Why Presentation Matters

[“This Moment”. You can buy the print here etc.]

Earlier today I was thinking of certain “thought leader” friends of mine, people that I know personally. Rockstars in their field.

Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, Kathy Sierra, Gary Vee, Prof. Brian Cox, Joi Ito, Ben Hammersley, Doc Searls etc.

Looking for a common thread, it suddenly hit me- besides being hugely talented in their field and the aforementioned rockstardom, what else do they have in common?

Short answer: Presentations. They’re all REALLY REALLY good at standing in front of a crowd and wowing them. Every one of them. I’ve seen them. They knock your socks off. No wonder they get invited to speak at TED, SXSW and other places. No wonder they’re able to command the big bucks for doing so.

And then, when you look at the great world-changing figures in history, you see the same. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Cicero, Winston Churchill, or Shakespeare’s fictional Henry V (“We band of brothers, we happy few” etc.)- it’s right there, front and center. The presentation.

And then if you read your ancient history, what were the most privileged people in Rome and Athens taught how to do as part of their classical education? That’s right. The art of Oration. Again, presentation. This explains why getting on the debating team at Oxford or Harvard is still considered a big deal for anyone in the know.

For anybody who ever aspires to lead.

So the question I’m asking is, if presentation is SUCH an obvious part of the magic leadership formula throughout the ages, and leadership is so integral to success, why isn’t presentation better taught in schools nowadays? Why aren’t third graders taught how to use Powerpoint, as standard? Why isn’t presentation emphasized as highly as say, grammar or history or math or athletics?

The reality is, the average person doesn’t spend one-hundredth the time working on their presentation skills, as they do on their hobbies or watching TV or going to the gym or whatever.

I think that might be a mistake…

[AFTERTHOUGHT: Yes, I know. Presentation isn’t everything. Steve Jobs’s legendary keynotes wouldn’t be nearly so impressive if Apple products sucked etc. But that’s not an excuse, either.]


  1. Good point on the skills level. However, the most destructive folks in history also excelled at presentation.
    “The good lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity” Wm.Butler Yeats.

    • Very true, Randy, but evil people have always hijacked Good for their own ends (Hello, Religion). That’s why we call them evil, that doesn’t make the good less valid.

  2. I think it’s a matter of safety.

    Ultimately, many of us want to be safe, not original, and therefore not successful. I mean, hell, risk is scary. I guess that’s why so many spend so much time, money and energy sticking to the pre-made templates and following the focus-grouped scripts.


  3. Hugh… nice post.

    It’s all about the sell. You can have the best idea in the world, have the biggest ol’ brain on the block but if you can’t articulate; take an audience on a journey with you, it’s meaningless just as you suggest.

    If I have a quibble it’s the mention of PowerPoint. 90% of business can’t use it, and it’s certainly nothing to do with presentation skills. Largely it’s case of boiling down the complex into half a dozen bullet points; or a whole heap of exposition that gets read out verbatim; or worse still the audience is expected to read and comprehend whilst the presenter prattles on about something else.

    Heck, the millisecond someone gets asked to do a presentation they open up PowerPoint without a moment’s hesitation: and function dictates form/content.

    Sorry, a nerve has been hit. I’ve attended presentation skills courses, seen inspiring presentations but neither had anything to do with text transitions – the mass market hallmark of a great presentation.

    Those people that you talk of seem to master the oratory with a creative spark, and there’s no toolbar button for that. I’ve looked!

    Sorry for moaning.

    • No worries, Mark, the art of Oration was there long before Powerpoint, and will be around long after the latter is forgotten.

      I’m more concerned here with the actual art itself, the tools are secondary.

      • Totally, totally, and thank you for responding. Yet when it comes to the grind of business all the focus is on having nice slides and next to none on the art of actually engaging.

        Just wanted to reply as none of this is meant to counter your main thrust, honest.

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  5. I took a mandatory speech class in high school. Got a C. Learned very little.

    Unfortunately, the most important thing I failed to learn was why the class was worth my time. If the teacher — a perfectly nice, well-intentioned guy — had started there, maybe I would have tried harder. As it was, life taught me long after high school was over.

  6. Hugh –
    Students, at least high school students, are already experts in oratory and visual presentation.
    They have distilled communication into a highly effective arsenal of highly toxic language and effective hand signals.
    “B*#ch” and “F!cking B*#ch” are delivered with such precise accuracy that they don’t fail to shock, in spite of repitition.
    Other visual messages are scribed into desks with stealth but remarkable creativity. Most of the marks promote various social clubs otherwise known as gangs. Clever hand signals also are used to identify gang identity.
    Teaching for thirty years has taught me to appreciate the skills of my students.
    One minor thought concerning your ideas about teaching oratory and learning Powerpoint.
    My students can be eager (ave. reading level grade 5 for grades 9-11) but learning requires focus, concentration, and the desire to learn.
    The sad fact is:
    Just because you teach it, doesn’t mean they learned it.

  7. Several years ago, a company I worked at put me through a three day intensive presentation skills training. A month later they eliminated the group. I’m forever grateful for this gift!

    Your question might have several possible influencing factors:
    – In command and control environments, presentation skills were not something management have taught workers. As such large groups have not been in environments that did not reward learning these skills.
    – People that do not have a skill would likely not see it as important as you and I do here. As such, they would likely not be the best advocate of teaching the skill.
    – As the above is an entrenched previous process, changing it is hard as with all change.

    I shared this post on my Facebook wall to see if anyone else has thoughts. Take care.

  8. We seem to constantly be asked to provide new renderings for someone’s PowerPoint (at the 11th hour)…apparently people are anxious about having a small deck. They want to have a BIG deck! A big swinging deck, to impress everyone!

  9. Yeah,
    all the essential life skills don’t get taught at school. We get stuffed with Algebra and crap like that instead of useful stuff like entrepreneurship courses or creativity boosters.

    I have studied Seth Godin’s speeches for months, and it’s just brilliant how perfectly he times and stresses his parts – it’s pure eargasm.

  10. Thanks for your post on an essential and important aspect of leadership.

    And I was with you – until you mentioned powerpoint!

    Perhaps the missing key is that we fail to appreciate that all those great leaders are good at their presentations because they have mastered their subject, put in their 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours, and then have the confidence to stand and speak *as* their subject, not separate from it.


    (And, sorry, Hugh, powerpoint is *not* presentation and in my book nothing kills presentations more effectively than powerpoint.)

  11. Why doesn’t public school teach presentation and leadership skills?

    I’m not sure that’s the point of public school! I’ve been under the impression that public school trains students to be worker/followers.

    May of us didn’t truly enjoy schooling, and it wasn’t just a personal dissatisfaction. The subconscious knows it’s mostly BS, and the more savvy act on that knowledge.

    There’s plenty of documentation on it, all one needs is curiosity to dig it up. However, curiosity is trained out in school, asking questions is not encouraged.


  12. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and the comments. I learned to to presentations and marketing from my father who gave many presentations in his lifetime with none of the tools of today.
    I am of the “baby boom” generation that had none of the tools we have today. Although I have learned technology and use it to my advantage I have to say that if you beleive in yourself, your talent and your gift…the rest comes naturally…with or without powerpoint!

  13. I can tell you, Hugh, that you are right-on in bringing this to our attention. As an artist, I am always struck (even though I know this) about how much more impressive my painting looks in a frame hanging in a beautifully decorated space than in my workroom of a studio. AND it’s the very same painting. It’s all about presentation for sure.

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