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Pantomime – a blueprint for a brilliant presentation (oh yes it is!)

So the pantomime season is over. The Aladdin’s lamps, glass slippers and beanstalks have gone back into storage; the ugly sisters and widow Twankeys have moved on to Pinter and Lloyd Webber, and the country’s theatres are a little less sparkly.

As always it’s been a season of sequins and (varying degrees of) smut. But, sitting in the Bradford Alhambra, watching the inimitable Billy Pearce’s Aladdin, it occurred to me that a pantomime is actually a blueprint for an excellent business presentation or pitch.

That idea sent me in the direction of actor/writer Nick Mellersh and an illuminating piece on how to write a panto: http://mellersh.org/nick/essay.htm  It turns out my hunch was right.

The lines which usually get the biggest laughs are about the audience. We roared when Billy made fun of neighbouring towns, and we cried when he picked on individuals in the stalls.

In a corporate context audiences love to feel that the content has been crafted just for them. They like to feel respected. We can do this by including material which demonstrates that we know them – their sector, company, department, team, role, challenges. This is not an old slide deck which we’ve top and tailed!

And just as pantomimes are designed to appeal to both adults and children, so we need to segment our audience and deliver content for the experts and novices alike.

How we love to boo the baddie, oh yes we do!

It’s often said that 21st century presentations are like conversations. They are generally less formal, more inclusive than even 20 years ago. Audiences like to feel involved, to have a voice. The glass wall that used to separate the speaker from the audience has gone. Maybe “it’s behind them”. This is how we connect with the people we seek to persuade, and how we show that we’re not afraid of them – especially important in those moments when the audience challenges us. We need to step forward into the challenge rather than backing away from it.

Pantomimes take us on a clearly choreographed emotional journey with moments of jeopardy/crisis before and after the interval. The plot resolution is usually two scenes from the end.

A clear structure which is well signposted (verbally or visually) is also desirable in a pitch or presentation because it makes the audience feel safe. If they feel secure and don’t have to work too hard, they will absorb our ideas.

One word not associated with pantomimes – monotonous. Unlike many forms of theatre, these shows (typically made up of 12 scenes) are renowned for multiple costume and set changes and great variety of content – music, comedy, verse, slapstick, magic, dancing.

This variety is the key to holding an audience’s (ever decreasing) concentration in a corporate context too (though I’d go easy on the custard pie gags). Steve Jobs was a master of this – his presentations were meticulously planned to maintain the audience’s attention and to keep bringing them back ‘in the room’ at the moment when they might drift off.

Pantomimes are high octane – a visual and auditory assault on our senses, and a physical work out for the actors. No gym membership needed for them between November and February! Hence loud openings and rousing endings and why characters so often run on and off stage, for no good reason.

Similarly, in a business situation, maintaining our energy level is vital. We need a strong opening to capture our audience; we need stamina to take them on the journey (especially if it’s just after a high-carb lunch), and we need a strong close to release them back into the world excited and empowered. This is why it’s so important to rehearse in real time, at performance level – to monitor our energy levels. If we flag, the audience will already be asleep.

Clear story lines; simple characters; lots of repetition – tools which are infinitely effective in a pitch or presentation.

Every pantomime has what I call a ‘raised eyebrow moment’ – a flying carpet, an amazing magic trick, a 3D sequence. And while none of those is appropriate in the board room, it is important to be memorable. Your raised eyebrow inducing material might be data, a quotation, an anecdote, a fact – there are no rules about what the content might be but it’s useful to work out what and where these moments will be.

So, with 10 months to go until Cinderella gets to go to the ball again, let’s utilise the tools that this 400 year old tradition teaches us, and bring a bit more sparkle to the office.