19 March 2006

The Zen of Presentations, Part 5: Legalized insanity

In the “cosmic coincidence” category today, the cable station Bravo is showing the Inside the Actor's Studio episode with Robin Williams. Unfortunately, it’s the short version – only an hour. There's a longer, 90 minute version, and I would pay good money to see an uncut version of the whole evening, which ran over five hours, according to host James Lipton. I watch it whenever it’s on, because it inspires my presentations and lectures.

And at this point, you may be thinking, “Eh?”

“Come on, you're a scientist, you have to give technical talks on biology. Williams is... you know... funny.” And I freely admit, at first glance, the two don’t meet anywhere near as often as they should. There's several lessons I take from watching Williams.

Nobody ever complains that a talk was “too funny.” Humor is one of the most powerful tools any speaker has. Most humor involves drawing unexpected connections, anyone who laughs has to be thinking and attending and engaged. It can be a great way to check that people are following the words coming out of your mouth. For instance, when I teach protein structure, I often use a little chain of paper clips to represent a protein. Sometimes, while I'm manipulating it at the front of class, it falls apart, and I immediately say, “Whoops! Hydrolysis – did you see the water?” Now, most people reading this will probably go, “I don't get it.” Which is perfectly understandable, you don't have the context to make the connection. But in the context of the lecture, where I've explained what hydrolysis is, it can be funny. Maybe not hysterical, but funny enough that I get laughs with it. If people laugh at jokes related to the content of the talk, I know people are understanding the technical material.

A lot of people warn against trying to be funny in a technical talk, and I don't know why. People say, “Oh, the joke might bomb, and it can be awkward.” If you’ve ever watched every comedian, not everything that comes out is funny. They move on.

One caveat on using humour during a presentation. Don’t just tell a joke just to make a joke. Tell a joke to make a point. The humour should relate to the material. As always, this is particularly true when your talk is tightly timed. That’s probably the main difference between humour in a presentation versus humour in improvisational comedy: you are slightly more confined. That said, many theatre sport games revolve around restricting what you can say or do, and the joy is to find how far you can go within those barriers.

Robin Williams also demonstrates that enthusiasm is contagious. Whenever you’re presenting, you have to find passion, energy, that personal connection to the material.

Another lesson I get from watching Williams is the power of improvisation. An important part of a talk is not just putting information out to your audience, but picking up on cues from your surroundings, and running with it. As Harlan Ellison once said in an interview, “The overriding message of all art… is ‘Pay attention.’” And presentations are an art, so pay attention!

This will sound contradictory, but I think spontaneity is a skill. It can be learned. You can plan for, practice, and rehearse spontaneity.

One of the things I did as a high school student and as an undergraduate was a little bit of acting, which was very valuable to me when I got into graduate school and started giving presentations. I knew how to project my voice, for instance. Another thing that I’m sure most actors will be familiar with is that the first thing that happens is that you have to learn your lines. As you become more familiar with your lines, though, an interesting thing happens. You start to play with them, because you reach the point where you know them so well. You can veer off, try something a little different, and not lose the plot because you have rehearsed. One reason so many talks are so stilted and canned is not that people rehearse too much – talks are stilted because people don’t rehearse enough. They are rigidly following lines, like an actor beginning to learn a new play. The slightest problem throws them off course.

One easy way to “plan for spontaneity” is to have certain lines that work in several different situations. For instance, I can always get a laugh by saying about some process, particularly one that seems a little boring or obscure, “It’s a great party trick... if you're ever at a party with no chicks or booze.” (Stolen without shame from Drew Carey, who used it all the time on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) Talk’s lagging a little? Throw in the party trick line. But it’s brilliant, because it’s so multi-purpose that you can use it without deliberately planning to use it.

Another example of how you can plan to be spontaneous is to make sure your talk is shorter than the allotted time. That way, you can take an extra 30 seconds to say that cogent example that just popped into your head. If your time is 15 minutes, and your talk is always 15 minutes, you cannot deviate without going over time. Leave yourself the breathing room to allow for those fruitful deviations.

So yes, I strongly believed spontaneity is a skill that can be, if not learned, facilitated or not hindered. I believe humour is a skill that can be learned. I think I'm much funnier now than I used to be, and I think that's largely because of having to teach. As you become better prepared, the more able you are to make stuff up as you go.

For instance, a couple of days ago I gave my Brain Awareness Week talk (which went very well, thank you for asking). At the start, I introduced what Brain Awareness Week was, and, on the spot, I said something like, “This runs all this week, so if you're not aware of your brain by the end of tonight, you still have Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to become aware of it.” Didn’t plan it, but it successfully got a laugh. And I was able to keep on track because I knew where I was in the talk and what I had to say next. If I didn't put in enough thought beforehand, I might have lost the plot: “Now, what was I saying?”

But preparation alone doesn’t get you to that level of performance that Robin Williams achieves, which he calls “legalized insanity.” You have to trust your creative impulses and not censor. The good news is that if you do that in a presentation, you are allowed a very large amount of leeway in behaviour that you don’t get while walking around in Wal-Mart (say). (Hence, the “legalized insanity.”) Now that I lecture a lot, one of the things I’ve realized is that it’s difficult to go too far. Forget about trying to present an “appropriate” facade. I do try to avoid being mean-spirited, but otherwise, I feel very comfortable saying whatever comes to mind.

Another talk that I find extremely, extremely inspiring is director Robert Rodriguez's commentary to Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams. Trust me, whatever you think of the movie, that DVD is worth renting just to listed to the commentary track. On it, Rodriguez talks a lot about his creative process. One of the lessons he said he learned was that his creativity never let him down. He faced problems like needing a song when no composer was available. Rather than saying, “I don’t know how to do that,” he just tackled it and trusted that he could come up with a solution.

And when all of those things start clicking, that's the best. Some people call it flow, some people call it their game face, some people call it being in the zone. And it doesn't seem to matter what the situation is -- the way you get to that is through lots of initial preparation, which gives you the freedom to pay attention and adjust to new situations.

It makes giving a talk. So. Much. Fun.

I've really come to enjoy my lectures, because I can go a little crazy. I can tell jokes. I know I will have a chance to engage in just a little of that “legalized insanity.”

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