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Friday, September 19, 2008

Better Presentation Skills - Learn from J.J. Abrams

In March, 2007, J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost, Alias, and Fringe and director of Mission Impossible III, Cloverfield, and the upcoming Star Trek movie, spoke at the annual Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference. It was a great speech, and any speaker can learn a lot from watching J.J. speak.

Watch the video:

Here are some things you can take away from this to help you be a much better speaker:

His Authenticity - The primary thing I think every speaker can learn from watching this speech is just how natural J.J. looks. He is clearly being himself. A speech coach might criticize the way he moves around the stage. A Toastmaster would erupt at the number of times he says, "umm." And J.J. certainly lacks the "stage polish" that many professional speakers bring to their performance. And you know what? That makes him so much more watchable. This is the best example of the most important principle of being a great speaker: "be 100% yourself on the stage and people will love watching you."

His Use of Humor - J.J. is not a humorist. His primary goal is not to try to make people laugh, but he manages to bring a lot of humor to the presentation. What's great about this speech is that the humor is just so natural. It never feels like he is trying to tell a joke. He's just being himself and letting his natural humor come out. It really feels like he is having a conversation and those are funny things he would say anyway.

His Awesome Use of Props - After the level of authenticity in the speech, I think the most impressive thing is J.J.'s use of props. From the disassembled box, to the mystery box (brilliant!), to the Apple computer he was using for his A/V, it was all awesome. All speakers should study this as an example of how to use props. Each one was so appropriate to his message, tied into his speech, and drew the audience's attention without seeming forced. The props were part of the story, so it made sense for him to have them.

His Simple Use of Characters - Early on, J.J. tells the story of trying to get his grandfather to buy him a camera. He does two great things in that story: 1) He acts it out, which means he actually acts like himself at 10 on the phone. Then he throws in a brief impression of his grandmother, complete with accent. Again, not forced, but it works very well, and gets a laugh. The lesson here is that you don't need to turn your stories into full blown mini-plays. A little bit of acting out and a quick voice or characterization can be enough.

His Stories & Theme - Did you see how his stories tied in to his theme and vice versa? He told some great, but very simple stories. You don't need a life changing event to tell a great story. You just have to tell stories you care about, that matter to you, and tell them well. And at the end of each story, he was able to simply make his point. That's the way to structure a speech: story, point; story, point; etc.

You can also learn something from his message about stories as mysteries. People love mysteries, so add an element of mystery to your stories.

His Great use of Video - Maybe he had an advantage because he could show clips from Lost, Jaws, and Mission Impossible III. And maybe I'm biased because Jaws is my favorite movie. But still, here were visual aids that reinforced his point and were gripping to watch. Once again, think about how natural they were as a part of the program. He was talking about stories, so it made sense for him to use classic stories as examples. He could have described them, but it added impact by showing the clips.

Do you use Powerpoint or video? Do your visuals flow as seamlessly in and out of your presentation, and are they as visually interesting to watch?

There's probably a lot more you can learn by watching this speech. I have already watched it a bunch of time. Overall, the main thing is that nothing is contrived. Whatever he does just seems to flow naturally. And that is the best thing any speaker can do to be a great presenter.

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