mystical,” whereby something is so clearly internalized that almost imperceptibly small movements are incredibly powerful as embodied in this quote from Wu Yu-hsiang, writing in the nineteenth century: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.  At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”  A learning-centered view of intelligence means associating effort with success through a process of instruction and encouragement (p. 32).  In other words, genetics and raw talent can only get you so far before hard work has to pick up the slack (p. 37).

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    Another useful lesson concerns the use of adversity (cf. pp. 132-33).  Waitzkin suggests using a problem in one area to adapt and strengthen other areas.  I have a personal example to back this up.  I will always regret quitting basketball in high school.  I remember my sophomore year—my last year playing—I broke my thumb and, instead of focusing on cardiovascular conditioning and other aspects of my game (such as working with my left hand), I waited to recover before I got back to work.

    Waitzkin offers another useful chapter entitled “slowing down time” in which he discusses ways to sharpen and harness intuition.  He discusses the process of “chunking,” which is compartmentalizing problems into progressively larger problems until one does a complex set of calculations tacitly, without having to think about it.  His technical example from chess is particularly instructive in the footnote on page 143.  A chess grandmaster has internalized much about pieces and scenarios; the grandmaster can process a much greater amount of information with less effort than an expert.  Mastery is the process of turning the articulated into the intuitive.

    There is much that will be familiar to people who read books like this, such as the need to pace oneself, to set clearly defined goals, the need to relax, techniques for “getting in the zone,” and so forth.  The anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully.  Over the course of the book, he lays out his methodology for “getting in the zone,” another concept that people in performance-based occupations will find useful.  He calls it “the soft zone” (chapter three), and it consists of being flexible, malleable, and able to adapt to circumstances.  Martial artists and devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done might recognize this as having a “mind like water.”  He contrasts this to “the hard zone,” which “demands a cooperative world for you to function.  Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure” (p. 54).  “The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds” (p. 54).

    Another illustration refers to “making sandals” if one is confronted with a journeyacross a field of thorns (p. 55).  Neither bases “success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” (p. 55). Much here will be familiar to creative people:  you’re trying to think, but that one song by that one band keeps blasting away in your head.  Waitzkin’s “only option was to become at peace with the noise” (p. 56).  In the language of economics, the constraints are given; we don’t get to choose them.

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    This is explored in greater detail in chapter 16.  He discusses the top performers, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and others who do not obsess over the last failure and who know how to relax when they need to (p. 179).  The experience of NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is also useful as “the more he could let things go” while the defense was on the field, “the sharper he was in the next drive” (p. 179).  Waitzkin discusses further things he learned while experimenting in human performance, particularly with respect to “cardiovascular interval training,” which “can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion” (p. 181).  It is that last concept—to “recover from mental exhaustion”—that is likely what most academics need help with.

    There is much here about pushing boundaries; however, one must earn the right to do so: as Waitzkin writes, “Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion”  (p. 85).  This is another good lesson for academics, managers, and educators.  Waitzken emphasizes close attention to detail when receiving instruction, particularly from his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen.  Tai Chi is not about offering resistance or force, but about the ability “to blend with (an opponent’s) energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness” (p. 103).

    The book is littered with stories of people who didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t seize opportunities to improve or because they refused to adapt to conditions.  This lesson is emphasized in chapter 17, where he discusses “making sandals” when confronted with a thorny path, such as an underhanded competitor.  The book offers several principles by which we can become better educators, scholars, and managers.  Celebrating outcomes should be secondary to celebrating the processes that produced those outcomes (pp. 45-47).  There is also a study in contrasts beginning on page 185, and it is something I have struggled to learn.  Waitzkin points to himself at tournaments being able to relax between matches while some of his opponents were pressured to analyze their games in between.  This leads to extreme mental fatigue: “this tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive” (p. 186).

    The Art of Learning has much to teach us regardless of our field.  I found it particularly relevant given my chosen profession and my decision to start studying martial arts when I started teaching.  The insights are numerous and applicable, and the fact that Waitzkin has used the principles he now teaches to become a world-class competitor in two very demanding competitive enterprises makes it that much easier to read.  I recommend this book to anyone in a position of leadership or in a position that requires extensive learning and adaptation.  That is to say, I recommend this book to everyone.

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    Featured photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com

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