The Four Presentation Skills I Learned From Sesame Street

7 10 2010

A lot of great business leaders have become great presenters along the way.  Steve Jobs created his “presentation persona” and has some of the best Keynote designers in the world – and sometimes that doesn’t even keep his presentations from being boring.  Bill Gates wasn’t even good when he started, and now his TED talk is one of my favorite.  Frequent speakers such as Jon Stewart and Warren Buffett have become great through practice and experience.

But if there is one shining example that I believe we should emulate when getting up in front of a group that may or may not want to hear us drone on, it has got to be Sesame Street.  No other TV had succeeded where Sesame Street  was attempting to go when it premiered in November 1969.  By combining education with entertainment, Sesame Street sought to entrance children with it’s whimsical style while also teaching them basic skills and knowledge for life.  This type of teaching on a grand scale was scoffed at by experts and seemed impossible to achieve.  More than forty years later, Sesame Street is still engaging children and has won more than 100 Emmy Awards, the most by any television series in history.  While the educational elements of Sesame Street will always be challenged, no one would dispute Sesame Street’s power to hold the captive attention of the most fickle age group (yes, more fickle than middle managers with Blackberrys).  By looking at WHY Sesame Street has been so successful, we can learn some basic lessons on presentation skills that would be helpful for anyone.

1. Clear and Easy to Remember Lessons:
One of the more fundamental things presenters forget time and again is that the audience cannot hold their breath the entire presentation waiting for the “lesson learned”.  Five seconds in to any Sesame Street segment, you know what the goal is.  Check this video.  You know they want to learn “the word on the street” almost immediately, without them saying, “here’s what the goal is today…” (although that doesn’t hurt either).  So present the goal of the presentation up front (ex. “Today, I’m going to tell you about..”) and then reinforce it several times throughout the presentation.  In your conclusion, make sure you revisit that goal.  When organizing your presentation, if some of your information doesn’t help achieve that goal, then toss it.  No one will notice.

2. Check For Understanding Often:

One thing Sesame Street does particularly well is check for understanding.  When Oscar helps sound out words, he repeats the word several times, and then asks something like “you got it boys and girls?”  When kids watch Sesame Street, it’s rarely if ever in silence.  Instead, there is yelling, movement, and laughter.  Great presenters should aim to have the same effect on their audience.

Tony Robbins does this particularly well too.  While you are speaking a mile-a-minute up on stage, getting excited and passionate, and maybe even a little sweaty, the audience is getting overwhelmed by how much useful information you are throwing at them.  Their brains are quickly getting filled up, and they need a break to digest the information.  To make sure you still have their attention, engage them often with an understanding check, like “Is everybody still with me?  Hands up if you’re with me!” or as Pete Wilson says, “Ya got it?  Put your hand up if you’re ready to move on”.  Teach for America also pushes their teachers to use checks for understanding.  It’s become a pretty standard way for the presenter to know their audience is still receiving their message and ready for more.  Plus, there is something about moving or yelling and getting the blood flowing while listening to a presentation that definitely helps retain information and keeps people paying attention.

3. Sometimes it’s OK to be (a Little) Silly:

This one is a bit of a no-brainer.  If you can’t make the presentation lively and entertaining while making it informative, then you have no chance with the audience.  Obviously, “lively” and “entertaining” and “informative” have different definitions depending on what type of group you are speaking to, but the “fun” rule applies nonetheless.  Your listeners WANT to learn, and they need you to make sure the lessons come across clearly.  But by mixing in some irreverent fun, you loosen up as a speaker, and they loosen up and engage as an audience.  Remember – it’s just a presentation, it’s not the end of the world!

4. For the Love of the Children, Please KEEP IT SIMPLE
In Malcom Gladwell’s excellent The Tipping Point, he mentions a series of studies the Sesame Street team conducted to ensure their content reached their young audience.  They found that when the children understood the message (such as when only one person spoke at once, and when the lesson was clearly highlighted) concentration was heightened.  Conversely, when the learning wasn’t central to the message, the children quickly lost interest.  One might think that because adults are supposed to be smarter and more mature, they would be able to pay attention even to overly complex topics.  WRONG!

The sad truth is that most of the time, your audience is just praying for you to finish talking as soon as possible.  They are thinking about dinner or the football games this weekend or how they have to remember to get their lawn mower back from their neighbor.  If you aren’t interested in your own topic, it is that much easier for your listeners to completely tune you out.  So remember – the key to being an expert is to show your passion, and to teach it as if you were teaching to a child.  Don’t baby your audience, but give them plenty of, “the basic gist is…”.  If your audience doesn’t understand the basics of what you are talking about, they will almost automatically stop paying attention and it’s impossible to bring them back.  They will clap like crazy when you are done, but that’s because you are finished talking, not because they loved your presentation on Overdraft Fee Structures of the 20th Century.

Sesame Street taught everything from the ground up, starting with the basic concepts that made up the lesson.  They presented material for every level learner, and never disparaged those that were a little behind.  By keeping these simple rules in mind, your presentation style will be more personable, your information easier to digest, and your audience happy.  Thanks Sesame Street!



One response

16 05 2013

A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment.
I think that you should write more about this issue, it might not
be a taboo matter but usually people do not discuss these issues.
To the next! Many thanks!!

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