Think naturalness not perfection
April 19, 2009
In the post below I said that the presentation by Shai Agassi was my personal favorite of the TED 09 conference. It was certainly not a perfect presentation technically, so one gentleman asked me how I could recommend such an imperfect, "awful" talk as a sample model to follow. Was it not a contradiction to praise such an imperfect TED talk when there are many better TED examples? But here's the thing: perfection of delivery is not the goal, nor is it even possible, depending on how you define perfection. Yes, it's true that the manuals say a speaker should eliminate the "ums" and the "ers" and so on that sometimes litter the narration of live talks. This is good advice for the most part, especially if such disfluencies become a distraction (though at least one study suggests that such disfluencies may actually sometimes help not harm comprehension). However, to me there are many kinds of successful presentations; there is not one single formula for success.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
In the Presentation Zen approach, if we can call it that, we are more concerned with naturalness in delivery, a delivery on stage that is more similar to a natural conversation between two people, such as a teacher to student, a master to apprentice, or among equals such as a scientist to scientist, and so on. Naturalness in delivery, then, is more like a conversation between friends or coworkers than a formal one-way lecture. We find something parallel to this kind of thinking in Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's MInd in a small section on communication. Here's a passage that hints at the point I'm trying to make in the context of presentation (emphasis mine):
— Shunryu Suzuki
We can apply these simple ideas above concerning Zen and communication to our everyday presentations, meetings, networking events, etc. That is, the emphasis should be, I believe, on the natural expression of yourself, honesty and straightforwardness, rather than on following a memorized script of the "right way" to behave. As Suzuki says, "Without any intentional, fancy way of adjusting yourself, to express yourself as you are is the most important thing."
Still, speech coaches are important
Please do not misunderstand my intention. Training & coaching in public speaking (and dealing with the media, etc.) are important. Having a good speech coach and a video camera is very helpful. Recently I read a good book by Jerry Weissman called The Power Presenter: Technique, Style, and Strategy from America's Top Speaking Coach. Interestingly, right from the beginning Jerry talks about the importance of looking at speaking more like conversation rather than performance. Here again the emphasis is not on teaching people how to become performers (which more than 99% of us are not), but rather on helping them to become more natural presenters. As Jerry says early in the book while talking about his coaching career, "My goal was to move the business people I coached to become successful presenters naturally."
Returning to the Shai Agassi presentation at TED, for me is was a successful talk because he connected with the audience — however imperfectly — and told the story of his mission in a way that was interesting, memorable, and repeatable. It was not perfect and Shai can do better, but it was a successful talk that engaged and got people talking. In a sense, it was imperfectly natural...and effective.
This week a student of the martial arts Matthew Apsokardu wrote a very clear blog post called What PowerPoint Taught Me About Martial Arts based on some of the ideas talked about in PZ.
In my mind, he demonstrated leadership. He set a vision for the future, I was inspired even if I didn't understand everything, and he showed energy – all the things a leader should do. Does it mean that everything he said was right, even the things he said about Scandinavia? No, but it doesn't matter. He was so convincing that I believed in him. He inspired me, and I remembered the things that I believe in: how old structures and patterns sometimes trap us from doing the things that are right for us. That's good enough.
Posted by: Jan | April 19, 2009 at 03:57 PM
People get to caught up in technique and performance. Presentation is basically about selling your idea and that is in my mind done with a strong message and emotions. I was very inspired by Shai's talk and I think you are spot on in your coverage. The question people should be asking themselves is are you Detroit or a Better Place...
Posted by: Thomas Stack | April 19, 2009 at 05:24 PM
It's funny you posted about this because I was thinking about something similar this morning. I went to an 8 AM church service this morning which I had never been to. It was at a fairly big church, but this early service attracts very few people (probably less than 20) so they meet in a small room. The minister was someone I know well and I have great respect for her skills as a minister, but I couldn't help feeling that the sermon sounded out of place in such an intimate setting. It was very well spoken, but it felt like she was speaking to a much larger audience, and I am sure I wouldn't have noticed anything if I had gone to a later, larger service. I think it could have benefited from being more imperfect.
Posted by: Brock | April 20, 2009 at 12:40 AM
I'm a public speaking coach. I recently went to a conference and saw one particularly amazing speaker. He was genuine, interesting, dynamic, energizing, bold, emotional, insightful... AND... he violated almost everything I'm "supposed to" coach for. His presentation was, for me, the most memorable talk of the conference. I wouldn't have changed a thing.
Posted by: Steve Cherches | April 20, 2009 at 02:20 AM
By this rationale, a rambling and disconnected talk would be noteworthy if the presenter was relaxed and comfortable with public speaking.
Sorry, but I've been to far too many of those! I gave up on the Ted talk because I got bored. It was too disorganised to hold my interest.
He should have followed some of the principles in PZ, or at the very least had some structure to the talk.
Posted by: Steve L | April 20, 2009 at 09:39 AM
Hey Garr, thanks a lot for the mention!
The great thing about Shai's speech is that he could have given it sitting around a coffee house, yet managed enough emphasis to enthrall a whole conference center.
Posted by: Matt "Ikigai" | April 20, 2009 at 10:23 AM
>By this rationale, a rambling and disconnected talk would be noteworthy if the presenter was relaxed and comfortable with public speaking.
Did I say a "rambling and disconnected" was noteworthy? I did not. No connection, no communication. I also was not speaking to being relaxed, I was speaking to the idea of naturalness which has more to do with being in that moment with that audience -- the emphasis is on the audience and sharing *with them*.
Posted by: garr | April 20, 2009 at 10:52 AM
Hello, Garr. Thanks for this great post. I applaud your emphasis on naturalness, connection with audience and honesty in a speaker. I do training on Public Speaking and Customer Service. A big part of my work involves helping people discover and use "their own voice". This is powerful, compelling, freeing and inspiring. Of course you still have to be organized, know your audience, have something valuable to say ... but adding "your own voice and style" gets remembered. This isn't always easy -- people have ideas about how a presenter needs to look, sound and move like ... but such limiting beliefs can make presenters sound fake and cookie-cutter; like someone else, not ourselves.
Posted by: Adrilia | April 20, 2009 at 11:39 PM
Thanks Garr, I connect with Suzuki's 'expressing yourself as you are'. Good encouragement even for an want-a-be presenter. I've been reading Aitken Roshi's 'Miniatures of a Zen Master' and in it he also emphasises this same kind of intimate expression.
I don't have to give many presentations, yet each month I help physicians with technical presentations and find the work enjoyable.
Your slide inspired my copy. I used one of my own photos rather than one from stock.
Posted by: Will Simpson | April 21, 2009 at 07:37 AM