Poetry as presentation preparation

by Peter Watts

There is a highly effective way in which you can easily improve your power as a presenter:


Learn a new poem every week!


Taking the time to memorize a poem a week has major pay-offs for presenters:


  • Vocabulary development
  • Improvements in speech patterns, rhythm, and diction
  • Improvements in memory function and the ability to concentrate


Contained within these three improvements are the critical ingredients of great speaking. When we think of a Martin Luther King, a John F. Kennedy, or a Winston Churchill, it isn’t the grainy, black and white TV pictures of them that we think of first; It is their words, and the power of those words. It is their ability to pack an almighty punch into a small verbal space. It is their poetry.


Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University, and author of “The Dumbest Generation makes the point that while the internet offers us the greatest information resource mankind has ever known, we are also in danger of forgetting how to think critically as we are swamped by a deluge of information. Within his classes, students are required to regularly learn lengthy sections of poetry by heart which they recite back to the class. Why? Because not only does the exercise deliver the benefits mentioned above, it also teaches critical judgement, and the ability to think in depth rather than simply at surface level, both of which are valuable skills for presenters.


It’s also worth remembering that poetry is pleasurable. Dipping into a book, selecting a poem that appeals, and then learning it can be a source of relaxation. Recite that poem back to yourself immediately before your presentation, and immediately you will feel yourself transported back to that calmer, more relaxed frame of mind.


Taking time out to learn poetry as a preparation for presenting can sound like a self-indulgent activity, especially if poetry, or even reading, aren’t standard parts of your life. It might even sound like a waste of time, but as Marianne Moore tells us in her poem “Poetry”:


“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond

all this fiddle.

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one

discovers in

it after all, a place for the genuine.”


Presenting convincingly is about being genuine, and absorbing poetry can help us with the mental discipline to formulate and express messages that are clear, distinct, and memorable.


Try visitingwww.poets.org and find out for yourself how poetry can be a valuable addition to presenting.

Divide and Conquer

by Peter Watts

The ability to speak spontaneously to an audience, straight from the heart, creates a link between audience and speaker that cannot exist when the barrier of the “prepared script” stands between them.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show “Wishful Drinking”, where Fisher, the actress who created the Star Wars character Princess Leia, sits on an over-stuffed sofa with drink in one hand and cigarette in the other and slightly gravel-voiced (just look how the Princess grew up!), talks about her life with a wit and humour that has the audience crying with laughter.

She has no notes, few props, and no-one to bounce off except the people in the seats before her. She appears to make it up as she goes along, just for us, just for tonight. One long spontaneous speech and the audience love her for it.

Of course, it isn’t spontaneous. We’re witnessing months of writing and rehearsing. It’s her ability to look her audience straight in the eye, and appear to be speaking without the safety net of a prepared script that creates the spellbinding link.

We can do much the same within sections of presentations. We can put our notes aside and depart from our script to speak from the heart so long as, like all the best spontaneous speeches, it’s carefully planned ahead of time!

Imagine yourself standing on one bank of a fast-flowing river. Where you’re standing right now is the start of your note-free speaking, and the opposite bank is where you will return to the script.

Stage one in preparing the speech is to make sure it’s structured to get you across that water nice and dry. Fix in your mind what specific idea it is that you want to  be most clear to the audience.

Focus on that destination. What is the over-riding point to be communicated?

If the destination is clear in your mind, navigating the presentation becomes easier. Challenge yourself with “What do I want everyone in this room to be saying as they leave?” and let that finishing point be represented by the opposite bank of the river. You now have to get your audience there by the simplest route possible.

It’s like the advice given to tight-rope walkers – don’t look down, keep your eyes on where you’re going.

The next question is how to physically get across the river. One approach would be stepping stones you can walk across. Speech-writers call these stepping stones “Divisions”; the individual sections of the speech.

Break the speech down into its logical units and let these individual pieces form a chain of stepping stones. In your mind you are moving from logical stone to logical stone, each step leading towards the opposite bank.

The journey is easier when we can see both how far we have come and the rapidly decreasing distance across the stones to our destination.

Through division of content into reachable stepping stones, which can be memorized, actors like Fisher can get from one end of a two-hour show to the other.

For the rest of us there is no reason we shouldn’t stretch ourselves to a similar section in our next presentation. Even just five minutes of this direct, note-free speaking will make a big impact. Consider politicians when, in a televised speech, they “step away from their prepared text” for just five minutes. Which bit makes the headlines? The spontaneous bit.

One final point. There is no surer way to make sure everyone knows you’re speaking off-the-script, than to tell them that’s what you’re doing! A Roman writer on oratory observed:

“observations please better when they appear conceived on the moment, and not brought from home, springing from the subject itself as we are discussing it. Hence the expressions, “I had almost forgotten,” “It had escaped me,” “You aptly remind me,” are by no means ill received.”

He is recommending us to underline moments of spontaneity with small statements that point out what we’re doing, emphasizing the spontaneous nature of the moment, just in case anyone has missed it!

Spontaneity from the heart best wins the crowd when it is pre-planned from the brain!

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