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Engage with Passion, Proximity, and Play

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This chapter looks at three elements involved in creating the kind of naked engagement we are looking for in today’s presentations: Passion, Proximity, and Play.
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  • There’s more to enlightenment than how many facts you can recite.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson

Standing up to recite information while others passively listen and perhaps take notes is the common and traditional presentation mode. But it’s an ineffective way to teach, inspire, or motivate an audience. If the lone goal is the transfer of information, you are better off distributing a handout and canceling the presentation. When we finish a presentation, remember, we want the audience to be changed, if even only a tiny bit. We want to influence a change in people’s knowledge, awareness, behavior, and so on. But unless we engage with the audience, none of that is possible. When there is no engagement, there is no change. True engagement assumes some level of emotional involvement or commitment on the part of both the presenter and the audience—but the responsibility to light the fire of engagement lies primarily with us, the presenters. This chapter looks at three elements involved in creating the kind of naked engagement we are looking for in today’s presentations: Passion, Proximity, and Play.

Show Your Passion

In Japanese, the word passion—jounetsu (p100.jpg)—is composed of two Kanji (Chinese) characters, feeling (p100a.jpg) and heat (p100b.jpg). Although the etymological origins for the word may differ across languages and cultures, when you think of passion today, you immediately think of strong feelings and desires associated with love—love of another person, perhaps, but also a kind of love or deep feeling and intense emotion for a calling in your life like music, art, teaching, or whatever interests in your life evoke a strong and personal commitment. Passion is by definition a strong emotion with many associated feelings such as enthusiasm and vivacity. Emotions are a good thing, of course, but we have been taught to control our emotions in order to be successful in life. Much of this is good advice as there is a strong correlation between being able to self-regulate emotions and success in school, work, and life in general.

When it comes to presentation delivery, the problem generally is not the display of too much emotion but rather the utter lack of it. The emotions missing most from the dreariest of presentations today are passion and enthusiasm. Charlie Hawkins, public speaking consultant and author of First Aid for Meetings (Bookpartners, 1996), highlights the need for passion in a piece he wrote for

While coaching hundreds of MBA candidates at the University of Chicago over an 11-year period, I observed that the one element separating great presenters from merely good ones is passion. Those who dared to express their passionate feelings about their subjects were consistently the most effective. Why? By revealing their passion they made connections with people that simply did not happen in straightforward analytical presentations.

Charlie Hawkins

Sometimes a presenter may genuinely not have a passion for the topic or is greatly disinterested in sharing his ideas with the audience. Often, however, the passion is lacking because the presenter is hesitant to project his or her emotion, true feelings, or true level of deep interest in the subject. Showing your passion—a true bit of yourself—is risky. It’s much easier just to present information, but assuming people are still listening to you, what value do you add when you just give information?

Why are we afraid to show passion?

Many say that a man or woman who speaks passionately—who is articulate and full of hope, enthusiasm, and positivity—is an empty suit. They will say emotions do not matter. All that matters, they say, is content and evidence, period. Ironically, the very people who demand that content is everything and that emotion—and certainly passion—does not belong in “serious presentations” rail against the importance of emotion and engaging delivery in a manner that is completely emotional and heated. I know this because I have spoken to such people many times. They say it is simply the quality and structure of the information that matters—and that delivery and personal qualities, as well as things like simplicity and clarity in the design of visuals, are just not necessary.

The point that such people miss is this: Nobody ever said delivery, emotion, and passionate engagement are the only things that matter, or that they are sufficient. We only said they are necessary (and all too often lacking). Solid content is necessary as well, of course, but it’s almost never sufficient in terms of leadership, communication, and presentations that have impact. If you are talking about trying to lead a movement, change the world, or just get your message heard and remembered, then you sure as heck better be prepared to show your passion. You don’t have to be slick or polished, and you don’t have to be tall or good looking, but you do have to engage, inspire, and motivate. That’s what leaders do. That’s what naked presenters do.

Passion is the genesis of genius.

Anthony Robbins

Inspired by performers

Not too long ago, I was reminded about the impact of passion on communication by an unlikely source—a live performance by the legendary band Earth Wind & Fire here in Japan. We had seats (although we never sat) front and center, which allowed the perfect vantage point for observing one of the most passionate performers I have ever seen without a microphone. You may not have heard of him. His name is Verdine White, the bassist for EWF and an original member of the group, which was founded by his older brother Maurice.

White is an incredible musician with more funk and soul in his little finger than I have in my entire body. He is absolutely crucial to the EWF sound. But what White taught me that night was how unbelievably powerful a sincere display of genuine passion could be. White does not just play bass, he communicates and connects with his “ax” as if it were an extension of himself. White never stops bouncing, running, and seeming to fly across the stage all the while displaying one of the brightest, most infectious smiles you will ever see on stage. Oh, and by the way, he was 55 years old at the time. What energy!

They are musicians. They are artists. But they are also storytellers, and in a way, presenters while they are on stage. And like any good presentation, their performance is a powerful mix of great content, powerful visuals, and an emotional human touch that makes a lasting connection with the audience. The personal qualities that White’s performance had—which our presentations must have—are: (1) passion, (2) energy, (3) sincerity, (4) a smile, and (5) total engagement with the present, front and center. How many times have you seen a presenter display all five of these qualities in a presentation?

We are deeply social animals, designed to be together. We create language and culture and come together to work, to dance, to play music, and so on. When you think about it, why is it we pay money to attend a live concert? We say it’s for the music, but you can get the same music—with better sound quality—by listening to the CD at home. We’re drawn to the live event in strong measure because it’s a much richer experience when we can see the musician’s faces and body movements and feel what they are feeling. The experience is enriched and more memorable when we can see and feel the performers’ displays of passion.

Yes, an R&B/soul performance is different from a business presentation, but in a very real sense, they are both sincere performances. Dale Carnegie says the same thing in How to Develop Self-Confidence & Influence People by Public Speaking (Pocket, 1991). “Put your heart and soul into your talking. Real emotional sincerity will help more than all the rules.” Carnegie also stresses the importance of exuding energy in your talk. “It is magnetic. People cluster around an energetic speaker like geese around a field of autumn wheat.” Carnegie goes on to talk about the importance of smiling sincerely and displaying interest in your audience. “Like begets like,” he says. “If we are interested in our audience...our audience will be interested in us.”

Think interested not interesting

If presenters think about an audience at all, they usually worry about themselves not being perceived as interesting. However, the issue is not so much you showing how interesting you are—it’s more about you showing how interested you are. We are attracted to people who are deeply interested in their work or topic and also interested in us. We like people who are interested in sharing their passion and interest in a way we can understand. People who are genuinely and deeply interested in what they are doing are demonstrating their passion. Interested people are the kind we want to listen to. Anyone can be more interesting superficially. But when someone is deeply interested, this brings us in and we want to know more. When they show they are interested in us, we are drawn closer.

Letting people know how and why you are deeply interested in the topic—and why they should be too—is very natural. People can see your passion and they can feel that it is real. This is very different from using performance techniques alone (such as speaking in a louder voice, emphasizing key words, using exaggerated body language) to demonstrate passion or to look more interesting than the typical presenter. You can’t fake interest and the passion that accompanies it. So the question is not “How can I be more interesting to this audience,” but “How can I demonstrate why this topic or information is important and how can I show why it matters to them?”

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