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Learning about presentation from Cirque du Soleil

Alegria_3Earlier this summer I read Peak Performance Presentations by Richard Olivier & Nicholas Janni. There are two fundamental beliefs behind this book. The first is that all presentations are performance. The second is that most of us are not operating anywhere near our peak presentation performance. I agree with this, of course, and I too am always looking for ways to be inspired and kick my own presentation skills up a level or two. Over the weekend I attended Cirque du Soleil in Osaka and came away amazed and inspired.

Frankly, had I not been invited, I probably would have never seen Cirque du Soleil in Japan. But since I always encourage people to stretch themselves and try new things outside the office — you just never know where inspiration will come from — I welcomed the chance to experience something new myself. We were the guests of marketing manager, Montse Moré, who has been with "Cirque" for several years and has been instrumental in making the Japan tour a big hit. Montse was a most gracious host.

The show touring Japan is called "Alegria 2." By definition the show is a circus, but honestly, I did not feel like I was at a circus at any point. Instead, I felt I was at the theatre. From costume and make-up, to stage design and special effects and lighting, the entire production was a testament to the creative human spirit.

The music is what really brought it all together for me. Rather than have the band in a pit, for example, the band was a part of the show, dressed in costume and placed at the rear of the elevated stage in full view of the audience. The two female vocalists had stunning and powerful voices, yet somehow their singing had a soothingly mystical quality that fit perfectly with the fantasy world we entered. The vocalists, too, moved all around the stage and throughout the audience.

After the show, Montse took us back stage and gave us a tour of the whole traveling show. Go to the Fuji TV site to view some behind the scenes photos and a feel for what it is like on the road in Japan.

Even if you think you are not a fan of the circus, your will love Cirque du Soleil's Alegria. If I had a team of creatives — or a team of sales people — I'd take them all out to Cirque du Soleil. Entertaining and fun, yes. But also inspiring.

So what does any of this have to do with business presentations? Here are the lessons I learned (or rather had reinforced) from the Alegria 2 performance:

TumbleDon't let technology or props take away from the experience. In Alegria 2, there are many scene changes requiring different equipment and prop set-ups. Usually in live entertainment, such as during concerts, we see men dressed in black t-shirts lurking near the stage and darting in and out to set-up equipment changes. But at Alegria 2, from the the moment we entered the circus tent we never once were aware of the technical support, though it was certainly there in the dark. And on stage, all prop and equipment changes were done by the cast members themselves in full character so that the illusion of the fantasy was never broken.

Too often in presentations given with PowerPoint, we are all too aware of the software and computer, but the technology should be as invisible as possible. While setting up, for example, don't have the screen on until your first slide is already in play mode. Many presenters actually allow the audience to see the computer screen boot up and then watch them mouse around for their PPT file. We also have a chance to glimpse the desktop picture of the presenter's new baby before the first slide appears. How wonderful...and how irrelevant. All of this subtlety takes away from the moment and from the purpose of the presentation, which is about the message and the story, not what software you are using.

Connect with the audience. Mingle among them. Bring them "on stage" from time to time. At Alegria 2, I felt the cast was not apart from us, instead they were a part of us. We were not just watching a show, we were a member of a live event. There are many things we can do to engage with our audiences too, big or small. From eye contact to smiles, to asking questions and asking for volunteers to help with a demo. Each case is different, but one thing is clear: An audience that feels they are a part of it and shown the respect of engagement from the presenter (or artists) are more likely to pay attention, to listen, and in the end, to "get it."

Pace. At no time did the show drag. The two-hour show went by in a flash. Every act ended with you wanting to see just a bit more, yet the show never felt rushed. In the business world, many presentations drag on and on with superfluous or gratuitous points. Better to have the audience wanting a little more, rather than filling them up to the satiated point.

Little mistakes can happen, so what? Move on immediately to what is important. I noticed one slip and gracious fall on to the net during the Super Aerial High Bar. The point was not the one slip, the point is amazing the audience with the 1000 other things that are going right. The audience does not even notice small mistake as they are often engrossed in the big picture. In a presentation context, the audience does not know (or care) if you forgot to insert a slide or if the color is not as perfect as it was on your PC. Why dwell on the small imperfections? Sure, if there is a mistake or change in the data, that can not be over looked. But when small technical errors occur, remember the "show must go on."

Next time you see a professional performance of some kind, ask yourself how you can incorporate some of their technique and skill in your next presentation. To some degree, every presentation is a performance. In the mean time, try to see a live performance of Alegria if you can.


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