The Elephant

In 1872, John Godfrey Saxe, an American poet, published a poem based on an ancient Indian fable about six blind men who were asked to describe an elephant by touch. One man said it was a wall, another a spear, another a snake, another a tree, another a fan, and the last man a rope. The final stanza of the poem concludes:

And so these men of Indostan 

Disputed loud and long, 

Each in his own opinion 

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right, 

And all were in the wrong!

The point of both the poem and the fable is to demonstrate the importance of seeing objects—as well as objectives—from an overarching view instead of just as component parts; to see the forest, not just the trees.

Contextual perception also applies to presentations. Conventionally, people in business view a presentation as the individual parts of an elephant. One person describes it as the story, another as the slides, another as the delivery, and yet another as the handling of tough questions.

However, a well-told story can be ruined by a slide show that resembles a doctoral dissertation on quantum physics, or by a presenter stricken by the fear of public speaking, or by a zinger question from the audience.

The presenter must manage every one of these elements. More importantly, the presenter must integrate every one of these elements with each of the other elements, or any one of them can backfire and ruin the entire presentation.

The effective way to integrate all the individual elements of a presentation is for the presenter (and team) to:

  • Start with a clear and lucid narrative that relates and targets the story to a particular audience. 
  • Then design slides that serve as headlines or illustrations of the key elements of the story. 
  • After that, develop a narrative that merges the story and slides and become familiar enough with that narrative to present with confidence. 
  • Finally, anticipate all objections to the original story and prepare valid responses to those objections. 

The presentation is the elephant.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Presentations in Action published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fireavailable on Amazon and other retailers.