Poetic Presentations

Presentations are pervasive, perhaps unavoidable, in modern business culture. We depend upon them to document details and dictate discussion. We use them to inform and to teach.

But shouldn’t presentations also inspire? Can they be evocative as well as informational?

I believe they can, and I think a lot about the qualities that make presentations feel poetic rather than pedestrian.

Poetic Building Blocks

I’ll spare you the cliche of starting with the dictionary definition (see #2 below), but most descriptions touch on these essential components of poetry: the expression of feelings and ideas, distinctive style, rhythm, beauty, intensity of emotion, and brevity.

1. Expression

To me, the most important element of a poetic presentation is a single, powerful idea to build around, to expand upon, to infuse every aspect of your creation. Think of this as your creative hook or your angle. Without a strong underlying inspiration or theme, presentations can end up feeling rambling, jumbled, or disjointed — just a sequence of slides.

The Dragonfly Effect, an inspiring book and blog about how social media can drive social change, is a great example of how powerful a cohesive creative hook can be. I incorporated beautiful dragonfly imagery into this presentation I made to share the team’s unique approach.

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app

Poetry in Practice: When you’re crafting a presentation, give yourself some time up front to identify a theme you can carry through. This could be a metaphorical idea, a powerful phrase, or some other unifying creative thread. I often get my ideas from exploring in the Haiku Deck image search.

2. Distinctive Style

There are a wide variety of unique poetic forms, each with its own mood, character, and general format. The same is true for presentations. Whether you are sharing a lighthearted list or making an impassioned case for a cause you care about, select a style that fits and carry it through cohesively. Each presentation you create should feel distinct, in a way that suits its unique purpose.

The other important point here is to be distinctive — which means taking special care to avoid cliche in subject matter, wording, and image choice.

I love how Mel Carson uses black & white portraits in this presentation promoting his book, Pioneers of Digital. The overall effect feels unified and perfectly tailored to its subject.

Pioneers Of Digital – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Poetry in Practice: Instead of templatizing your presentations, select fonts and images to reinforce your mood and theme. As you develop each presentation, keep formatting and even image palettes as cohesive as possible to sustain the mood.

3. Rhythm

Poetry is strongly associated with rhythm, with cadence, with well-chosen words. You can play with alliteration (the repetition of consonants), assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds), or even rhyme as you title your talk and script your slides.

Zooming out, try to give your presentation as a whole a sense of rhythm, structure, and flow. You can do this by repeating visual or text elements at regular intervals — for example, solid-color slides to introduce new sections, or a short, simple string of text repeated throughout for poetic emphasis.

“Sculpting an Elephant,” by Barry Casey, is a wonderful example of poetic language and rhythmic flow in practice:

Sculpting An Elephant – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Poetry in Practice: Allow yourself time, and a few edit passes, to explore possibilities for word choice — you might even use an online dictionary, thesaurus, or rhyming dictionary for ideas. If you land on a poetic, powerful phrase, try repeating it at intervals throughout your presentation to underscore its rhythmic resonance.

4. Beauty

Beauty alone can’t carry an unsubstantial idea, but a beautifully presented idea can blossom into something bigger, more powerful. In a presentation, beauty may take the form of evocative, well-chosen images that deepen your meaning, or it could be an elegant metaphorical idea that intrigues and illuminates.

Take a look at how Brandon George uses clever images with a playful spin in this information-sharing presentation, “How to Get Ideas.” It’s a very creative take on beauty!

How to Get Ideas – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Poetry in Practice: Use high-quality imagery, and don’t rush the selection of your images — they should be more than just decoration. Be sure each image you choose deepens and extends your meaning or tells a story.

5. Emotion

In the age of big data, it’s common to value information over emotion, and to structure presentations accordingly. Yet in the words of Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, “Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion.”

“Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion.” — Jonathan Gottschall

When we celebrated our company’s one-year anniversary last summer, I wanted to acknowledge the milestone with a mix of compelling stats and stories. Here’s how I wove the two together:

Celebrating One Year of Haiku Deck – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

For another example, check out how a creative teacher infuses a basic scientific formula with storytelling in this educational presentation:

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app

Poetry in Practice: No matter how data-heavy your presentation is, your message will be more memorable if you can turn your stats in stories. Emotion and information can work together to elevate your key points.

6. Brevity

Certainly there are grand, epic forms of poetry, but most poetic forms favor brevity. Keeping your presentation concise and focused will nearly always make it feel more poetic.

This personality-packed presentation, created to cap off what was surely an epic Startup Weekend event, is an excellent example of how little text you actually need to get the point across.

Poetry in Practice: Instead of trying to pack in more — more words, more ideas, more thoughts, more data points — see what you can remove. Give your ideas some breathing room, so they can bloom.

In Closing

Here’s one last example I’d like to share, in which I tried to incorporate all of these poetic building blocks to some extent. I created it for presentation expert Nolan Haims, based on a blog post he wrote that inspired me. (Sending this to him felt a bit like cooking dinner for a famous chef, and I offered to make any changes he requested, but he liked it!)

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app

There’s no foolproof formula to creating poetic presentations — like poetry itself, there are plenty of forms to explore and ways to experiment. But I hope these poetic building blocks can plant some seeds for future presentation inspiration.

Do you have favorite examples or poetic presentations, or ideas to share? Let me know in the comments!

And if you appreciate what we’re doing, please cast your vote for poetic presentations in the Webby Awards — every vote makes a big difference!