Vestiges of our earliest experiences with presentation and performance live on in business meetings:
Bedtime stories. This ritual combines physical closeness with creative interaction. The kid sounds out words, points to pictures. Mom or Dad asks questions about the pictures, and they explore them together. The kid asks questions about what the characters do and why — and they speculate about what might happen next or what could have happened differently.
“Show and Tell.” You bring an object you think will interest your classmates (or, more problematically, one you simply want to show off) and can speak about it for 60 seconds or so. (The time limit is critical.) The audience leans in, expecting you’ll pass the object around, let others ask questions about it or play with it. This intriguing object is your ticket to connection.
Creative Play. Kids with a big sheet of manila paper draw a scene together or enact an extended fantasy on the playground, negotiating improvisation in the primal bond of play.
The junior-high book report (or poetry recitation). You don’t want to stand in front of the class and read your execrable homework or expose the limitations of your memory. The teacher makes you. Your grade depends on it. You are a victim. You must shield yourself from cringing classmates’ secret delight at your humiliation. You shrink back, mumbling, trying to vanish into your script; or you speed through it or become defiantly entertaining. Contrast this with…
The science-fair project presentation. The audience is riveted if you’ve studied something gross or prurient — that is, truly relevant and worth sharing. If you’re really proud of your work and want everyone to see what you’ve accomplished, it can’t be short enough.
Competitive Play: Debate. Spectacular displays of adrenalized intellect for prospective mates. Literate lekking.
If you feel like you’re weirdly acting out the worst of your early conditioning when you do a PowerPoint presentation, like you’re reading aloud to grown-ups in a darkened room (minus any reassuring physical proximity or interactivity) about your topic (not theirs) because you have to (fearful deference to authority) and have to prove how much work you’ve done and how smart you are — you probably are.
The best leaders draw on the best of their early conditioning when they present ideas, facilitate meetings and explore possibilities with customers. If you’ve wandered into a dysfunctional communication cul-de-sac, ask yourself: What else could I try?
How can I get closer? What do they really want to know?
Could I draw a picture or show them something cool?
How might we get to Q&A faster?
How can I make it all about them?
With practice, you can recover more and more of the generous brilliance with which you once connected.