How to present better: Presentation stage management

Piano presentations! ;)Once upon a time I was taking instruction on playing the piano with a view to becoming a professional pianist. I never got that far (I was never that good, not even close!) but it gave me an interesting perspective on how professional performers work. And it’s not like it’s portrayed in the movies.  (C’mon, at least try to be surprised that Hollywood cheats! 🙂 )

I also ran a theatre company for a long time and spent seven years touring with professional dancers as the technical director of the company. (I can’t dance, but I was damned good at putting lights on dancers.)

What became clear to me over that time is that they weren’t thinking about their performance as they performed. They weren’t “in the room” or “in the moment” or any of those other cliches you hear presentation skills trainers spouting.

I’ll let that shock sit in for a moment or two before adding the obvious-in-retrospect proviso that they weren’t thinking about their performance because they didn’t need to. They knew what they were doing so very well that it simply wasn’t necessary.

In fact when I talked to them, many of them observed that trying to think about what they were doing would have been a Very Bad Thing – their bodies (in the form of their subconscious brains) knew what to do and their conscious brains wouldn’t be able to keep up.

What do professional presenters think about?

One of them described it to me like this: “Once you know how to drive a car, imagine driving it at full speed along challenging race tracks. That’s do-able… but if you pretend you are only able to do the things you need to do to drive after you’ve given yourself a verbal instruction to do it… do you see? You can’t possibly handle it any longer”.

Yes, scrambled English but I’m sure you got the idea! 🙂

In short, professionals rehearse their presentation to the point where thinking about it as they delivered the presentation is actually a disadvantage!

What should/do non-professional presenters do?

But in a different world I guess that’s not likely to be possible for business presenters, so I’ve been working with experts to see what it is we do in the ‘real world’ of presentations, and I’ve come up with my realistic best practice.   It’s not presentation best practice, ‘cos that’s asking too much and isn’t worth the extra work involved for non-professionals – just realistic presentation best practice… and in a nutshell it’s this:

Know your presentation material well enough to mean you’re thinking not about the material, but only about the delivery.

If you’re thinking about the material and the delivery at the same time there’s too much to think about and your presentation is more likely to go wrong. Obviously reducing the mental effort (cognitive load) for presenters is therefore a good thing. But unlike professionals, it’s just too much work to be worthwhile for you to rehearse your presentation to the point of being able to think about what you’re going to have for tea as you deliver the presentation – hence the compromise.

Presenters need lightsI call this state “doing your own stage management”. Perhaps a better name is ‘Presentation Manager”. You might even call them “Performance critic” but that’s a bit harsh. 😉

Stage Mangers are the wonderful people who actually run a performance – the make sure the actors are called to the stage at the right time, that the music, video and lighting cues all happen at the right time, that the props and set are moved when and where they should be etc.   By the way, I say they’re ‘wonderful’ people because I know some. And they frighten me.

Doing your own presentation management works in two ways.

Presentation management part one

This is the obvious stuff such as sorting out your tech. I’ve written here about how we make sure that nothing can go wrong when you’re presenting (well, things can always go wrong in a presentation but…). Checklists and structured common sense are your friends.

Presentation management part two

This is the ‘fun’ one. Think of it as like having someone at the side of the stage who’s not making the presentation but whose job it is to watch you and the audience make the presentation. Now imagine they’ve got a radio communication set to talk into your ear as you present. Once you know you’re material well enough you can spend a fairly bit part of your brain listening to that Presentation Management voice as they say things like:

  • you should be on right hand side of the stage for the next slide so don’t forget to move over in the black slide
  • the person in the third row, right hand side doesn’t look like he understood that last point, think about checking
  • the back row is laughing at all the jokes – be careful not to be sucked into thinking everyone is loving it as much as them.

See what I mean?

You differentiate in your head between the presenter (you) and the presentation’s manager (also you, sadly). It’s the optimum balance between knowing your material absolutely perfectly which is great but takes a looooot of time, and not knowing it enough to present your material well.

How do I learn to “Presentation Manage” my own presentation?

Step one is easy. It’s just the tech. Spend some time to practice your tech and logistics as well as your content. It’s not rocket-science lists are your friends. We have three. A pre-presentation checklist; a about-to-start-the-presentation checklist; and the after-the presentation checklist.

Step two is a little harder, I admit.

It might be worthwhile going back to look at this very short blog about how to rehearse efficiently, so that you can get the most out of your rehearsal time.

Next, spend a little time jotting down the things a stage manager might have wanted to tell you if they could. Simple making yourself aware of those things puts them at the front of your head, so it’s more likely that you’ll be able to do it the next time you make a presentation. I’ve written about looking at yourself on videos of your presentation and the overlap between what you should look for in your videos and what your presentation manager is quite large. You could worse than get video recordings of your audience’s reactions to your presentation (with their permission of course) but that might not go down too well at work, so how about this… why not ask someone to sit in your presentation to give you feedback?

But not about you. I’ve written about why getting (amateur) feedback is worse than useless when it comes to improving your presentation. Nope, what I mean is that your recruit should be given the instruction to watch the audience. You might also arm them with the list you’ve just created. Get them, if they can, to jot down what they see with the time, too, to make it easier to figure out what you were doing when things happened.

Then debrief with them after the event, while it’s fresh in your mind. A good debrief is a skill of it’s own, but I’m on a word limit here, so I’m stopping soon! 🙂

What does “Presentation Management” look like?

Well I can’t tell you what it looks like for you and your presentations – but I can tell you a bit about what it looks like from mine.

As I look at my audience and deliver the content of my presentation there’s part of my brain looking at things like:

  • does that slide look as good projected as it did on the computer I used to design the presentation?
  • is there anyone in my audience who’s just not into into?
  • what’s my timing like – am I as far through the presentation as I should be by this slide?

It’s not rocket science!

Let me know – how do you work as your own Presentation Manager.

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