Everything I Know About Presentations, I Learned in Theatre School

An Unlikely Education

30A#_Q28I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and was inspired to get it done by Merlin Mann’s recent piece about improving his use of PowerPoint.

I do a lot of presentations. Each time I give a talk, I try to improve on something. I have a good base on which to build thanks to an unlikely education. Despite my career in technology, I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Theatre.

I learned a lot of good public speaking practices from theatre school. They come in two flavours–content and technique:

Content – What You Say

  1. Respect the Narrative Arc. Every good story has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning promises the audience something, the middle threatens to take that promise away, and the end pays off on the promise (or, in the so-called ‘third act twist’, it doesn’t).
  2. Tell Stories. If you take one piece of advice from this article, it’s this. We make meaning by telling stories–to ourselves and each other. If you can construct your entire talk by embedding your points in a series of anecdotes and tall tales, do it. You’ll entertain your audience a lot more, and your message will be much stickier in your audience’s heads. Watch Seth Godin speak–he’s all about the clever anecdotes.
  3. Embrace Metaphors. Metaphors are another important means of how we make sense of the world. Use similes (“this site is eBay for seniors”).
  4. Dialogue Starts on the Page. I find my talks are much more cogent and compelling when I’ve written them as informal essays first. Then I try to commit as much of it as I can to memory, and write out the key points on index cards. Too many speakers seem to think they’ve prepared a talk by creating some slides. The slides should come last.
  5. Slides are Your Costumes, Lighting and Set, Not Your Speech. Your slides exist to reinforce the things you’re saying, not the other way around. Like your clothes, they provide context and framing for your message. As such, I almost always eschew bullet points for a single word or phrase per slide, accompanied by lots of photos. An overly complicated set will distract an audience, and so will overly busy slides.
  6. Your Set Design Needs Soul. Use lots of photos in your slides, but pick photos with soul. You’ll know them when you see them. Here’s a tip–there’s more soul on Flickr than iStockPhoto. And avoid obvious illustrations. You don’t need to show two generic hands shaking to imply a relationship. I recently gave a talk that included a brief summary of the history of communications–from few-to-few to few-to-many to many-to-many. These are the three photos I used:

    Outside the CBC 2
  7. The Play’s As Long As It Needs To Be (or Not To Be). People like to say “you shouldn’t have more than five (or 15 or 23) slides”. This implies that there’s a standard duration for each slide, and that you’re a simpleton. When you don’t use bullet points, this rule no longer applies. In one of my talks I run 60 slides–all photos–in about 3 minutes, and other slides sit up on screen for five minutes while I’m making a point.
  8. Surprise Your Audience. We’re delighted when the unexpected happens. Change gears midstream, take your theme in a new direction, or show a little video in the middle of your talk. It piques the interest of the audience and refreshes their attention. Everybody perks up when the ghost of Hamlet’s dad returns in Act 3.
  9. Begin In Media Res. It’s Latin for ‘in the middle of things’, and a lesson from Playwriting 101. Start in the middle of the action. Start with an anecdote out of left field, and let the audience catch up later. Don’t be afraid to use a flashback to fill in the background in the middle of your talk.
  10. Find the Funny. This is dangerous, because there’s nothing worse than a joke (or a joker) that bombs on-stage. If you’re not a naturally-gifted comic, find other ways. Embed humour in your slides, bring a prop or gently abuse the audience. I recently used a volunteer and a prop in a talk:

    It’s hardly a stroke of comic genius, but it can change the tone for a few minutes, which never hurts.

Technique – How You Say It

  1. Go to a speech coach. Why do British actors always sound smart? Because, usually, they’ve got superb vocal training and are exceptionally articulate. Discover all the muscles in your mouth, throat and chest dedicated to speaking, and learn how to exercise them.
  2. Warm up your voice. You stretch before playing pickup hockey–why don’t you warm up your voice before putting it through the paces? Your speech coach can help with this. As part of my pre-speaking ritual, I spend about ten minutes conducting an embarrassing vocal warm-up before speaking. I try to do it backstage, in an empty bathroom or in some other out of the way corner.
  3. Quit moving around. It’s a common bad habit of the young (and, in my case, really awful) actor. When you’re not rooted firmly in one place, you water down your message and distract the audience. Stand in one spot, and move only to emphasize a point.
  4. Talk slower. You’re almost certainly talking too fast. Even if you have a complete handle on your nerves, there’s a lot going on during a talk–slides, distracting audience members, and so forth–and people take longer to absorb information. Practice slowing down until people tell you that you’re talking too slowly.
  5. Consider Your Pacing. That said, you don’t always have to talk slowly. The speed at which you speak is just another tool–be sure to use it. Speak quickly for comic effect, or to emphasize the complexity of a process.
  6. Wield the Pause. Playwrights often write (Pause). I’ve used it as a lazy transition, and a way to notify the actor that a speech’s tone or subtext changes. You can use a pause in the same way–implying a shift from one section to the next. More importantly, the skillfully-wielded pause sharpens the audience’s attention, and builds anticipation of your next point.
  7. Costumes Matter. I keep saying this, but here it is again: clothes are costumes, and costumes are powerful symbols. Whether you’re speaking to six of your colleagues or 600 strangers, your clothes matter. They offer both context and subtext for what you’re speaking about. People are looking at you for a while–even if they don’t process your clothes consciously, they’ll do so in the background cycles of their brain. Guy Kawasaki spoke after me at Gnomedex, and he wore this cool, casual shirt and jeans. Maybe that’s a carefully crafted image, or maybe it’s just what he threw on that morning, but it says a lot about who he is as a speaker.

In short, make your presentations a little more like a play or a film. A little creativity and humour goes a long way, so don’t overdo it. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who described entertainment as “the jam that coats the pill of morality”. Your pill is probably more education or marketing than morality, but the lesson applies. Entertain your audience, and they’ll buy more of whatever it is you’re selling.


  1. Superb post! Shockingly, I don’t have any half-assed criticism to post here.

    As regards to your point about slides, I would go further and describe them as the charts and illustrations necessary to make your points.

    Tufte, of course, carries the battle standard in the war against PowerPoint, and if he goes further than I would, I would agree that by default, PowerPoint guides a user towards the least productive slide-show techniques.

    I guess PPT is cursed with evil Wizards, or something.

  2. Personally I’m petrified of public speaking and avoid it at all costs.

    I dread other people’s presentations too, because I find people who like speaking in public tend to be tedious.

    You might be the exception though. It sounds like you make an effort to avoid being tedious. I like that.

  3. Great points Darren! I’m a volunteer trainer for Scouts Canada so my presentations are very informal but I could see several points I could fix up in my presentations. Are there differences between how you prepare a presentation vs. a training?

  4. I did a minor in Drama while doing my Biochem degree and probably one of the most valuable things I learned from my Drama training was how to channel the nervous energy of being in front of a crowd into performance energy – it’s served me well in giving presentations ever since.

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  6. I came across a superb tagline in a forum the other day (though I can’t remember where):

    “Power corrupts; PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”

    As a writer, I often get sent PowerPoint presentations from marketing types who see them as a source of information, but they are nearly always empty of meaning. Now I have an explanation for them: you can’t understand the play just from the scenery and lighting.

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  8. Thanks for the post-it was really helpful. It is really difficult though, when you only have 10 minutes to make your presentation. I always go over time so things like using a short film clip takes up valuable time.

  9. darren, i was in the front row at gnomedex. i thought your presentation was dynamite. the tombstone was a great metaphor.

    as for guy, he missed the point of “surprise your audience.” i heard him spout the same stories fifteen years ago. geez. boring…..zzzzzzzz


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  11. Another tip: Join Toastmasters. For about $35 for six months, you will have the chance to practice public speaking skills in a formal but friendly setting. I belong to a Toastmasters group that is half Americans, half foreigners, and I find it exciting and inspiring to watch people working to overcome their fears. Ive seen all those excellent principles spoken about in action. Putting them into practice in a situation where you will be evaluated is REALLY helpful.

  12. I love the “more soul on Flickr” comment.

    Totally. Some charlatans build a following on the illusion of professionalism and forget the craft is about the message.

    Truth. An idea. How best to move A to B; it’s a matter of art, and the story is the craft.

    From another public speaker, great post.

  13. Before giving a speech–or before an important conversation or meeting–I listen to a Books-on-Tape type audiotape or CD of a novel, play, or poetry, sometimes while I am driving to the site beforehand. I have found that hearing human speech in that way–having to concentrate on hearing the words as I drive–activates and stimulates the speech center in my brain. As a result, I have noticed, my words flow much more readily, easily, and eloquently. It REALLY makes a positive difference. The converse of that is what happens if you spend a day or two alone without talking much with anyone. You will find that your first words spoken to another person come haltingly, perhaps with a sort of croak, as your unused voice tries to get the words started.

  14. Ummm… something in your post –
    “bring a prop or gently abuse the audience.”

    Did you mean “amuse”? 🙂
    Its funny.. because you know what you will get in return if you “abuse” the audience 😀

  15. Nayan: I do mean ‘abuse’. I mean pick on them a little, make fun of your host or otherwise make them a little uncomfortable. It’s unexpected, and makes them pay attention.

  16. Hi Darren

    Thanks for this post. It reminds me that I need to reflect on my own acting training from years past.

    It will no doubt allow me to bring extra things to my speaking.


  17. if truth be told, theater schools are a real gem and they indeed hold a very valuable training for all public speakers. I completely agree with you, it seems that everything a public speaker must learn are actually taught in the confines of a theater school. very interesting post you have here. 🙂

  18. I love your telling stories point. It’s just so much more memorable, so much easier to listen to, and so much easier to retell! Thanks

  19. I did a minor in Drama while doing my Biochem degree and probably one of the most valuable things I learned from my Drama training was how to channel the nervous energy of being in front of a crowd into performance energy – it’s served me well in giving presentations ever since.

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