Ever since its debut in Paris in 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac has been an enormous attraction for audiences and performers. The original French actor, for whom playwright Edmond Rostand created the part, performed it more than 400 times. In the twentieth century, the story went on to be produced as a film twelve times—one of which earned an Academy Award for José Ferrer in 1950, another that starred Steve Martin in 1987, and the most recent starring Peter Dinklage in 2021—and as an opera five times.
While the story is based on a real seventeenth century poet and swordsman, it was Mr. Rostand’s nineteenth century interpretation that created its enduring appeal—and serves as a parable for presenters. Briefly stated, Cyrano is the story of a man who was considered ugly because of his very large nose, but who more than compensated for his looks with a rare gift for language. In a tale of romance by proxy, Cyrano helps a handsome but inarticulate man win over a beautiful woman by writing love letters for him and by speaking for him at a masquerade ball, almost as a ventriloquist.
The Cyrano Parable is a testament to the power of substance over style and the vital importance of the story. It is also an analog for the primacy of the presenter’s narrative over the slide show. This hierarchy is supported and promoted by a cottage industry of presentation consultants, authors, coaches, designers, websites, and organizations. I heard many of them reinforce this approach as a virtual mantra at Rick Altman’s Presentation Summit, an annual industry conference for graphics professionals.
Nevertheless, their clients and my clients—businesspeople all over the world—continue to ignore the advice and follow the opposite approach of having their slides tell their stories. While this practice produces a never-ending deal flow for consultants and coaches, it rarely produces successful presentations for presenters. Heed the advice of presentation professionals; keep your slides simple and tell your own story.
Be like Cyrano: focus on telling a compelling tale, rather than focus on your appearance or that of your slides. You are not a ventriloquist and your slide deck is not your dummy.
This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fire—available on Amazon and other retailers.