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.