Presentation Skills: Imitate, Imitate, Imitate!

Borrowed magic of storytelling

Just before Christmas, I gave a presentation on the effects of storytelling. I told two stories, each of them making a point about creating a different feeling in the audience. It was inspired by the TEDx Talk The Magical Science of Storytelling by David JP Phillips. To be more precise – I took the main idea and the frame of the TEDx Talk, using a few sentences word by word, while telling two stories of my own. Of course, during the presentation I credited my source, explained that I used part of the presentation and recommended my audience to watch the original TEDx Talk later.

Despite that, later that evening my friend Olga came to me and said: “Wow, that was very impactful! But I did not know you could use parts of someone else’s speech this way!” I realized that this was something that needed to be addressed.

In fact, chances are that to you the idea of reusing someone else’s speech – or its part – for your own presentation feels a bit strange too. Because, we should always create our own original material. Right?

Wrong my friend. Very wrong.

Why imitate

If you are trying to improve your presentation skills – and you are not using presentations of others – you are robbing yourself of the ultimate learning opportunity.

I know where the idea of always being original is coming from. This is how all (or, 95%) of the Toastmasters speech projects suggest, not even mentioning that it is criteria in speech contests. And I agree that learning how to create a presentation from scratch is a great exercise in organizing your thoughts. The problem with doing only this is that it makes you crawl in the mud of beginner’s creations (i.e. yours) for too long. This way you cannot taste what it feels like to deliver a presentation masterfully crafted, and therefore you will have a limited view of what is possible.

Here is what I mean: A few months ago, I saw a guy (let’s call him Ales; okay, his real name was Ales) do a perfect “cover” of How to Sound Smart in your TEDx Talk. Not only he memorized the script. He also imitated the gestures, vocal variety and even had the same prop glasses as the TEDx speaker. The best part came three weeks later. I saw Ales deliver another speech – this time his own. He used most of the tricks he learned in the “cover” speech. Pauses. Gestures. Voice inflection. His delivery jumped from “mediocre” to “intriguing” in the course of a few weeks.

Maybe you are asking: “But is it okay to copy works of other people?”

Let me answer you: Yes. Of course, you should credit the source. But as long as you do that – this is how the masters are learning.

Example #1: The Beatles

They did so during their beginnings in Hamburg in 1960, as the site Ultimate Classic Rock paraphrases the Beatles Bible:

Their shows were comprised virtually entirely of covers of their favorite rock and R&B tunes, with stabs at whatever requests would be shouted at them by the drunken crowd.

They played popular songs of the time, written by other musicians. They gradually adapted those songs to the specific circumstances of the Hamburg live music scene and the character of their six or eight-hour shows. And they improved their performance skills, along with developing their signature style and later their own songs.

Example #2: Benjamin Franklin

One of the founding fathers of the United States and the ultimate celebrity of 18th century America was famous for his eloquent writing. How did you learn it? In his teenage years, he imitated essays written by well-known authors of that time.

As part of his self-improvement course, Franklin read the essays, took brief notes, and laid them aside for a few days. Then he tried to recreate the essay in his own words, after which he compared his composition to the original. Sometimes he would jumble up the notes he took, so that he would have to figure out on his own the best order to build the essay’s argument.

(Walter Isaacson – Benjamin Franklin: An American Life)

This gave Franklin a clear “blueprint” – an image of what the product of his writing effort should look like once he achieved the desired level of eloquence. This way, he could clearly see the gaps between his skill and the skill of the best writers of that age. As time passed, his skills kept improving. Walter Isaacson puts it in Franklin’s own words:

“I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that in certain particulars of small import I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think that I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.” More than making himself merely “tolerable” as a writer, he became the most popular writer in colonial America.

Outside the world of presentation skills, imitation is a valid way to improve your craft. If you’re serious about getting better at presenting – think about how to incorporate it. You will learn a lot – and your audience will love it.

Next Steps

If you’ve decided, here is what to do next:

  1. Pick a speech or a presentation that made you think: “Wow, I want to be able to do something like this!” In the case of my friend Ales, it was the TEDx Talk about how to sound smart, in my case it was the TEDx Talk about the magic of storytelling. But you can go way beyond TEDx – two weeks ago I saw Polina from Kiev re-do Steve Jobs’ Stanford 2005 Commencement Address. And if you want to study bit of Toastmasters theatrics, why not take one of the world championship speeches? My favorite is Dananjaya, but there’s a lot to learn from each of the world champions.
  2. Decide – do you want just to use some elements or do you want to do the full speech?
  3. Learn the material (either the full speech or just the parts you decided to use). Don’t stay with just learning the text. Imitate the gestures. The tone of voice. The style. For a moment, become the speaker. For example, Polina from Kiev took one more step towards impersonating Steve Jobs by wearing blue jeans and a black turtleneck.
  4. Deliver the speech. Don’t forget to record it!
  5. Compare your performance to the original. Remember how Benjamin Franklin compared his writing to the original essays. Take notes on what you achieved and where you still have gaps.
  6. Repeat. Over time, feel free to adjust the material to your needs. Maybe you will discover that, your performance is coming very close – or even better than the original. Congratulations. This is a good time to take some new material and go back to point #1.
  7. (optional) Let me know how it went.

Public speaking is a skill like any other – and the best way to learn it is to learn from the masters. Even to Mozart it took 10 years before he composed a piece of music that was substantially original (as Robert Greene notes in his book Mastery). Before that, he was just remixing and imitating others. He did not end up doing so badly, did he?

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash

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