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Declaring Our Independence from the Bad Presentation

A few years back, I made a presentation to a group of about 60 students from a professional practices class at one of our area universities. I had been asked to talk about CPAC and the resources available to individual artists in our community. It was an after-hours presentation, and as I know the topic so well, I didn’t invest a lot of time preparing for it. As the saying goes, you get out what you put in, and not surprisingly the presentation was a total bomb. There were students sleeping in the room and the overall engagement with me as a presenter was abysmal. I left feeling resentful…I had after all spent my personal time to make this presentation, the least they could have done was pay attention.

About a year later, I started a study of presenting, with the goal of becoming a charismatic public speaker. In our business, where we are frequently trying to convince others about the impact and influence of the arts and culture in our community, the quality of presentations is paramount. What I have learned is that making a dynamic presentation every time you speak is something that takes a lot of preparation, but there is absolutely a process for doing so. I also learned that those students’ lack of engagement with me was entirely MY fault! This was reinforced in a workshop on presenting that a colleague and I participated in last week in Chicago. Inspired by that workshop, I’d like to share with you a few things I’ve learned to declare my independence from the bad presentation (and at right you'll see one of the first presentations I did interpreting those learnings).

First, if you’re bored by the presentation then undoubtedly your audience will be too. In my case, I had made the presentation so many times, it had become mundane. So, if you find yourself in a similar circumstance, you need to make time to make it fresh for you and your audience. Trust me; it will be worth the investment you make.

So, how do you make it fresh? Start by thinking about your audience. Who are they? What energizes them? What do they lose sleep over? How can you help? Think also about the things you have in common. You have to think about every presentation as being specific to the audience to whom you are presenting. It will help you make sure that your message resonates.

Now, about that message…what is your unique point of view and what are the stakes for your audience? Nancy Duarte (my presentation hero) calls this “The Big Idea.” There should absolutely be an overarching through line to your presentation. And, all content in your presentation should support that through line, considering where you want to move the audience from and to in terms of belief and behavior.

Have I said that up until this point you have not yet even opened any presentation software? Consider it now said. Once you know what the story and main points are, you can think about how you’re going to visualize it. But, that’s a subject for another blog. In the meantime, remember that we as artists and arts administrators are uniquely positioned to make great presentations. Writers know how to craft a story. Performing artists know how to connect with an audience. Visual artists can draw upon the visualization skills that are probably now second nature. Take advantage of your skills and learn the ones that don’t come as natural to you.

And how do you learn more? I’ll be honest that finding Nancy Duarte has been life-changing for me on the presenting front. Her books Resonate and Slideology have helped me considerably along the way. In fact, most of the things I’ve shared with you here come from the ideas and processes she promotes in those books (and her company’s workshop). So, thanks Nancy! And thanks as well to the students that were sitting in the room that day so many years ago; if it hadn’t been for that experience, I might not have become as vigilant about never making a bad presentation again.

Categories: arts, capacity building, culture, presentations, training


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