22 December 2007

The Zen of Presentations, Part 14: The Ehrlich Method

The Australian radio show In Conversation recently played two excerpts from a presentation by Paul Ehrlich (pictured). Presenter and interviewer Robyn Williams, who I imagine has seen more than his fair share of incredible talks by some of the world’s best thinkers (interviewing them is his job, after all), was impressed.

He described Ehrlich’s talk in the first part thus:

Here is an internationally renowned biologist and environmental stirrer, at the Perth Convention Centre, strolling on stage with his hands in his pockets or gesticulating for effect, and just chatting. No notes in sight; just that Paul Robeson, rich baritone and a few incendiary remarks(.)

In part two, Williams elaborates:

I was going to call him the ecological answer to Jerry Seinfeld, but the difference is edge. Among the jokes and segues Paul Ehrlich really means some of those barbs.

Williams refers to Erlich as having a “conversation” with his audience and is impressed enough to ask specifically about how he does it.

Robyn Williams: So what enables him at the age of 75, to pace around a stage at the Convention Centre in Perth with no notes, speaking like a Gatling Gun to an audience of 600?

Paul Ehrlich: What I do is I engrave my notes on the inside of my eyelids so all I have to do is blink to be able to read them.

RW: laughs... It’s quite extraordinary. There are two ways of taking this way of having a conversation. You have a conversation with an audience. Either you always say the same thing - or - you've extremely well organised. Which is it?

PE: I always say the same thing... laughs... no... It’s not a matter of organisation, in fact it's a very simple thing. You know a number of things you want to say; you organise them into routines, so you can leave them in or add another one, and depending on the audience you have a basic idea of what you’re going to talk about, so it’s not all that complicated.

There’s a useful idea in there. What Ehrlich calls “routines,” I think of as making a talk modular.

This is particularly a way I structure a series of lectures. Over time, I develop a set of lectures. In any given semester, I put in some but take out others. Once you get each individual piece ready, it’s easy to slot them in, take some in, leave others out, and mix it up.

But what if you have just one presentation you’re working on?

If you’re using slides, you have a natural Ehrlich "routine" right there. Make each one a little self-contained story.

Organize your “routines” so that you have the most important stuff first. When I wrote for newspapers, well before digital publishing allowed very clear calculations of how much space you had, articles would often have to be longer or shorter. So the trick was to break the story down. Put all the important stuff up front. Anything that was interesting, but tangential or dispensible, you put in the last paragraphs. That way, if the story had to be cut due to space limitations, the main thrust of the story was intact and undamaged.

It’s like a set list for a band. A band gives a different concert each night, and each can be totally different. They can do this because they don’t do their entire repertoire of songs. They pick a subset. Before every performance, the band writes out what songs they're going to do.

Can you guess what artist’s set list this is before clicking the link? (Hint: How many songs do you know with “science” in the title?)

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