Your Next Presentation Should Borrow from Broadway

On a recent trip to New York City, I was walking down Broadway just as thousands of people were pouring out of the theaters. They were smiling, laughing, and talking about what they had just experienced. Theater moves people. Why can't a business presentation do the same? I believe it can, and one way to improve the chances it does is to make them more like theatrical experiences. Here are five ways to stage your next presentation.

1. Start and end with a bang. Great musicals start with a rousing number and end with their most memorable performance (think Grease). People tend to remember the first thing and the last thing you say. When studies are done showing participants a sequence of objects or numbers for a few seconds, most of the participants in the study can easily recall the first and last items. The middle stuff tends to get lost. Instead of spending hours on getting the chart just right on slide No. 57, perhaps you should spend more time on the beginning and end of your presentation. How are you going to grab the attention of your audience? What memorable thing can you say or do to leave your audience truly excited about your product or company? The first 90 seconds of your presentation—and the last 90—are critical.

2. Cast supporting players. There are very few successful one-man productions on Broadway. The most popular shows are huge numbers like Mamma Mia or The Lion King. Even Jersey Boys has four main characters. So unless you're Will Ferrell or Jackie Mason, who have the talent to pull off one-man plays, the odds that you will keep your audience interested for a one- or two-hour presentation is fairly slim. What's the alternative? Introduce a second speaker. That's right. Bring in your partner, co-worker, or someone with expertise in a particular area. If a presentation is so important that it could mean a big boost to your business, then it's worth the time for at least two people to participate.

3. Use stage props. Most speakers consider a PowerPoint deck a presentation. It's certainly one important element, but not the only one. Back in February, I wrote a column about Cisco's (CSCO) Jim Grubb joining CEO John Chambers on stage to demonstrate new products. Every major Cisco presentation includes two elements: a PowerPoint deck and a demo. Demonstrations bring the content to life. Grubb doesn't just join Chambers to discuss technology; he actually uses props that mirror the environment in which the technology would be used. If he's showing off networking technology for the home user, Grubb will bring in furniture that makes the stage look like a living room. He's also staged a truck's cab, a hospital room, and an airplane's cockpit! Grubb's background? Musical theater.

4. Create multimedia displays. Broadway tickets are pricey because many of the shows contain expensive and elaborate video displays that complement the music or acting on the stage. Contemporary audiences have come to expect multimedia experiences. While they don't necessarily expect multimedia in a business presentation, it takes more than simple slides to excite them. Find opportunities to incorporate video in your presentations. Video can be converted to MPEG, Quicktime, or Windows Media files and easily inserted into a slide deck. Don't make the mistake of playing video clips that are too long. If your entire presentation lasts 20 minutes, it doesn't make sense to show video that takes up one-quarter of your time. Video clips should run no longer than one or two minutes.

5. Schedule rehearsals. Broadway casts spends weeks, even months, in rehearsals. Yet very few presenters take even a few hours to practice. Rehearsing makes all the difference between a mediocre presentation and a polished one. Shut off distractions like the TV, stand up in a quiet room, open the slide deck, and deliver it exactly as you would in front of an audience. The more you practice, the more confident and, as a bonus, less nervous you'll be.

A great presentation can elevate your brand, sell products, win new customers, and attract partners and investors. Introduce elements of stagecraft to your next one to make your material memorable enough to inspire action.