Performance Wednesday

Wednesday witnessed no less than two performances from me. First, a presentation in my Insider Threats class. Second, the first big Ship of Fools show of the semester.

The day started off (at 2:30 in the afternoon) with me giving a presentation on Leslie Lamport‘s paper “Paxos Made Simple“. Judging from the professor’s response to both my slides and the presentation itself, I pretty much nailed it. It certainly helped that the paper didn’t have too many ugly technical details and proofs in it, so it wasn’t too hard to present it to the rest of the class.

For what it’s worth, my quick-and-dirty guide to giving a decent presentation:

  • Run through your presentation at least twice before actually giving it. The first time, you’ll stumble over yourself all over the place. That’ll tell you what parts you’re not too sure on or that you might need to rethink. The second time should go much more smoothly. Repeat until you feel pretty comfortable. (Rationale: I’ve seen enough students try to give a presentation without reheasing first to know the consequences.)
  • Know your subject. Yes, you should already know what you’re talking about in the presentation, but that’s not enough. People will ask questions about the tricky parts or the subtle points, or will want to try to extend what you’re talking about somehow. You don’t want to go deer-in-headlights when this happens. Anticipate what questions your audience will ask and be ready to answer them, even if the answers wouldn’t normally show up in the presentation. And expect someone to ask you something you didn’t expect. Tough questions are good; they mean you have the audience’s attention! (Rationale: Failing to handle a question well weakens the confidence the audience has in you.)
  • Don’t read from your slides! I can’t stress this enough. Nothing puts your audience to sleep faster. Slides are there to emphasize your key points and to show any necessary graphics that would take too long to draw on the spot. Sure you need to talk about what’s up on the screen, but more fleshed out and with additional comments to reinforce your key points. (Rationale: I can read the slides myself, thank you.)
  • Show interest in what you’re talking about! Make the audience think what you’re talking about is the most fascinating thing ever. It’s better to overdo it than to talk in a flat, monotonous drone. Make gestures, fluctuate your tone of voice, talk conversationally, etc. The interest you show in your topic will rub off on them. (Rationale: if you don’t care about your topic, why should your audience?)

I’m sure there’s other important stuff I’m missing, but if you can cover those four points you’ll do all right. The first and last points apply pretty well to performances in general, such as, say, the improv show that night. [Bet you didn’t see that segue coming!]

We Fools performed as part of a talent show at Hawkins Grad House. We got a half-hour time slot, which is pretty short by our usual standards, but that just means we had to squeeze out all the filler and mediocrity.

The crowd was moderately sized, but were very lethargic to start off. It surely didn’t help that the act that proceeded us was someone singing a song in several different languages. But we’ve been there before, and Chuck made an admirable attempt to get them woken up before the show started. The crowd did finally come alive after a few games, and by the end of the set they were at least five orders of magnitude more energetic than when we started, which must mean we were doing something right. (Though from what I heard, they went absolutely nuts for the foreign fashion show that followed us. Good thing we got moved before that, then.)

In hindsight, it’s a bad idea to put games that require non-negligible time to collect audience suggestions near the beginning. Not only do you kill any momemtum you may have built up, but if the audience isn’t energized, it’s going to be like pulling teeth. Also, regardless of what Matt might try to tell you, our Two Person Stories have been going pretty well lately. The audience loved our stirring tale of Forrest Gump’s sex-change operation. Don’t let the fact that I’m almost always one of the people performing 2PS make you think I’m biased, either.

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