Jim’s magic curtain
In my mid-twenties I recall a lively debate with a Sydney-based friend, Jim, about theatre. He knew a thing or two about the theatrical medium and he maintained that the curtain, when it is used on stage as a device, is an essential and powerful element. My less-experienced-former-self argued that this was nonsense and that performance was everything. Fast forward 20 years and after a career of working in business (not theatre) I’ve realized how right he was. Theatre and keynote presentations, whether in business or public gatherings such as TED-and-the-like, have much in common. Jim argued that when used creatively as a device on stage this secondary curtain plays a fundamental role. The irony is that, in theatre, curtain-use is disappearing in performance. And in business, as leaders seek to reach consumers and audiences, it seems to be thriving in reinterpreted forms.
Presenting to a small group of colleagues with Powerpoint is one thing; doing it in front of 200+ is something else – an extra factor is required. The exploration of the curtain-factor is the focus of this Pulse piece.
Shakespeare even represented a version of this idea in Midsummer Night’s Dream – the play-within-the-play featuring the character called ‘Wall‘. Here, the separator between two actors and the audience has a comedic role. When advising colleagues and friends about such big milestone engagements, the advice I have to give always stems from this conversation with Jim about the value of this curtain – that one should engage with it for the audience’s sake.
Rebirth By Powerpoint
I don’t know why Powerpoint as a piece of software engenders so much hatred. No self-respecting designer even admits to ‘liking Powerpoint’. Who hasn’t sat through bad-presentations…and how many…. Death-By-Powerpoint as a term nowadays no longer conveys that-thing-to-overcome at a conference but often is seen as an accepted-given. All the more reason to tackle this issue head on.
A powerpoint presentation is a beam of light framing a space. I often suggest to not think of it as software. Rather treat it like a projected curtain – something that can stepped in front of, walked through, reveal things from, and can even (like Wall) speak or be spoken to. I’ve seen presenters achieve amazing things and I’m still learning from others when I’ve seen this action.
At a recent an opening for a conference around “Digital” hosted by my colleagueHannelore, she used an overhead projectors to engage her audience. Her message was clear — the fundamentals about digital or communications are the same, whether you use wiz-bang animations/videos or not. Hannelore used old-fashioned overhead as a curtain to reveal her story, unpeel the narrative layers and even tease the audience. Hercurtain worked because she knew how to play with it, engage with it, even scribble mid-sentence on it. The principles of theatre weren’t lost on her. Hannelore also knew that an opening keynote about Digital had to be different. Devices such as this don’t always work (I’ve had my personal flops and misfires) but when Death-By-Powerpoint is the enemy we owe the audience something effective and memorable.
When the mechanics of performer / curtain / audience are sorted, the instruments remain in the background. The audience knows this too, so it becomes a sort of handshake. It’s about establishing basic rules of engagement upfront — for presenter and listener.
“Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain!”
The Wizard of Oz, when his cover is revealed, exemplifies the false persona. No keynote presenter ever wishes to be cast in such light. Everyone tries to achieve authenticity in front of a crowd, even when equipped with video and accompanying fireworks. This usually is the ‘starting out’ concern of any presenter. These doubts are understandable: why try new tricks when you risk being perceived wrongly?
Self-sabotage: When a presenter rejects the curtain, there is a real problem. We’ve all seen it – the business leader who adds interjections such as, ‘And now with this slide the person who wrote it wants me to tell you …’.
Gaining trust between designer/presenter when using a new device isn’t easy. All the more reason we should all devise our own presentations, and make them our own.
In a meeting a few years ago a leader did a sterling job of using acronyms as his device to kick-off day 2 of a conference (it was 5 plain slides, the only text featured 3 letter acronyms such as LOL, WTF, etc). I have to admit, when he started he almost did the ‘self-sabotage-thing’ (it’s more common than you think…) but once he saw how the audience were ‘over-reading’ his slides, he immediately leaned into his device and made it his own. To date, his 5 slide deck with no graphics, just acronyms, is one of the funniest and most memorable I’ve seen.
“…and, thanks for making me look good”
These were the farewell remarks of a leader I worked with several years ago. It was meant as earnest gratitude for some support I gave. I mentioned this phrase to a group of Comms professionals a few weeks ago and the room erupted into laughter. I suppose it is interesting feedback, focusing on the side-effect of something, rather than the core itself. Maybe it’s funny because no seasoned Corp Comms professional responds well to a request to “make me look good“. We are not always Powerpoint experts. The best practitioners of keynote presentations I’ve seen are from completely different disciplines and backgrounds. My favourite keynote speaker is in fact a lawyer (!) – see below.
Great leaders make keynotes and speeches their own. And if a presenter knows their stuff, there is a vast range of techniques to try.
Full disclosure: ever since seeing Larry Lessig present Laws that Choke Creativity, I have been irreversibly altered. It’s the sheer command he has over his topic and fluidity of his slides. His use of the curtain-of-light is no less theatrical than what I’ve referred to earlier. I’ve tried a few Larry-esque keynotes myself. It’s much harder than it looks.
When it doesn’t work, the deck and words are out of sync. When it does, the audience and presenter are equally excited.
The results of this keynote achieved by someone I worked with several years ago took 12 minutes, involved 89 rapid-fire slides and a smoke machine (and yes the dreaded Powerpoint). 8 narrow spot lights were used sparingly on audience members for fleeting moments – audience members were highlighted through these spotlights — binding audience with the messages delivered.
This presenter practiced versions of this keynote months earlier and arrived at his own style over time. The entire process took 4 months. He was lucky to also work with agencies like Kindle and Foxtrot Hotel who “get” where you’re going (I am happy to give them a plug). For the big stuff, collaboration and preparation is everything.
“Don’t Dream It, Be it…”
One of my colleagues Tristan has recently introduced a program called Keynote Agility. It’s a sort of presentation-skills-lab, with Tristan’s own twist. At the first session someone used Post-It Notes for his presentation – doing the very thing an audience doesn’t expect. The session runs once a month and colleagues are invited to throw themselves into new approaches to presenting ideas. It is a safe space for people experiment with their curtain or presentation technique and receive structured / supportive feedback.
Jim’s belief in the curtain was perhaps something learnt from experience. His observations might have also come from what he knew about his father, who worked in a traveling circus across the outback in 1930s Australia. Putting on a show that helps spectators forget themselves, or their hardships, for a moment… is not something that is exclusive to theatre.
The curtain is a ploy to free up the presenter, for her/him to soar past words and visuals, to fulfill a creative ambition and take the audience to a new place. Whether working alone, or with a designer or animator, factor this into the preparations.
When it works, a room full a people almost stops breathing. The speaker moves in and out of a projected space, creating tension, curiosity and excitement. This is where magic happens.
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