Be the star, but feature the message

by R. L. Howser on March 4, 2010 · 0 comments

“If you call attention to yourself at the expense of the song, that’s the cardinal sin.”

– Benmont Tench, keyboardist of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I often tell my students and clients that they have to be the stars of their presentations. Their PowerPoint slides and handouts can’t carry the show. They have to step up and be the focal point of the audience’s attention. Many of them misunderstand this, at first, to mean that the presentation has to be all about them, as if it’s a talent contest. But that’s not what I mean at all.

Many musicians make the same mistake. They think that being a musical star is about vocal pyrotechnics, blazing speed on their instrument or striking rock star poses both on and off stage. Yet the musicians we remember, and whose music endures through time, are rarely the ones with the most spectacular technical chops. Billy Holiday, Bob Marley and the Beatles were all brilliantly talented, but their music isn’t technically difficult to play or musically complicated. Yet it’s still as fresh and vibrant twenty, thirty or even fifty later as it was the first time they played it, because they put their skills in the service of the song.

That’s what Benmont Tench was talking about. Each of the members of his band was an extraordinarily talented musician, but it was the music that came first, not showing off with fancy solos.

It’s the same with presentation. Many of the skills we learn, such as speaking in a loud, clear voice, using body language to present a confident image, structuring our words to catch and hold the attention of the audience and build suspense, can be used simply to draw attention to the speaker – to show off. But effective speakers put those skills in the service of the message. They use them to focus attention on the ideas that they are trying to plant in the listeners’ brains. That’s what separates effective speakers and presenters from the show ponies.

Be the star, but feature the message.

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