3.3 The formal zombie

As informal educators gain more experience, they become more expressive. But inside they can still feel painfully self-conscious and vulnerable. Formality is often the shield they use to protect themselves. Although it may make them feel safer, a formal tone kills these kinds of presentations. It is fatally dull for our audiences.



There are many factors which trick educators into presenting in an inappropriately formal style:

  • the tradition of classical oratory — in the past speakers had to try to fill cavernous spaces using just their voice and body. This led to a formal style of declarative speaking and body language. If they’re not listening to a high-profile political speech, this style of delivery looks unnatural to contemporary audiences.
  • the imposter syndrome —  if you fear you don’t know enough about your subject, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to impress groups to boost your status, rather than simply trying to help them. For instance, some presenters use jargon and complex non-technical words as armour to feel important and to prevent challenging questions.
  • the fear of personal rejection —  some presenters avoid exposing their genuine emotions and interests so if they receive negative feedback, they can convince themselves it was the subject which was rejected, rather than them as a person.
  • professional objectivity —  when experts present, they worry about being seen to be emotionally manipulative or biased. In their minds, an expressionless delivery is associated with objectivity and credibility. Presenting to their peers — who are already interested in the subject — they may get away with this crude approach. However, with the public, this tactic will only make them look distant and inhuman.
  • the risk of losing control through allowing interaction —  learning how to manage audience interaction is painful and scary. Reading guidelines in a book is a start, but you can only learn these techniques properly by making mistakes in public. By adopting a formal tone, presenters know they are limiting the opportunities for interaction and so they feel more in control.
  • barriers imposed by the staging — many presentation spaces appear to have been designed to allow presenters to conceal themselves, rather than connect with the individuals in front of them, e.g. lecterns and distant, fixed seating.
  • death by PowerPoint — poor use of slides, crammed with information, can quickly turn an interactive presentation into a badly delivered formal lecture.


Vulnerability is the arch-enemy of formality

Like many strategies suggested in this book, the key to overcoming these fears is becoming more self-aware. Recognise these responses for what they are — over-reactions to protect yourself when you’re feeling vulnerable. But the truth is, this is what you get paid to do. Putting yourself in an exposed position and reacting authentically to what happens entrances the audience. This jeopardy makes you watchable. Stop hiding. Lean into the vulnerability, despite your fear.

Presenting is an exquisitely personal activity. In each presentation, you have to sacrifice a little piece of yourself. It’s the price you must pay to buy their attention. If this thought doesn’t scare you, you’re not giving them something which matters enough to you. This is one reason presenting can be so draining for introverts.

In addition to the vulnerability hooks in 1.5, these are some techniques to defeat formality in your presentations:

  • speak like a real person — nowadays audiences expect a much more casual and conversational tone. You need to loosen up.
  • emote like a real person — relatability matters more than faux objectivity for your learners.
  • avoid coming across as a subject expert — reassure yourself that you know more about the subject than most of your audience, but if you pretend that you understand everything about it, you will quickly be found out. As an informal educator, your expertise is in connecting your learners with the topic through your passion.
  • focus on provoking interest, rather than teaching concepts — when it comes to stimulating interest, it’s vital to use emotions to engage your audience. Expressing and triggering these feelings shows your humanity.
  • use slides as a tool to reinforce your message — don’t let your slides take over the presentation. Employ them sparingly and creatively. Think of them as billboards to display thought-provoking images, rather than as bullet lists which have to be read out.



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