That Play Thing: A soliloquy on giving presentations

September 7, 2023

When you’re first tasked with giving one, a presentation can feel like an impossible ask. Where do I begin? Which data should I emphasize? How much scientific background should I provide?

There are many possible answers to these questions. Before even asking them, however, we often recommend to clients that they take a bit of advice from William Shakespeare.

A play within a play

“The play’s the thing,” Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet. People often take that quote to mean that a play is a fabulous entity in and of itself. A masterful script, brilliant performers, beautiful sets and lavish costumes constitute a magical combination, the apotheosis of human artistic endeavor.

Except that isn’t what Shakespeare was saying at all. The full quote goes like this: “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

At this particular moment in Hamlet, our vengeful prince has just arranged for his uncle Claudius to witness a play about fratricide, precisely the crime that he suspects Claudius has recently committed. Hamlet hopes the performance will shock Claudius into betraying himself as a murderer and the usurper of his brother’s throne.

What Shakespeare means is that a play is not, in fact, merely a work of art; it’s a tool, a trick, maybe even a trap that is meant to provoke a reaction from the audience. The “thing” about plays isn’t their unparalleled beauty and artistic genius. It’s their power to move people.

Words into deeds

Shakespeare well understood that his plays were not about him or his actors, but about the rowdy, half-drunk, illiterate groundlings standing in the dirt, the merchants in the stands and the nobles in their private boxes. Even though they were usually set in far-off times and places, Shakespeare’s plays were at least partly meant to shape how the people of Elizabethan England thought about themselves.

And that, dear reader, is how you too should approach your presentation. Start by considering your audience and how you want them to be changed by the experience. Who are they, exactly? Scientists? Investors? Physicians? What matters most to them? What do they think and know (and think they know) about the scientific, regulatory, medical or commercial topics you are talking about? How do you want to shift that perception?

Try to think not about yourself, but instead of the people who will watch your performance. How are they accustomed to learning? Do you want them to be entertained by what you say? Persuaded? Inspired? Incited? What do you want them to remember three days – or three years – after you finish talking? And above all, what do you want them to do having had the experience of your presentation?

Answer those questions and you will find it much easier to decide what words to say, which slides to show, perhaps even what to wear.

In a future post, we’ll consider some of those more granular presentation issues, like how to start, how to structure a presentation, how to design slides and how to wrap things up. But for now, just remember that the play is not the thing, it’s just a thing, and the audience is everything.


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