Rock Stars’ Techniques For Giving Better Presentations
What can we learn from rock stars about how to improve our own presentations? This was the topic of a talk I attended as part of Chicago Ideas Week by Brian Burkhart, president and “Chief Word Guy” at Square Planet, where he coaches business people to become better presenters and communicators.
He started, as did many things, with Bob Dylan. He played “Like A Rolling Stone” and mercilessly pointed out that Dylan, in fact, has a terrible voice. But he grabs us with the words. “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, you threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you? People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall,” You thought they were all kiddin’ you.” The song is magnetizing because of the words Dylan sings, not so much the quality of their presentation. With rock as with anything else, the content is the most important part of your presentation. All the bonus stuff—the animated slides, the videos, the jokes—can’t compensate for lack of compelling content.
What’s more, your content should stand out from what other people are saying. You have to take a stance and differentiate yourself from what’s out there. “You don’t need to like Marilyn Manson to know what he’s all about,” Burkhart told me. “That’s the part that people forget when it comes to presentations. They try to be everything to everyone, but you can’t. The goal of a presentation is to change someone’s beliefs or behaviors. If you don’t take a stance, if you’re too vanilla, you can’t change other people’s behavior. ”
As a presenter in the business world, you may not want to shock people the way Marilyn Manson does, but you do want to be memorable. Rock stars use production elements like lighting to shape the emotional effect of their presentations. As a corporate speaker you may be able to do that to some extent, but mostly you communicate emotions through your personality, your passion, and stories from your life. On that front, Burkhart made three recommendations.
First, be authentic . Don’t try to be funny if you’re not. Don’t pretend to be a bigger company than you are. Don’t pretend to be more knowledgeable than you are. And don’t pretend that you want to be there if you don’t. Audiences can sniff out a fraud in 30 seconds.
Second, be confident . At an M.I.A. show in Chicago this May, the line to the women’s bathroom was longer than usual for a rap show. In it, the ladies were gushing: “She has so much swagger! I wish I could have some of that.” Confidence is attractive. Burkhart gave the example of Frank Sinatra, who was a physically unimposing high-school dropout. But through his self-confidence, he made the most of his talents as a musician, actor and businessman.
You can’t fake confidence, so it’s best rely on your expertise, practice and preparation. Burkhart told me that some business people work on their presentations on the airplane the night before or don’t prepare at all. “That’s exactly the opposite of what an amazing rock band would do.” Rock stars spend weeks working out the details of their shows and rehearsing to get everything just right.
Finally, be likeable . Most rock stars make an effort to be relatable, friendly, and open. It helps them build their relationship with audiences. Of course some adopt a more punk attitude. From Johnny Rotten to Kanye West, we hold a special place in our hearts for celebrities who break free of the constraints of likeability. But as a public speaker, you’re better off taking the route of Taylor Swift than Courtney Love.
Rock stars really wow us when they simplify . A few years ago I saw Paul Simon perform at the Rosemont Theater in Rosemont IL. He had a full band, video projection and a light show. But for his first encore he walked on the stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a spotlight. He sang “The Sounds of Silence” the way he had intended it to sound when he composed it. It was the highlight of the show. When I saw Sinead O’Connor in Chicago last November, she did an a cappella version of “I am Stretched on Your Grave.” A lady, a voice, and a soul. It was stunning. Some of the best business talks I’ve seen have been simple. No slides, no videos, no New Yorker cartoons, no fancy infographics. But they had a meaningful message that resonated with me and was all the more memorable for the lack of frills.
Finally, rock stars go for broke . Rock stars understand that they need to give a great show each and every time they get on the stage. “Business people somehow believe that if they didn’t sleep well or had a bad flight, they can be off their game,” Burkhart said. “That’s wrong. When you’re trying to present, when you trying to influence people, when you’re trying to change behavior, you better bring it. You get one shot to get it right and you’ve got to go for it. ”
After a good rock show, people talk. They buy the t-shirts, they share on social media. Presentations are the same. “If you do a good presentation, people talk about it afterwards.” Burkhart said, “It will lift you and your career. If you do a lousy job, then boy it’s a missed opportunity.”
To illustrate this point, Burkhart showed a video of Queen performing “We Are the Champions” at Live Aid in 1985. As you can see below, Freddy Mercury holds nothing back. He goes all in. In the business world, we don’t normally present our full self. But rock stars make their work personal. Which is why rock stars can make for very effective business speakers.