Until recently I had not been to the Pantomime for about a quarter of a century. It is silly. It is for kids. It is for people who want to pay over the odds for ice cream. Or so I thought.
Thanks are due to my parents in law for dragging me (along with my wife and children) to see Jack and the Beanstalk at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh. It was a wonderful afternoon, with brilliant entertainment from start to finish.
Since leaving the performance I have reflected carefully on lessons that public speakers could learn from the genre of Pantomime. Clearly there are things you should never try to mimic but there are some key lessons from Jack and the Beanstalk that you could apply to a business presentation.
Here they are: –
1. Start with a bang
The show started with a combination of loud noises, bright lights and energy – they had you on the edge of your seat from the beginning, appealing to various senses. They also did something else clever – they did not start exactly when the background music came to the end of the song. As a background song ends, you think ‘we are about to start.’ The show started about 20 seconds or so into a new song.
In a presentation, be aware that the audience will judge you quickly so do something early to make a statement of intent and get their attention. It is far easier to keep them with you if you hook them early.
2. Interact with the audience
This is perhaps the most important lesson from watching Jack and the Beanstalk. Serious attempts were made to engage all the audience at semi-regular intervals. This meant I was genuinely interested all the way through – there was not a single moment where my attention began to wander. They were also outstanding in the way they varied the type of audience interaction – not even one hackneyed ‘he’s behind you’ or ‘oh no you won’t.’ Instead we had direct ‘banter’ with people in the boxes at the side, a video camera trained on the audience where a victim’s fashion sense was ridiculed (“you might have worn something a bit nicer if you had known you would be on television”) and then later people were invited on the stage to take part in a tongue twister.
In a presentation you need to keep the audience with you all the way through – they are the sole reason for your existence. Copy the principles employed in pantomime – engage the audience regularly and do it in different ways during the performance.
3. Cater the content to all the audience
Pantomime has traditionally been a family event but I was surprised by the sheer diversity of the audience at Jack and the Beanstalk. There were all ages from babies up to octogenarians, with a roughly even split through the age groups. As a result, the show had various layers of humour and tried to cater to all tastes. Most of the audience were from Edinburgh, so there were many local references to parts of the city, use of Edinburgh words and commentary on the two main football teams. There was slapstick, silly comments, clever anecdotes and subtle innuendo – this meant everyone laughed (sometimes for different reasons).
In a presentation you must study carefully the make-up of the audience. What things will appeal to the majority? Are there segments that need extra care and attention? Is everyone catered for, at least in part?
The story of Jack and the Beanstalk is as old as the Edinburgh hills but some of the references were highly topical. In the right places (and in the right way) the Brexit Referendum, recent pop chart hits, Donald Trump and local politicians all got a mention. There was even time for a reference to the new £5 note story (some apparently contain animal fats) which was literally hot off the press.
In a presentation, work hard to find one or two relevant topical references. It will make an impact on the audience and shows that the talk was written for them. This can work even if the talk is an ‘off the shelf’ talk you have given many times before – the topical reference automatically freshens the content.
5. Do not be afraid to ad lib (a little) in parts
Three of the cast in particular were highly experienced and confident professionals and at several points in the show they appeared to ad lib. I suspected this at the time but this was confirmed by my son who had seen the performance a few weeks earlier with different ad lib parts. The ad lib parts were some of the highlights of the show because they were spontaneous – the three actors clearly loved it and it had a positive impact on the rest of the cast too.
In a presentation, while it is critical to have a structured plan, leaving a little scope for spontaneity in a talk is a sign of real confidence. Try it out in a low pressure environment first. You might just find that you enjoy it and like the pantomime, it can lead to some of the highlights of your talk.
I entered the theatre in a neutral (but veering towards negative) frame of mind about pantomime. However, I was hooked early on, stayed engaged throughout and was buzzing by the end. This was achieved by a number of techniques, five of which I have outlined in this article.
While the application of the techniques would have to be very different in a business presentation (otherwise they risk being seen as a gimmick) there are nonetheless valuable lessons to learn. Think carefully about the application and try a technique in one of your next talks. Please let me know how you get on.
In the meantime, I am told it is Cinderella next time at the King’s Theatre so I might just go and buy some tickets!
Speak With Impact