The plumbing and poetry of presentations

The plumbing and poetry of presentations

“Leadership involves plumbing as well as poetry”. This quote from Stanford University emeritus professor James G. March has always struck a chord with me.  I was again reminded of it recently when I was watching Mark Stephenson speak.

I realised at that moment that’s what great presenters and great leaders have in common. With poetry and plumbing they are able to engage both our minds and our hearts (the poetry). Poetry is also the things that can happen in a presentation that make it memorable.

An “okay”’ presenter or a novice presenter might just have the plumbing down pat – the facts, figures and the data, and make a ho hum presentation.  A great presenter, working on the same material will intuitively realise that the poetry is missing. There is nothing there that engages, excites or connects with the audience. So how can you introduce “poetry” into your next presentation?

First of all there is the power of the unexpected. The predictability of a presentation makes it actually mind numbing. We can almost guess what the speaker is going to say before they say it. Presenters can break this pattern by doing something unexpected.

We once attended a presentation on change management when the presenter simply said, “I want to start by sharing this with you”. And proceeded to show the Amazing Honda Ad called “The Cog” which ends with the tag line “Isn’t it wonderful when things work?”. He then used this tag line to make the rest of his presentation work. It was unexpected and that made it powerful.

Poetry happens when you connect what you are saying with the people in the room. You present like you are talking to just one person and you speak conversationally. So often when I am listening to a TED talk, I feel the speaker is speaking to just me. Even though I know they are in an auditorium with thousands of people watching and I am watching a recorded version on my computer! The illusion is powerful because they use simple everyday language. Language that you would use if you were talking face to face with just one person.

I am immediately reminded of the power of JFK’s vision around space travel when in 1961 he said, “We will put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth by the end of this decade”. You can feel the poetry. Everybody connected with that and understood what he meant and indeed a generation of Americans worked to make it happen. Imagine if JFK had used obfuscating language like, “Technology enabled, strategically focused inter galactic travel, best of breed…”

The poetry gold standard of presentations is when presenters humanise their content and make it come alive by using stories. Not business stories but stories of the everyday, the ordinary, as this is where your audience mirrors itself in your stories. A CEO talking about dropping his kids off to school, or shopping at Bunnings on the weekend is presentation poetry gold.

Every time you take a risk in a presentation, it is an opportunity for your presentation to have poetry in it. Great presenters know this and often take risks. Mark Stephenson says he often walks out of presentations when leaders tell him, “We can be innovative if we stay within the rules”. The walk out is a risk and shocking, but he knows in a matter of seconds people will follow him out and invite him back in. He’s making a point there that innovation only happens when you are ready to break the rules. Instead of saying this as a trite statement he stages a walk out to add gravitas to the situation and make it an unforgettable experience for people in the room. Risky, but pure poetry.

Sometimes poetry happens by chance in presentations, but mostly you have to plan for it… if you want to engage, excite and inspire your audience.

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