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Eureka! It’s Performing, Not Presenting

[Updated: Dec. 24]


Lately I’ve become too comfortable delivering presentations. My fall calendar was quite busy with gigs in big cities, small cities, and international places. And feedback from both attendees and conference organizers has all been very positive. But something within me wasn’t satisfied. That something was telling me I’m plateauing as a speaker.

On a recent plane trip, where I was to deliver a presentation, I read Steve Martin’s just-published memoir about the rise of his stand-up comedy career. (We may have forgotten that before Steve Martin was an actor, screenwriter, and best-selling author, he was a groundbreaking stand-up comic.)

As a child I felt an attachment to Steve Martin partly because his KING TUT song was the first 45-rpm single I bought; partly because his on-stage goofiness (arrow through head, etc.) inspired the budding class clown in me [peep this for proof]; and partly because my Dad and older brother saw him live in Las Vegas back in 1979. I also remember spending hours looking at his GET SMALL album cover where he wore the funny nose and had a messed-up balloon animal hat atop his head.

Anyways … back to my Eureka! moment. Something in Steve Martin’s book triggered a thought that has changed how I approach my speaking gigs — I do not deliver presentations. I GIVE PERFORMANCES. Because I give performances, I need to be more exaggerated, more animated, more vocal … more like I’m “on stage” performing.

Growing up my Mom used to always tell me, “John, you should be on stage.” I would always shake that off. But what she said rings true. As someone paid to give presentations, I am on stage. While not an actor, I’m a performer. I get paid to perform on stage in front of businesspeople. Thus, I need to stop acting like a “presenter” and start being more like a “performer.”

Last month I began putting into practice this angle of giving performances rather than just delivering presentations. I deliberately became more animated on stage. My voice inflections were more exaggerated. I worked (and walked) the entire room, making lasting eye contact with attendees. My timing improved as I focused on delivering my key takeaways as if they were punchlines to a joke. I felt great afterwards. And the feedback from attendees confirmed how good I felt.

Plus … I kid you not … I’ve had people come up to me afterwards and tell me that if this presentation thing doesn’t work out, I should become a stand-up comic. Eureka! I might be onto something here.


  • Kelsey says:

    Great post John. I actually have been considering taking some stand-up comedy classes to pick-up on some of the common techniques used in stand-up. I already have done some improv classes. What methods have you been using to develop your on-stage presence (besides practice)?

  • I always thought you were a wild and crazy guy.

  • Wow… a 45 inch single?? That’s even bigger than the record player I had as a kid. :)Great post, though!

  • 45rpm … my bad … consider corrected.

  • Tim Walker says:

    Amen, John. Great performers take it over the top to get strong emotional responses from the audience. Along with Steve Martin (great photo, great analogy here), I think of Eddie Murphy in his Notorious/Raw days … Prince dancing and playing blistering guitar solos … Tony Bennett singing with the mikes turned off (you get so quiet and lean in so far you feel like you’re within arm’s reach of him) … and the 40-minute sax solo I once experienced at a Sonny Rollins show. All of these are *calculated* to de-center the audience, to get them off their even keels and get them right down in the moment with you.Again, thanks for this. I’ll be borrowing from it with glee when I give my next presentation performance.

  • robbin says:

    I sat in on a small group (about 35) presentation by Richard Florida (Rise of the Creative Class) about a month ago. And this was cool. He stood before the room prior to speaking a word, clasping his hands in front of him and simply and quietly made eye contact with everyone in the room. With the occasional head nod. It was an approach I had never seen. Very interesting. And I have to say it it was a compelling way to begin a conversation.

  • Henri Weijo says:

    Just remember John what “Made to Stick” teaches us: great performing and charismatic speaking doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing a good job delivering the message. It just might mean you’re entertaining. Although I’m sure you’re good at both =)

  • Yes Henri. If one is going to sizzle, they need to bring the steak. You are right. But one can share “Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Stories” in a presentation worthy of being considered a performance.

  • Presenting has always been easy for me — and I credit my undergraduate studies in theatre. Even if you don’t really want to be an actor, time on-stage will prepare you for time with a slide remote. We actually send some of our first-year associates to improv classes at the local university to help them loosen up their presenting skills.One other thing that few presenters understand — the power of silence. Good actors know when to pause to create emphasis. Too many presenters try to fill every second with noise.