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Jazz up Your Next Presentation


Miles Davis’s album, Kind of Blue, is regarded as one of the most influential jazz albums of all time.   Its music offers lessons for musicians of all genres, and its techniques offer interesting parallels and lessons for presenters.

Here are three jazz elements that apply to presentations:

1. Improvisation – Miles Davis called for almost no rehearsals before recording Kind of Blue.   He provided the other musicians only sketches of the scales and chords for each song and then encouraged everyone to improvise.

In presentations, we presenters often need to improvise when we see that our planned content or approach doesn’t jibe with the audience.

How?  Feed off audience reactions and questions to adapt content, and be willing to explore important tangents, even though they don’t fit into your prepared presentation.  (Note: Bag the trivial tangents.)

Also, when faced with presenting the same content several times to multiple audiences, find stories from current events that apply to your content to keep your presentation fresh for both you and your audience.

2. Tension and release – What makes jazz complex and interesting is playing notes and chords that create dissonance—or jarring, sometimes off-key sounds—before returning to satisfying notes and melodies.  Moving the crowd through the tension makes the melodies that much more enjoyable.

Presentations work the same way.

How?  Highlight business risks and issues as much as solutions and outcomes.  Like it or not, our brains respond more powerfully to the negative than the positive.  (Think political advertising.)  So a presentation will be more persuasive if it takes the audience on a journey from the consequences of not acting, to the benefits of following your proposed plan.

3. Emotional appealKind of Blue influenced musicians of all genres, partly because of the techniques and intricacies of each song, but also because of how the sounds struck at their souls.

A presentation should tap into the audience’s reason, but equally important is tapping into its emotion.  The information presented may be sound and factual, but unless the audience is inspired to action, what is the point of presenting?

How do we appeal to emotions?  First, start strong and finish strong.  Don’t open your presentation with your agenda and housekeeping items.  Instead, jump straight into a stirring story or statement that provokes your audience’s beliefs, fears, or opinions.  Once you’ve captured your listeners’ attention, you can then present your agenda.

Finish your presentation with a bang, not a whimper.  Too many presenters flounder at the end with, “Thank you, do you have any questions?”  As you close, infect your audience with your enthusiasm.  Don’t let your listeners think you are relieved that your presentation is over; show them you are energized.

If using PowerPoint or Keynote, use visuals that elicit an emotional response from the audience.  We’re officially tone-deaf to boring slides that feature the same tired visuals and monotonous bullets.  These days our brains need a higher voltage to be drawn away from the routine.  Get creative in finding visuals that are exaggerated, mysterious, incongruous, or striking.  Look for authenticity in visuals over staged stock photos.

These techniques were successful for Miles Davis, and they can be for you too.  Of course, Kind of Blue wasn’t his first album, and he didn’t master these skills overnight.  But in working at these presentation skills, you may just find that you have a presentation in the future that is critically acclaimed—by your boss.   And your influence on the company will be felt for years to come.

If you are interested in information on presentation-skills training for your team, click here.

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