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Will anybody listen to my story...? - dinsdag 13 november 2012


Will anybody listen to my story…?!
The Art of Engaging Presentations

One day all the birds came to King Solomon and they asked of him:

"Why do you prefer the song of the Nightingale above all of ours?”

Before King Solomon had time to answer the Nightingale spoke:

"It is because I only sing for 3 months of the year, and for the other nine months remain silent

while you continue to chirp, chirrup and squawk.”

When we are invited to get on stage and tell our story, we are challenged to ground ourselves in our chaordic centre of gravity.

My work gives me the opportunity to take the stage and stand in front of groups quite often. And, I also frequently get to work with colleagues who are invited to address audiences. In this work I started to notice recurring patterns in what works and what doesn’t when giving presentations.

The most fundamental pattern is that - for different personal reasons or assumptions – we either tend to step into too much chaos, or to bring too much order to our story.

When in chaos, we want to tell too much about too many different things. We exceed the set time for the presentation. We don’t consider the most essential message to share with the audience. We don’t prepare. We have too many ingredients (Powerpoint slides, movie clips, music, gadgets), but no recipe. We don’t know our audience and their expectations. We are not prepared to answer questions that come from a different paradigm.

When we work from too much order, we tell a story with great rigidity. We stay focused on our notes or cards. We don’t know what to tell next before the next Powerpoint slide comes up. We forget to include personal experiences and examples. We share what we know, but not what we don’t know. We become hasty. We are too factual and too little foolish. We are not prepared to answer questions that deviate from our presentation structure.

Here are some lessons that I learnt about engaging presentations that capture the audience’s attention because they come from our chaordic belly button:

Speak to a purpose, not to achieve a goal
When you start to prepare for a presentation, answer this question first: What would I like my story to become?

You are the sole owner of your story to tell. Please, don’t translate it into goals or impact that you want to achieve with others (i.e. the audience). The more non-attached you are to the impact of your presentation, the greater it will probably be.

Tell a story
Think of your presentation as a story. As a journey. As an invitation to the audience to join you in your way of seeing the world.

That doesn’t imply that you always need to start with a ‘once upon a time’ – beginning and a ‘they live happily ever after’ – ending. Some stories start in the middle and back-cast. Some stories have sad endings. Others are open-ended. Certain stories build on facts, others on dreams. Etc. An infinite amount of plots is available to us. Pick one that serves your purpose to tell the story.

And yes, statistics, finances (e.g. quarterly figures) and scientific facts can also be shared as stories, because they are.

Be a storyteller
When you are on the ‘stage’, ground yourself, consciously take and change your position, breath, look your audience really in the eyes (no matter how many there are of them, just make contact with some of them, the others can sense that as well). Vary your rhythm and tone of voice when speaking. Speed up, slow down, be silent. When you find this difficult, think of a piece of music that could be the soundtrack to your presentation, imagine that music in the background of your voice.

Use your supporting tools as props
Like an actor uses props (in Dutch: ‘rekwisieten’), to illustrate his play, so can a storyteller make use of Powerpoint, Prezi, music or movie clips or other artefacts to emphasise and illustrate. However the choice for and preparation of the right tools should only be done once the core plot of your story is clear and you have internalised it sufficiently.

One golden rule: less is more.
One golden check: can I still stand on stage comfortably when all my tools don’t function? Can the story still be told?

Oh, and by the way…: audiences can read, so don’t read out your slides to them.

Be a fool
Don’t take yourself, your audience or your message too seriously.

Like in medieval ages, the joker tends to have greater impact on the king than his wise experts. Experts know rivalry, they strive to be seen and heard, they argue on facts

Jokers are humble and autonomous at the same time. They serve with agency. With their pun and questions they are a mirror of and guide to our inner wisdom.

Stay in the moment
Most master practitioners of most martial arts will tell you that they train, train and train themselves in order to achieve the greatest sense of embodiment of the art, so that when they step into the ring they can let go and trust and rely on the internalised and embodied mastery of their discipline. No Kung Fu master, no Karateka, no judo player, engages in a fight with a pre-determined course of actions.

As a storyteller, prepare, prepare and prepare your presentation and then when you get on stage and step into the fire, let go of your preparatory notes. Trust the embodiment of your story, see what emerges when you speak and act with resilience as your audience responds and interacts with you.

Listen to your audience
Don’t listen to yourself.

Instead, listen to the vibe of your audience and align yourself with their pulse. Speak with their energy, and its contrast!

The moment that we start to listen to ourselves as presenters, as storytellers, the story becomes an object. We create a distance between our content and ourselves. However, when storyteller and audience are both subject in and of the story and ride the waves of the plot together, you can bring the story closer to their imagination.

The audience is always right. You can choose to ignore or deny their presence and feedback, but when you really listen what they communicate back to you and when you are open to receive this, you can interact, get in flow and co-create your story.

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