Presentation Skills: It’s not an illusion. Magicians are the best embodiment of the transformative public speaker. Magicians hold audiences spellbound, using little more than words and a few simple props. Magicians deliver memorable experiences that can’t be readily duplicated. Magicians transform audiences, often leaving impressions that last a lifetime. Who forgets their best experience with a magician — the coin that vanished in his hand or the playing card found in some extraordinary location?
A lithograph poster from 1910 features the magician Chung Ling Soo on stage in front of a wide-eyed audience. The poster states “Spellbound they gathered, far and near to scan the weird powers of this wondrous man.” It seems like Steve Jobs could have stood in Soo’s place on the poster.
The Economist (8 Oct 2011) chose “magician’ as their best metaphor for the greatest presenter of our day. They described Jobs as the “master showman” who could “stand alone on a black stage and conjure up an ‘incredible’ new electronic gadget in front of an awed crowd.” It sounds like magic to me.
Now it’s your turn to perform presentation magic with your message. Levitate your presentation skills to new heights with these six trade secrets from the world of magic:
Focus on the audience. Magicians connect with their audience early in order to establish rapport. The magician will be better received during the after-dinner performance if he meets guests during the cocktail reception. Likewise, a good presenter meets and mingles with guests before the formal presentation to establish a personal connection with the audience.
Perform clear and simple magic. The rope is cut and then restored. The lady levitates. The elephant vanishes. Effective presenters deliver clear messages. The concept of clarity infuses their audible message as well as their visual aids. Steve Jobs said “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Experienced presenters know that less is more. They distill their presentations until only the best material remains.
Tell a great story. Magic is greatly enhanced by story – the more personal and recognizable the story, the more impactful the magic. Skilled presenters captivate an audience with messages that have story structure and a transformative end. Strong presenters tell stories which are audience specific, thus increasing the relevance and power of their message.
Stay in the moment. Like performers of improvisation, magicians seek out serendipitous events of a particular show. However, these unique moments never derail the performance from its predetermined end. Great presenters can “go with the flow” of the audience in order to enliven the presentation, yet they maintain the course of their core message as they achieve their final point.
Vary your elements. Magicians captivate attention by using a variety of props and routines, using audience volunteers or not, and occasionally using music to create a mood. Presenters maintain high levels of interest with vocal sleight of hand, pauses, changed tones of speaking, and rhetorical techniques such as the repetition of words and phrases.
Practice. Practice. And practice some more. This is the magician’s mantra. It may take weeks or months before a sleight is perfected. Only then can the magician try it out in front of a real audience. Malcolm Gladwell claims that it takes 10,000 hours of rigorous practice to attain a level of mastery in any discipline. Nancy Duarte recommends that a presenter spend 30 hours rehearsing an hour-long presentation. For the illusionist and the public speaker, there is no presentation magic without lots of practice.
The best presentation skills are truly magical – transforming an audience with a clear message, delivered with verbal variety and strong visuals. Today, audience members expect presenters to be both informative and entertaining; more than ever, any difference between a magician and transformative public speaker might simply be illusionary.
Charles Greene III Presentation Magician