8. The Art of Being Completely Present

We’re living in the age of interruption and distraction. When we are speaking to someone face to face, we do not like it when they check their phone, seem preoccupied, or somehow not fully present. Yet we have become quite accustomed to enduring speakers and presenters who are not fully engaged with the audience and the topic. One of the most important things to remember when delivering a presentation is to be fully present at that moment. A good presenter is fully committed to the now, committed to being there with the audience at that particular place and time. He may have pressing problems—who doesn’t?—but he puts those aside so that he may be fully there. When you give a presentation, your mind should not be racing with a million concerns, distracted from the here and now. It is impossible to have a real conversation with someone when he is “somewhere else.” Likewise, it is impossible to give a truly successful presentation when your mind is not fully in the present.

One of the most fundamental things you can learn from the world of Zen is the art of mindfulness. You may know of mindfulness in its association with meditation (zazen). But the interesting thing about Zen is that it is not separate from the real world. That is, Zen makes no distinction between ordinary life and spiritual life. Meditation is not an escape from reality at all; in fact, even everyday routines can be methods for meditation. When you are aware that your actions and judgments are usually just automatic reactions based on a sort of running dialogue in your head, then you are free to let go of such judgments. So, rather than hating washing the dishes, for example, you just wash the dishes. When you write a letter, you write a letter. And when you give a presentation, you give a presentation.

Mindfulness is concerned with the here and now—with having an awareness of this particular moment. True mindfulness is accessible to all, although it is not easy to obtain. Our lives are so crazy these days with work and personal relationships, answering e-mail, sending text messages, engaging with—or distracted by—social media, and bombarded 24/7 by cable news. There are so many things on our minds and a plethora of things to worry about. Worries are the worst things of all because they are always about the past or about the future—two things that do not even exist in the present. In our daily lives and in our work lives, including giving presentations, we’ve got to clear our minds and be in only one place: right here.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/iStockphoto.com.)

Steve Jobs and the Art of the Swordsman

As noted in Chapter 5, Steve Jobs had a simple yet remarkable approach to the art of presentation. His slides were always devoid of clutter and highly visual, and he used them smoothly and seamlessly, advancing all slides and effects by himself without ever drawing attention to the fact that he was the one advancing the slides. His style was conversational, and his visuals were in perfect sync with his words. His presentations were built on a solid structure, which gave them an easy feeling of flow as if he were taking us on a small journey. On stage he seemed friendly, comfortable, and confident (which made others feel relaxed too), and he exuded a level of passion and enthusiasm that was engaging without being over the top.

It all seemed so automatic and natural. It all seemed so easy that you’d be tempted to think it just came naturally to Steve, and that it was a pretty easy task for him to use his natural charisma to woo a crowd. But you’d be wrong. Although it is true that Steve Jobs was a charismatic figure, I’m not sure giving presentations with multimedia support, and even giving live demos (how many executives did that?), comes naturally to anyone. No, the reason Steve Jobs’s presentations went so well and were so engaging was because he and his team prepared and practiced like mad to make sure it looked “easy.”

When Steve was on stage he was an artist. And like any artist, through practice and experience, he perfected his technique and form. Yet, also like a trained artist, there was no thought of technique or of form, or even of failure or success while performing the art of presentation. Once we think of failure or success, we are like the swordsman whose mind stops, ever so briefly, to ponder his technique or the outcome of the fight. The moment he does, he has lost. This sounds paradoxical, but once we allow our minds to drift to thoughts of success and failure or of outcomes and technique while performing our art, we have at that moment begun our descent. Steve Jobs’s approach to presentation reminds us today that engagement can be enhanced by being nowhere else but completely here in the moment.

The Mind That Is No Mind

When a swordsman is in the moment and his mind is empty (mushin no shin or the “mind that is no mind”), there are no emotions stemming from fear and no thoughts of winning, losing, or even using the sword. In this way, says Daisetz T. Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture (Princeton University Press), “both man and sword turn into instruments in the hands of the unconscious, and it is the unconscious that achieves wonders of creativity. It is here that swordplay becomes an art.”

Beyond mastering technique, the secret to swordsmanship rests in obtaining a proper mental state of “no mind” where the mind is “abandoned and yet not abandoned.” Frankly, if you are engaged in any art or even a sports match, you must get rid of the obtruding self-consciousness or ego-consciousness and apply yourself completely. As Suzuki says, it must be “...as if nothing particular were taking place at the moment.” When you perform in a state of “no mind,” you are free from the burdens of inhibitions and doubt and can contribute fully and fluidly in the moment. Artists know this state of mind, as do musicians and highly trained athletes.

The highly anticipated presentations that Steve Jobs did came with a lot of pressure to get it right. A lot was riding on each presentation and expectations were high inside and outside of Apple. Yet what made Steve so effective in these situations was his ability to seemingly forget the seriousness of the situation and just perform. In this way, he was like the artful swordsman who, through his “immovable mind,” has no thought of life or death. The mind has been quieted, and the man is free to be fully present. As Suzuki puts it: “The waters are in motion all the time, but the moon retains its serenity. The mind moves in response to ten thousand situations but remains ever the same.”

Technical training is important, but technical training is something acquired and will always have the feel of artificiality unless one has the proper state of mind. “Unless the mind which avails itself of the technical skill somehow attunes itself to a state of the utmost fluidity or mobility,” says Suzuki, “anything acquired or superimposed lacks spontaneity of natural growth.” In this sense, I think instructors and books can help us become better at presenting, but ultimately, like many other performance arts, it must grow within us.

You need technique and proper form, and you need to know the rules. You must practice and then practice some more. When you put in the hard work in the preparation phase and internalize the material, you can perform the art of presentation in a way that is more natural by obtaining the proper state of mind—that is, “no mind.”

Lost in the Moment

Have you ever been lost in the moment while presenting or performing? I do not mean lost as in losing your place. I mean being so in the moment—without worry of the past or future—that you are as demonstrably interested in your topic as your audience has become. This is a true connection.

In If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland speaks of the importance of being in the moment to maximize your creativity and impact on an audience. Harnessing this creative energy and being fully present is more of an intuitive activity, not an intellectual one. Brenda compares this kind of creativity and connection to a wonderful musical performance.

In playing a musical instrument such as a piano, for example, sometimes you play at it and sometimes you play in it. The goal is not to repeat the notes on the page, but to play beautiful music. To be in it, not separate from it. Great musicians play in it (even if they are not always technically perfect). The same thing holds for presentations. The aim should be to be in it completely at that moment in time. Perfect technique is perhaps not obtainable (or even desirable), but a kind of perfect connection can exist between the audience and artist (or presenter) when she “plays in it.”

“Only when you play in a thing,” Brenda says, “do people listen and hear you and are moved.” Your music is believable and authentic because you are “lost in it,” not intellectualizing it or following a set of prescribed rules (notes, instructions). We are moved because the artist is clearly and authentically moved as well. Can this not hold true for presentations? Your presentation is believable because you are prepared and logical, but also because you too are moved by your topic. You have to believe in your message completely or no one else will. You must believe in your story fully and be “lost in the moment” of engaging your audience.

“The waters are in motion all the time, but the moon retains its serenity. The mind moves in response to ten thousand situations but remains ever the same.”

—Daisetz T. Suzuki

Learning from the Art of Judo

You can find the best presentation advice in unusual places. Consider the following five principles, for example. These precepts offer good advice for delivering effective presentations:

  1. Carefully observe oneself and one’s situation, carefully observe others, and carefully observe one’s environment.

  2. Seize the initiative in whatever you undertake.

  3. Consider fully, act decisively.

  4. Know when to stop.

  5. Keep to the middle.

These are wise words indeed, but they are not actually effective presentation principles. They are Jigoro Kano’s Five Principles of Judo as outlined by John Stevens in Budo Secrets (Shambhala Publications). Yet, it is easy to see how these principles can be applied in your efforts to design and deliver presentations. For example, you may have witnessed a presentation in which the speaker could have done much better if he had only embraced the wisdom of principle No. 4—know when to stop. At times, you may speak for a longer or shorter time than planned, but it must be a conscious decision based on the context of the moment and by following principle No. 1—observing oneself, the situation, others, and the environment. These are just two examples illustrating the application of such principles.

Jigoro Kano founded judo in the late 1800s in Japan. Although it is not based on the principles of Zen outright, judo is seen by many to be a great expression of Zen concepts. I have a mountain of respect for people who dedicate themselves to the art of judo. Judo is more than a sport or mere physical activity. To those who practice it, the lessons, wisdom, and experience gained serve to help them in profound ways in all aspects of life.

Commenting on the secrets of judo, H. Seichiro Okazaki said: “Only by cultivating a receptive state of mind, without preconceived ideas or thoughts, can one master the secret art of reacting spontaneously and naturally without hesitation and without purposeless resistance.” This idea need not be confined to the judo mat. Think about the last challenging presentation you made that did not go as well as you had hoped. Perhaps there was more pushback than you expected. Could you have done better by engaging your audience and answering the difficult questions while “reacting spontaneously and naturally without hesitation and without purposeless resistance?” In my experience, when I have received challenging questions from a skeptical or even hostile or aggressive person, a natural, nonaggressive response from myself always proves more effective than showing irritation or defensiveness. Butting heads is very easy to do, but it usually leads to a sure defeat for the presenter.

Presenting Under Fire

At some point, you will encounter a hostile client or an audience member who may be more interested in making you look foolish or derailing your talk than getting at the truth. It happens. The key is to remember that they are never the enemy. If there is an enemy at all, it is within us. Even if an audience member does choose to assume the role of opponent, your irritation or display of anger will surely not do you or the rest of your audience—99 percent of whom may support your views—any good.

In the world of judo, founder Jigoro Kano had this to say about dealing with an opponent: “Victory over the opponent is achieved by giving way to the strength of the opponent, adapting to it and taking advantage of it, turning it in the end to your own advantage.”

Many years ago I was giving a presentation to a large group. It was going very well, but one person in the audience often interrupted with irrelevant comments to the point of becoming a distraction for the audience. I had many occasions to become angry, but did not. I could sense that the audience believed I was going to rip into the guy if there was one more interruption. And frankly, they would not have blamed me. But I remained respectful of the man and did not show any irritation or anger, nor did I allow his interruptions to derail the talk. After the presentation, several people complimented me on my handling of the interrupter. The ironic thing was that while the boisterous man may have intended to damage my effectiveness, he actually had the opposite influence. By flowing with the moment, showing self-control, and not butting heads with him—which only would have made things worse—I gained respect from the audience.

Contribution and Being in the Moment

Every presentation is a performance, and Ben Zander knows a thing or two about the art of performance. You may know Ben Zander as the talented conductor for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, but he is also one of the truly gifted presenters of our time. He’s so good, in fact, so inspiring and so informative, that he could spend all his time just talking to companies and organizations about leadership and transformation.

As Dan Pink and I were riding the train back to central Osaka in the spring of 2007, he tipped me off to Ben Zander. There are a lot of good presenters, Dan said, but Ben Zander is in another league. That same day, I purchased The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (Penguin) by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, and I was inspired. Dan’s suggestion to check out Ben Zander as a speaker/presenter was the best tip I had received in a long time. Ironically, the next month I presented for a Fortune 500 company and found that every single person in the room was well-versed in Zanders’s teachings and their simple advice had a powerful effect within the company.

Here’s a sample of the kind of remarkable messages Ben conveys to his audiences. In this case, he is talking about musicianship, but his words can be applied to most of our presentation situations, too:

“This is the moment—this is the most important moment right now. Which is: We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”

—Benjamin Zander

It’s not always about success or failure, it’s about contribution and being fully present. Rather than asking questions such as “Will I be appreciated?” or “Will I win them over?” and so on, ask “How can I make a contribution?” Here is what Ben said to a talented young musician while coaching him on his musical performance: “We are about contribution, that’s what our job is… everyone was clear you contributed passion to the people in this room. Did you do it better than the next violinist, or did he do better than a pianist? I don’t care, because in contribution, there is no ‘better!’”

The Zanders say that rather than getting bogged down in a sea of measurement—during which you compare yourself to others and worry about whether you are worthy to be making the presentation or whether someone else could be doing it better—instead realize that at this moment, right here right now, you are the gift. Your message is the contribution. There is no “better,” there is only now. It really is pretty simple.

Not every presentation situation is about contribution, perhaps, but most are. In fact, I don’t think I have ever given a presentation that was not at some level about making a contribution. Certainly, when you are asked to share your expertise with a group of people who are, on the whole, not specialists in your field, you have to think very hard about what is important (for them) and what is not (again, for them). It is easier just to do the same presentation you always do, but it is not about impressing people with the depths of your knowledge. It’s about sharing or teaching something of lasting value.

Passion, Risk, and “Playing on One Buttock”

In most cultures—and certainly in Japan—making a mistake is the worst thing you can do. Ben Zander says it’s dangerous for musicians, for example, to be so concerned with competition and measuring themselves against others because this makes it “difficult to take the necessary risks with themselves to become great performers.” Only through mistakes can you see where you’re lacking, where you need to work. We hate mistakes, so we play it safe. Yet long term, nothing could be more dangerous if your goal is to be great at what you do. Zander suggests that instead of getting so dejected by mistakes, we instead exclaim loudly, raise our arms, and shout “How fascinating!” every time we make a mistake. Think about that. Another mistake? How fascinating! Another opportunity to learn something just presented itself. Another unlucky break? No worries! Move forward. You cannot worry about mistakes and be fully present in the moment at the same time.

It is not enough to know a piece of music intellectually or to play it without any mistakes—you have to convey the true language of the music emotionally, says Ben. When musicians truly got into the music and played it with such heart and emotion that audiences were moved beyond words, Ben noticed that the music flowed through the musicians, taking control of their bodies as they swayed from side to side. Zander, then, urges musicians to become “one-buttock players,” that is to let the music flow through their bodies, causing them to lean and to move from one buttock to the other. If you’re a musician, or you’re making a performance of virtually any kind, and you are totally in the moment and connecting with the language of the music and the audience, there is no way you can be a “two-buttock player.” You’ve got to move, you’ve got to connect, and you must not hold back your passion. Instead, you must let the audience have a taste of the commitment, energy, and passion you have for the music (or the topic, the ideas, etc.).

You can hold back, aim not to make an error, and play it perfectly “on two buttocks.” Or, you can say, “Screw it!—I’ll take a risk,” and dare to lean into the music with intensity, color, humanity, and passion and quite possibly, in your own small way (and on only one buttock), change the world. Play it with total sincerity and with your entire body—heart and soul—and you will make a connection and change things. In his book, Ben Zander said while encouraging one of his talented students to play it in the “one-buttock” style: “If you play that way, they won’t be able to resist you. You will be a compelling force behind which everyone will be inspired to play their best.”

Jazz pianist Dr. John Hanagan is fully in the moment while playing in a popular jazz club in Osaka, Japan. That’s me on drums. (Photo: Nikolas Papageorgiou.)

Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously!

“Lighten up,” says Ben Zander, “and you lighten up those around you.” This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t take your work seriously (you should), or even that you shouldn’t take yourself seriously (that may depend on the time and place), but as an absolute certainty, we must all get over ourselves. There is perhaps no better way to get over ourselves than the use of humor.

Rosamund Zander, the philosopher of the partnership, says that from birth we are concerned about measurement and worried about the perceived scarcity of love, attention, food, and so on that seems to be the way of the world. She calls this the “calculating self,” and in this environment of scarcity, competition, and comparison, “the self needs to be taken very seriously indeed.” No matter how successful and confident you may become as an adult, your “calculating self” (concerned with measurement and worried about scarcity) is weak and sees itself at risk of losing everything.

The goal, then, is to move away from the calculating self, the self that lives in a world of scarcity, exaggerated threats, and deficiencies, and move toward a healthier attitude of sufficiency, wholeness, and possibilities. Getting over yourself—humor is a great vehicle for this—allows you to see the “creative nature of the world and ourselves.” When you understand what an infant can’t—that is, you cannot control the world, you cannot impose your will on people’s hearts—you begin to get over yourself.

When you learn to lighten up, you see yourself as permeable, not vulnerable, says Rosamund, and you stay open to the unknown, new influences, and new ideas. Rather than trying to resist and fight the river of life, you move through it with a harmonious fluidity and grace, learning to join rather than resist the flow. Humor is a wonderful way to remind everyone around us—no matter how hard the work gets—that our true and most central self is not obsessed with childish demands, entitlements, and calculations but is instead supportive, confident, helpful, and even inspiring. A presentation is as good a time as any to let people see that side of you.

In Sum

  • Like a conversation, presentation requires your full presence at that time and place.

  • Like a master swordsman, you must be completely in the moment without thoughts of the past, the future, winning, or losing.

  • Mistakes may happen, but do not dwell on past mistakes or worry about future ones. Be only in this moment, sharing and conversing with the audience in front of you.

  • You will make it look easy and natural by preparing and practicing like mad. The more you rehearse, the more confident you’ll become, and the easier it will seem to the audience.

  • Although you must plan well, being fully in the moment also means that you remain flexible, totally aware, and open to the possibilities as they arise. The goal is not necessarily to be perfect, but rather to make a sincere contribution in the moment for those who have come to hear you.

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