Powerful. Inspirational. Emotionally moving.
Those are the words that best describe Dr. Daniel Lowenstein’s “The Last Lecture” presentation, delivered to a packed house in Cole Hall on April 25th. The Last Lecture is an annual lecture series hosted by a UCSF professional school government group (and inspired by the original last lecture), in which the presenter is hand-picked by students and asked to respond to the question, “If you had but one lecture to give, what would you say?” Dr. Daniel Lowenstein, epilepsy specialist and director of the UCSF Epilepsy Center, did not disappoint. In fact, I can say with confidence that he delivered one of the best presentations that I have attended.
Rather than attempt to paraphrase his words, or provide a Cliff Notes version that doesn’t do his presentation justice, I will instead encourage you to watch the video recording of his presentation. The video is an hour in length, and if you have any interest in becoming a better presenter yourself, it is a must-watch. After the jump, we’ll explore my top “top 5 lessons learned” from Dr. Lowenstein’s presentation.
Last Lecture – Top 5 Lessons Learned:
- “PowerPoint” is still boring. Dr. Lowenstein’s projected slide show was not typical PowerPoint. It did not consist of any bullet points, familiar and boring templates, or images “borrowed” from a last minute Google image search. Instead, used images from his own collection, and Prezi to build a canvas of images that moved in all directions, expanding, contracting and rotating to craft his message. The resulting slide show was personal, meaningful and most importantly, relatable.
- Story telling is the secret to success. When I first began studying the art of presenting, the idea of incorporating storytelling into a presentation was an elusive one. I am now convinced that storytelling is the secret to transforming a good presentation, into a great presentation. It is the glue that holds all of the elements of your presentation together, as well as the glitter that makes it shine. Dr. Lowenstein’s entire presentation was crafted into a story, the setting of which was established right from the beginning and illustrated by his first content slide. There were also chapters within the story, the most memorable of which for me was the Justice segment of his presentation, and his depiction of The Basement People. He didn’t begin by pointing out the original members of the UCSF Black Caucus that were in the audience, as most presenters would have done. Instead, he gradually painted a picture for us, so we could imagine what it was like to be a minority at UCSF over 50 years ago. He described their struggles in detail, and gave us time to relate, and even pointed out the fact that they had met in that very hall where we all sat. He didn’t reveal their presence until the end of the chapter, creating a crescendo of emotion, and the moment brought tears to the eyes of many audience members.
- Vulnerability equals trust. If you want your audience to believe in your message, you must first give them a reason to believe in you. And one of the most effective ways to make that happen is to share your vulnerabilities. In the eyes of the audience, this makes the presenter human, and it creates a bond between both parties. No one wants to listen to a sales-pitch presentation. Instead, they want the whole story with the ups and downs, so they can decide how we feel about it on their own terms. Just be sure to share vulnerabilities that relate to the subject of the presentation, because you’re going for empathy, not sympathy (which could have a negative effect). Dr. Lowenstein, when talking about Joy and Sorrow, shared one of his deepest personal sorrows, which was the unexpected passing of his son. In contrast, he shared a touching moment with his wife, expressing his love for her, right in front of the whole audience. These moments worked perfectly in the presentation because they were genuine, and they gave the audience a deeper understanding of Dr. Lowenstein.
- Don’t forget humor. No matter how serious, no matter how technical, there is a place in your presentation for a little humor. It can be used to lighten a heavy moment, open closed minds, and bring everyone in a room together (even if your audience members have very different backgrounds). Amidst Dr. Lowenstein’s presentation were timely moments of humor that seemed to come naturally from his personality. And hey, who doesn’t like a good male-patterened-baldness joke, anyway?! But seriously, if you can laugh at yourself, the audience has no excuse to not laugh along with you. There are two keys to using humor in your presentation; (1) it should be relevant to the current topic or story, and (2) it can’t be forced. If you’re not good at telling jokes, then try another form of humor!
- Present on your passions. As a presenter, your goal is simple – to instill in the audience an understanding of your message, and a belief in you. If you give them the impression, even for a moment, that you don’t believe in yourself or the message you’re presenting, you’re a dead man walking (or presenting) in the audience’s eyes. If you choose topics that you are passionate about, however, you will never have this problem. You may think it was easy for Dr. Lowenstein’s to be passionate about his presentation, because his task was, in essence, to present about his life’s passions… but I can assure you, it’s not easy to talk about your own life in front of an audience. In contrast, imagine that you have to give a presentation on, say, your department’s new accounting policies. To make matters worse, imagine that your audience is being forced to attend. What do you do? Surely, there is no passion to be found in accounting policy, is there?! Well, actually, there is, if you take the right angle. For example, does this new accounting policy save the department time, or money? And then, can that saved time and money be applied towards more constructive, or creative tasks that your coworkers actually want to do? If so, and you frame the presentation in a positive light, the audience will listen.
To top it all off, Dr. Lowenstein spent the last few minutes of his presentation reviewing each of the 4 segments of his talk, and then related it all back to a single, clear message. That, my friends, is an example of storytelling 101, so I hope you were talking notes!
Continue on to part 2 of this post, where I interview Dr. Lowenstein about his experiences preparing for and delivering the Last Lecture presentation!
If you also found inspiration in Dr. Lowenstein’s presentation, please share your thoughts below, and I’ll see you at next year’s “Last Lecturer” event.