Is a business presentation like a performance? I believe we often take the comparison too far. Garr Reynolds has often noted that the similarities between the presenting and performing and in a post on Benjamin Zander, comments:

We often talk about presentations being conversations, which is what I believe they are. But they almost always have an element of performance to them as well.

I agree that for professional and highly-experienced speakers – performance is an element. But I don’t think it’s a useful concept for most business presentations.

Two reasons why thinking of a presentation as a performance is not useful

1. It puts pressure on the presenter

Many people are nervous about presenting. Thinking of the presentation as a performance puts more pressure on you and makes you more nervous. Thinking of the presentation as a conversation lessens that pressure. See yourself connecting to the individual people in the room, not delivering a performance to an audience. You’ll feel less nervous and as a result you’ll be more effective and enjoy the presentation more.

2. It makes the presenter less conversational

Many people change the way they normally talk when they get up to present – they go into “presentation mode” – and they lose the connection with their audience.  They’re thinking of the presentation as a performance and they can’t retain the conversational element. For most people being conversational and delivering a performance at the same time is quite tricky. It requires a lot of practice and coaching to be able to combine the two elements successfully. Focus first on being conversational and connecting with people in the audience. As you get more experienced and comfortable in front of an audience – you can start playing with adding performance to the mix. It will then be an addition to your conversational style – rather than supplanting it.

Two ways in which a presentation is like a performance

But there are ways in which a presentation is like a performance:

1. Presentations do require preparation and rehearsal

Thinking of your presentation as a conversation is not an excuse to wing it. A presentation does require preparation and rehearsal. If you think you can get away with winging it read this illuminating post on rehearsal from Nick Morgan.

The alternative, winging it, is never as good as you think it is.  And your audience won’t tell you the truth.

Unfortunately, what happens is that the speaker who wings it gets pumped full of adrenaline, comes charging off the stage and asks the first person he sees, ‘how was it,’ with a big smile on his face.  Only a churl would reply with, ‘well, it was disorganized, there were lots of minor screw-ups, and you kept making the same points over and over again’.  Most people say, ‘it was great!’ and the speaker think to himself, ‘That’s all right then; next time I’ll do it the same way.  Obviously I’m too cool to rehearse’.

2. Show your best front to the world

When something goes wrong in your presentation, don’t spend time catastrophising. Move on. My business partner and life partner, Tony, does some amateur acting. When he fluffs a line he knows he can’t afford the luxury of beating himself up – or he’ll fluff the next line as well. Sames goes with presenting.

So there are some ways in which a presentation is like a performance, but for most people, focus on being conversational first. You’ll feel less nervous and connect more with your audience.

See also my post on Conversational Presenting and Unlearning Presenting.

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