Later this year, Garr Reynolds will unveil his latest book, The Naked Presenter, which promises to be a fascinating read. Before my many female readers get too excited, I should clarify one thing: just as Jamie Oliver does not cook without clothes on (at least not in public), Garr’s book is not about taking the stage literally naked.
Ahead of the book’s publication, Garr asked his many followers what presenting naked means to them. This post is my contribution to that discussion.
I’d like to start with an analogy. In medieval times, a knight would go into battle with a sword and shield, and wearing heavy armour. Fighting naked would mean hand-to-hand combat with no armour.
Presenting naked is about taking off your armour, putting down your sword and shield, and facing your audience, ‘man to man’ as it were. It’s about removing anything which is there only for the benefit of the presenter, and not for the benefit of the audience. It’s about being authentic, being true, being you – and laying yourself open for all to see.
Compared to a typical presentation, you have to strip away a whole lot of stuff if you want to present naked.
Break down the barriers
Firstly, you need to remove any barriers between yourself and your audience. A lectern is useful as a place to put your laptop, but don’t stand behind one. It just accentuates the feeling of “I’m up here, you’re down there” whereas what you really want to do is to be communicating WITH your audience, not just talking AT them (or, worse, talking DOWN AT them).
Try to get as close to your audience as you can. If you can reasonably walk among them (e.g. between tables, or up and down aisles), then do so from time to time, while paying due attention to the acoustics because primarily you need to make yourself heard.
Remember that you need to make a connection with your audience. It’s hard to connect when you keep yourself at a distance.
Lay down your weapons
A fighter might attempt to win the fight by hitting the other guy as hard as possible. Presenting is not fighting, although you could be tempted to see it as a battle – e.g. you need to get your message across so you hit the audience hard with all your strongest arguments and facts, and bludgeon them into agreeing with you.
Presenting naked means putting down your sword and realising that your aim is not to persuade people that you are right and they are wrong. That is a temporary and ineffective way of winning a battle, and recent research even shows that facts do not convince people to change their minds even when the facts disprove their beliefs.
Instead, you need to start not from where you are, but from where the audience is. If you need to change their minds about something, you need to find a way to get them to come to the conclusion that they need to change their thinking. It needs to be their decision and their thought-processes that trigger the change.
Therefore you must not simply bang on about facts and arguments. It’s not about hitting the audience hard with those weapons. It’s more about putting your arm around their shoulder, showing them a new direction, and making them realise that they want to explore it.
Of course, this isn’t as easy as standing up, presenting all your facts and arguments, and then sitting down. Presenting naked isn’t easy. But it is far more effective, and if you don’t aim to be effective in getting your messages across, you shouldn’t be presenting at all.
Take off your armour
Lastly, to present naked, you need to take off your armour, to lower your defences. This is perhaps the hardest thing to do if you are not used to it.
The first defence to remove is the crutch of having your presentation notes on your slides. You need to know your subject and prepare yourself properly, so that you can advance your slides without even needing to look at the wall behind you. (Of course, nothing stops you putting your laptop just in front of the audience, or a small mirror, so you can be sure exactly which slide is on the screen, but you shouldn’t need to read anything.)
Equally, your slides should be stripped of all that is not necessary. Make them simple and clear, and ensure they are relevant to your message – and integrate black slides wherever you don’t need anything on the wall to dilute the audience’s attention.
You could choose to do without slides altogether. That would be extremely naked. In some situations, this is a good idea. In others, you will find that your audience remembers your messages better if you use visuals, and since making your talk memorable is one of your key aims, I wouldn’t recommend you remove all visual aids (slides, videos, props etc) unless your talk truly doesn’t need them.
Next, you need to remove any sense of self-importance you might have. You are not presenting because you are important: you are presenting because the audience is important. You need to create a connection with the audience, and it’s very hard to do that if you put yourself on a pedestal, either literally or figuratively. You’re there to communicate, not to impress anyone.
Once you’ve done this, it’s only a small additional step to let go of your sense of self. You are not there for yourself: you are there for the audience. You have no personal aims or cares other than to communicate your messages effectively. You have no worries that people won’t like your style or might find you too enthusiastic: just be yourself, be authentic, and care deeply about the audience. Trust that the rest will take care of itself.
A last piece of armour to remove is your planned agenda. To go back to our medieval analogy, if a warlord had a battle plan and the battle was not going according to plan, he would be wise to change plans instead of sticking stubbornly with his original, outdated and plainly ineffective one. Likewise, a presenter needs to be flexible, and adapt to the situation and to the audience.
The agenda is just another piece of armour: it gives you a sense of security because you know what is supposed to happen next. A naked presenter will remember that it is more important to get his or her messages across memorably than to use every planned slide in the exact planned order. So if you let go of the agenda, and use it only as long as it serves your purpose, you will be more likely to meet the audience’s needs and get your message across. You might end up giving a different talk to the one you had originally planned. Likely, you’ll find that it ends up being more effective in that situation for that audience.
Fighting in medieval times would have involved a sword, a shield and heavy armour, whereas ‘fighting naked’ would mean hand-to-hand fighting with no weapons or armour. A presentation is not a battle. Presenting naked means putting down your weapons, taking off your armour, and giving yourself to your audience, honestly, authentically and completely. They will thank you for it.