Free thinking: Music to your ears

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Music can teach us much about the art of presentation, says Martin Shovel. Those who really understand this and use metaphors to bring their presentations to life have an enormous advantage when it comes to engaging and persuading their audience.
 

It's been said that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music", but can an understanding of music throw any useful light on the art of presentation? Well, I believe it can and I'd like to take a brief look at a few interesting parallels between the title music to a film, TV show, musical, or opera and the introduction to an engaging and persuasive presentation.

Have you ever found yourself aimlessly flipping channels on your TV in the way that a bumblebee buzzes from flower to flower in search of sweet nectar? And have you noticed how just hearing a snatch of a programme's opening theme music is enough to help you decide whether to hover for a while or continue your quest? This is because the first clue we latch onto is an identifiable theme – this brands the show and within the space of a bar or two of music, tells us whether what follows will be another episode of Friends, a James Bond movie or something we've never come across before.

A night at the opera

The beginning of a presentation works in a similar way – it alerts us to the kind of presentation we're about to experience and enables us to anticipate whether it's something worth bothering with, or not. Like the overture to an opera, the real purpose of the opening words is to rouse the audience and let them know that something interesting is about to happen. The fact that they are likely to pigeonhole the presentation on the basis of a few opening remarks gives the presenter an opportunity to be playful with their expectations – and even subvert them. This can be a very effective way of grabbing an audience's attention and hanging on to it.

"Instead of indiscriminately pouring a sackful of data onto their audience, the best presenters look for the story behind the facts and figures and use to it bring out their significance."

Let's take, for example, a very common form of presentation that involves giving other team or board members an overview of a report. The audience's expectations are that this will be a necessary – but probably dull and hard to concentrate on – presentation of data, during which there's a chance they may end up struggling to stay afloat in an ocean of facts and figures.

A presentation like this offers the presenter a great opportunity to confound the assumptions of their audience. Instead of indiscriminately pouring a sackful of data onto their audience, the best presenters look for the story behind the facts and figures and use to it bring out their significance. When it becomes clear to the audience that they are not going to be subjected to an endless succession of dry facts and figures, they tend to sit up and take notice. The story helps them to make sense of the information and it also allows the presenter to call upon fewer examples.

In the mood

As the orchestra begins to play the overture, the music instantly creates the right mood – one that prepares us for what we are about to experience when the curtain rises. In the same way, a presenter can use images and metaphors at the beginning – and throughout – a presentation to set the appropriate mood and help their audience feel and experience the meaning of their words, as well as grasp them intellectually. Think of the way music is used to do this in films. The use of a recurring musical theme helps to both set the mood and to create a sense of dramatic unity throughout the film; indeed, the power of film music is so great that it is often used as a way of unifying a sequence of scene changes or edits.

"A presenter can use images and metaphors at the beginning – and throughout – a presentation to set the appropriate mood and help their audience feel and experience the meaning of their words, as well as grasp them intellectually."

In a similar way, using metaphor in your presentations can be especially effective if you are aiming to persuade your audience to reconsider their views on a particular topic. In 1979 Lee Iacocca, the chairman of Chrysler Corporation, went to Washington to ask Congress for a government loan to help his company avoid bankruptcy and the loss of thousands of jobs. The chances of success looked slim but Iacocca persuaded Congress to hand over the money by using the metaphor of a 'safety net', which created a positive mood, rather than the more obvious metaphor of a 'bailout', which would have created a negative mood with associations of futility.

A 'bailout' feels like a desperate, last-minute parachute jump from a doomed aircraft – an obvious waste of tax payers' money – whereas a 'safety net' feels like the kind of support a responsible government should be willing to offer its citizens, particularly when they are faced with economic hardship.

It's helpful to keep the musical analogy in mind when putting together any kind of presentation because it reminds us that a presentation can only succeed if it makes an audience wake up and take notice. But, for me, the most significant aspect of the comparison is the way that metaphor, like music, has the power to create a mood and to influence how an audience feels. Presenters who understand how to use metaphor in this way have an enormous advantage when it comes to creating presentations that really engage and persuade their audience.

About the author Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a company that specializes in helping organisations and individuals get their message across more effectively. Find out more by visiting www.creativityworks.net

 

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