A while back, I heard an anecdote on the radio about cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and it really struck me. Surprisingly, Ma said that once of his biggest inspirations was chef, author, and television personality Julia Child.
Huh?! Well, it turns out that thinking about Julia Child helped him get in the right mindset before a performance. He would think about watching her on television, making a roast chicken that looked beautiful—only to have it fall off the plate and onto the floor. Did she flip out? No, she never stopped smiling. She just acknowledged what happened and went on with the show.
Reflecting on this, Ma realized that the best mindset he could have as a performer was to ensure that his audience was having a good experience—rather than worrying about being perfect. Speaking to the St. Louis Post Dispatch last October, he said, “The idea of performing is hosting. It’s like you’re giving a party. You invite people to come to a place and enjoy something special; basically, they’re subject to whatever you dish out. You want them to have a great time, they want to have a great time, and what are you doing to facilitate that?”
In a Malcolm Gladwell article that I read years ago, Yo-Yo Ma also admitted that he used to strive for perfection in performance. When he was 17, he practiced a Brahms sonata for a year with technical perfection in mind. So what happened when he did that? “In the middle of the performance I thought, I’m bored. It would have been nothing for me to get up from the stage and walk away. That’s when I decided I would always opt for expression over perfection.”
There is a valuable lesson here for executive presentations. In my experience, many leaders worry too much about precision when they present. Aiming for total accuracy, it’s easy to end up with text-heavy PowerPoint slides—and far too many of them. And once you have a ton of bullets on a slide, you usually feel compelled to read them all. At best, slides still tend to distract the audience’s energy away from you—and the presentation is really all about you, not your visuals.
Think about it: What would you rather be able to say at the end of your presentation?
- I covered every point perfectly and spoke without a single stumble.
- I connected deeply with the audience, and I could sense that they were completely engaged with my presentation.
It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? If you’re able to really connect with your audience’s questions, concerns, and needs, they won’t even notice if the imperfections that jump out to you as the expert.
Of course, there’s a catch here. Connection trumps precision… but the more you master your topic through preparation and practice, the more you’re freed up to focus on connecting with the audience. When you don’t have to work to remember your key points and transitions, you can concentrate more on your eye contact, gestures, and reading the room.
So give some thought to drawing some inspiration from Julia Child, just as Yo-Yo Ma does as a concert performer. When you’re giving a speech, you’re the host, and your job is to set the tone and make sure that everyone has a good experience.
That’s a recipe for a successful presentation.