Make Your Presentations Poetic
Updated: May 14, 2019
Presentations are pervasive—perhaps even unavoidable—in modern business culture. While we depend on them to document details and dictate discussion, to inform and to teach, we don't always instinctively think of them as "inspirational." But we should: Presentations should act like poetry.
I believe this is completely possible to achieve. In honor of National Poetry Month, here are 6 simple suggestions you can incorporate into your presentations to make them more like poetry.
POETIC BUILDING BLOCKS
I’ll spare you the cliche of starting with the dictionary definition (see #2 below), but most descriptions touch on these essential components of poetry: the expression of feelings and ideas, distinctive style, rhythm, beauty, intensity of emotion, and brevity.
To me, the most important element of a poetic presentation is a single, powerful idea to build around, to expand upon, to infuse into every aspect of your creation. Think of this as your creative hook or your angle. Without a strong underlying inspiration or theme, presentations can end up feeling jumbled or disjointed—just a sequence of slides.
The Dragonfly Effect, an inspiring book and blog about how social media can drive social change, is a great example of how powerful a cohesive creative hook can be. I incorporated beautiful dragonfly imagery into this presentation I made to share the team’s unique approach.
Poetry in Practice: When you’re crafting a presentation, give yourself some time up front to identify a theme you can carry through. This could be a metaphorical idea, a powerful phrase or some other unifying creative thread. I often get my ideas from exploring in the Haiku Deck image search.
2. DISTINCTIVE STYLE
There are a wide variety of unique poetic forms, each with their own moods, characters and general formats. The same is true for presentations. Whether you are sharing a lighthearted list or making an impassioned case for a cause you care about, select a style that fits and carry it through cohesively. Each presentation you create should feel distinct, in a way that suits its unique purpose.
The other important point here is to be distinctive—which means taking special care to avoid cliche in subject matter, wording and image choice.
Poetry in Practice: Instead of using templates for your presentations, select fonts and images to reinforce your mood and theme. As you develop each presentation, keep formatting and even image palettes as cohesive as possible to sustain the mood.
Poetry is strongly associated with rhythm, with cadence, with well-chosen words. You can play with alliteration (the repetition of consonants), assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds), or even rhyme as you title your talk and script your slides.
Zooming out, try to give your presentation a sense of rhythm, structure and flow. You can do this by repeating visual or text elements at regular intervals—for example, solid-color slides to introduce new sections, or a short, simple string of text repeated throughout for poetic emphasis.
Poetry in Practice: Allow yourself time, and a few edit passes, to explore possibilities for word choice—you might even use an online dictionary, thesaurus, or rhyming dictionary for ideas. If you land on a poetic, powerful phrase, try repeating it at intervals throughout your presentation to underscore its rhythmic resonance.
Beauty alone can’t carry an unsubstantial idea, but a beautifully presented idea can blossom into something bigger, more powerful. In a presentation, beauty may take the form of evocative, well-chosen images that deepen your meaning, or it could be an elegant metaphorical idea that intrigues and illuminates.
Poetry in Practice: Use high-quality imagery, and don’t rush the selection of your images—they should be more than just decoration. Be sure each image you choose deepens and extends your meaning or tells a story.
In the age of big data, it’s common to value information over emotion, and to structure presentations accordingly. Yet in the words of Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, “Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion.”
Poetry in Practice: No matter how data-heavy your presentation is, your message will be more memorable if you can turn your stats in stories. Emotion and information can work together to elevate your key points.
Certainly there are grand, epic forms of poetry, but most poetic forms favor brevity. Keeping your presentation concise and focused will nearly always make it feel more poetic.
Poetry in Practice: Instead of trying to pack in more—more words, more ideas, more thoughts, more data points—see what you can remove. Give your ideas some breathing room, so they can bloom.
Here’s one last example I’d like to share, in which I tried to incorporate all of these poetic building blocks to some extent. I created it for presentation expert Nolan Haims, based on a blog post he wrote that inspired me. (Sending this to him felt a bit like cooking dinner for a famous chef, and I offered to make any changes he requested, but he liked it!)
There’s no foolproof formula to creating poetic presentations—like poetry itself, there are plenty of forms to explore and ways to experiment. But I hope these poetic building blocks can plant some seeds for future presentation inspiration.
Do you have favorite examples or poetic presentations, or ideas to share? Let me know in the comments!