Gurus, authors, and consultants have offered many metaphors and similes for the management of organizations and professional enrichment. Those who have read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War draw parallels between management and war strategy. We have all been exhausted by endless sports analogies (“This campaign needs to be a home run!”). Some organizations want to be thought of as a family. Metaphors and similes can also operate at the skill level: “Conducting an interview is like … ” “Running a meeting is like … ” “Soliciting a major donation is like … ”

Nearly every nonprofit professional has been called upon to prepare and deliver some kind of presentation, but most of us have only a generalized understanding of what it means to deliver a presentation in the workplace and how to go about it. We rely on past practice, the observation of others, and the strictures of slide-deck templates. Most of us lack a basic and consistent understanding of what needs to happen in the presentation for it to be successful and how to make that happen. We have neither a useful metaphor nor a practical conceptual framework to guide us. That can be a point of anxiety for the presenter, and by extension, for the audience. The organization and its mission can suffer as a result; weak content coupled with an uncertain performance can lead an audience to ignore or misinterpret information, and cause misdirection, workflow issues, and the need to have the same meetings over and over again.

As an experienced corporate executive who has given and witnessed thousands of business presentations, and who also has classical training and experience in the performing arts, I would like to remedy this. Whether you are presenting to your staff, your colleagues, senior management, your board, donors, the trade press, or any other stakeholder that matters, the principles of live performance should guide you.

The Live Performance

Any live, in-person, one-to-many presentation delivered by a professional to fellow professionals in a work environment, is a live performance. This is not a metaphor or simile. A presentation is not like a live performance. It is a live performance. That means—like it or not—certain principles come to bear. We know a thing or two about live performances, because we have been giving them, going to them, and writing about them for more than 2,500 years in Western culture. The same core principles that apply to performances in the arts apply to the live in-person professional presentation.

The Science

Management scientists often dismiss concepts derived from the performing arts as aesthetics, social convention, or mere entertainment lacking in any scientific rigor. But this is not so.

We know what audiences respond to in performance and therefore what successful performances require. We know which techniques work and which don’t as the result of repeated trial, error, success, and replication throughout the millennia—and as countless performance forms, styles, and conventions have evolved from Greek comedy and drama to Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, to Ibsen and Chekov, and to the theatre of the absurd. We know what works in performance and why. We can see there are things we must avoid, and we can see basic principles at work and techniques based on those principles that we can leverage to great purpose and effect.   

Any accomplished performing artist can tell you from experience that these principles are true. Any successful development officer or fundraiser who has stood in front of a group of potential donors will recognize the truths that lie herein. If you are able to draw a distinction between performance and entertainment, you can see how understanding the principles of live performance helps presenters reach their audience, transform their thinking, and move them to action. 

We pass down performance techniques from generation to generation in the academies of the performing arts, but we have not systematically collected the data, subjected it to peer review, and published it in a scientific journal. But that does not mean we can dismiss these techniques. Certainly when we dismiss them in the arts, it costs producers real money—against a potential $13 million weekly gross on Broadway alone.

The Art

So here are a few core principles to think about as you prepare and deliver a live presentation.

  • A presentation is a shared experience. A presenter is not alone standing in front of the audience. Without an audience, there is no presentation. The presenter must recognize the audience, make them feel welcome, and give them opportunities to participate (which usually means inviting them to ask questions.) A successful presentation has the power to change everyone in the room, and the presenter and audience can form a lasting bond when the presentation is a shared experience.  
  • A presentation is bounded in time and space. Something important is going to happen, right here, right now, in this time and space between the presenter, the message, and the audience. The audience is not watching a video alone on their laptops later, at their own convenience. The constraints of time and space force urgency and require an extraordinary level of energy on the part of the presenter to ensure that they successfully deliver the message in real time.
  • A presentation is a meaningful event with purpose and intent. There is a reason why you as the presenter and this particular audience are here now. In the workplace, the purpose is rarely entertainment. Presenters have a specific objective and message they need to successfully communicate to the audience. The message needs to have not only information value, but also meaning.
  • A successful presentation has emotional as well as intellectual appeal. Presentation content must have intellectual appeal, but it cannot rely on data, information, and logic alone if the purpose is to compel an audience to action. The audience must understand not simply the facts, but also the meaning of what the presenter is communicating. We most often find meaning in compelling narratives. Data and logic are requisite for decision-making, but meaning and emotion are essential to the implementation of any significant strategy, plan, or request.
  • A successful presentation clearly defines roles and relationships. A presentation is as much about relationships as it is information and meaning. What is the relationship of the presenter to the audience? What is the relationship between the presenter and their message? How are members of the audience related to each other? Understanding the dynamics of these relationships is critical to the symbiotic transformation of everyone’s thinking and the audience’s ability to see a role for themselves in a collective response.
  • A successful presentation displays a bias for action that invites a response from the audience. The presenter is the catalyst between the message and the audience. They are looking for a reaction from the audience; they want the audience to act on what they have heard, learned, and experienced. If the presenter’s objective has been clear and forceful, if the meaning of the message has been made apparent, and if the audience roles and relationships are clearly defined, then a meaningful response from the audience becomes possible.

Mindfulness of these principles is usually distributed in the performing arts among the producer, the playwright, the director, the designers, and the performers. But in the professional presentation, it all falls on the presenter. The stage may be smaller and the event more intimate, but understanding and accepting these core principles and recognizing that they are common to any live performance is essential to understanding what we need to address and accomplish in our presentations—whether that is motivating staff and volunteers, increasing development efforts, or launching a new program.

These principles describe a physics, chemistry, biology, and cosmology that allows presenters to transform audiences and move them to action. That is what our organizations aspire to do and what we as managers of these organizations feel the imperative to do.