If you’ve ever spoken to me for more than about two minutes in person, chances are pretty good that you’ve experienced me making some comparison to how the thing we were talking about is “a lot like jazz.” In today’s edition of how things are a lot like jazz, I’m going to talk to you about how a good presentation style is a lot like jazz. This is important to understand, I submit, because, as a graduate of two masters programs and a person who has been in and around academia for a bunch of years now, one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is that I’ve seen some truly bad presentations. And I think that the one of the things that people don’t realize, but that makes so many presentations so awfully bad, is that good presentations are a lot like jazz. Here’s what I mean.
One of the most basic elements of jazz that probably everyone knows about is that the music involves a high degree of improvisation: when you hear Miles Davis play a song live, it’s going to sound different from the version you heard on the record, and it’s going to sound different in New York from when he plays it in Los Angeles. This is because the musicians are improvising: they’re just making it up in the moment. And, because they have such a high degree of skill and technical musical knowledge, it still sounds amazing.
Yet, of course, they’re not making it up entirely. When you hear Miles play “‘Round About Midnight” live it’s still going to sound something like the “‘Round About Midnight” you know, it’ll just be slightly different. This is because improvisation doesn’t mean you’re making things up totally out of the blue; it means, at least in jazz, that you have a basic melody to a song (often contained in a lead sheet), and it’s over that basic melody which the musician improvises. This is why it still sounds the same, with variations. The musician has a basic idea of what they’ll play (which basic idea is quite scripted) and then they improvise between the lines. Unlike a classical musician, they haven’t got a piece they’re going to play note for note in a way that’s determined in advance. It takes an enormous amount of confidence in one’s talents to play like this, but it’s part of what makes jazz so great.
So what’s all this got to do with presenting? Well, here’s my personal experience that you can take as you will: the worst presentations are typically when you can tell that the person has determined word for word what they want to say in advance. In these cases, what happens, almost inevitably, is the person begins to flounder because they’re frustrated that they aren’t repeating what they planned to say exactly how they planned to say it, instead of just having the confidence in themselves that they know the material and can express whatever they feel in the moment. It’s always been the same for me when I see someone get up in front of the room to present and they’ve got the piece of paper, or cheat sheet, in their hands; when you see that, you pretty much know it’s guaranteed to be a disaster.
The alternative to this is to be like a jazz musician: you’ve got a basic idea of what you want to say (even worked out on some slides, if you like), and you just improvise off of that. Thus, every time you give the same presentation, it’ll be a little different, although the basic content will be the same. This seems to me to be what the best presenters always tend to do. Doing this is not without difficulty. I lectured for about four years in philosophy (and TA’ed before that), and, so, got really used to just having some basic premises on the board, and then “improvising” lecture, discussion, etc., around the major points. But even then I’ve had some experiences where this approach is still difficult. Here are two examples.
The first example is very much like our grad school friend who has decided everything he’s going to say in advance, and is absolutely hell-bent that they’re going to say it that way when they present, no matter what actually happens in the moment. Sometime back Dani and I presented a webinar on information literacy. I felt like it went well, in the sense that I more or less (using the jazz approach we’ve been talking about) said the stuff I wanted to say (whether it was worth saying, of course, is a different matter entirely!). Later, a situation arose when we were going to give that same presentation again. What was interesting to me was this enormous temptation I ended up feeling, when the possibility of failure ended up looming, to like want to repeat the things I said the first time verbatim. I kept thinking: well, what if I don’t say it as well as I said it the first time? Maybe I should go back and listen to what I said a bunch of times … or even write it down! It’s the same not-confident, anti-jazz mentality that’s going on with the person who is reading from a classical-music-like script, and it’s a recipe for presentation disaster. But eventually you just have to forget about all that, and say whatever you feel at the time. Sure, it feels more risky than having a fall-back. And, sure, the possibly of failure is there. But I think it’s virtually a guaranteed failure if you do it any other way.
Another example is that, although co-blogger Dani and and I present our own stuff a lot independently, sometimes we are working on something together and, thus, we end up presenting together. We first presented together during library school, and, I think, got on well, precisely because we both had the same (more free-wheeling) attitude toward presenting. But, professionally, something that’s been interesting about the way we work together is that I am an awful instructional designer, and Dani is great at it. One thing this means is that I put TONS of content on slides (even though I think it’s less than many) and Dani (rightly so) is an uber-minimalist about content. Thus, when we present together, I have less of a safety net, less of a fall-back on my slides than I sometimes do if I present on my own. In these cases I’ve really got to know that I know what we’re doing and will be okay in the moment, even when we may have a lot of people watching or listening.
This is all, in a way, to say that I get it. I get that it’s less safe to present this way, to just be yourself in front of the world without a heavy script. I just know that the presenters I really like are the ones that don’t have it all scripted out in advance (of if they do, you sure can’t tell …); they’re just real with you in the moment. What is interesting about all this, I suppose, is how it all boils down to a simple fact: good presenters are willing to embrace the possibility of failure, and bad ones are not. Good presenters let their humanity show.