On Breaking The Rules

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The last of a series of mostly mediocre talks at a recent event was about breaking the rules. So the speaker decided to drive home his point and broke some of the rules for presenting. Did it help?

As I like to point out in my presentation courses, almost everything I teach are really only recommendations, tips, and best practices for better presentations. There's only one strict rule, and that is not to go over time. Everything else can be modified, bent, or broken if appropriate for the talk and the context.

So does switching off the lights and the projector and presenting in semi darkness for most of an 8-minute talk count as breaking the rules? Certainly. Was it a good idea? I don't think so.

Sure, it made the talk stand out. It also caused a great deal of confusion: Why doesn't anyone switch on the lights? Adjusting the lighting when required had worked just fine during the previous talks. So what was wrong now? During that initial confusion, before it settled in that this was done on purpose, I bet I wasn't the only one being distracted from the content of the talk.

When you decide to deliberately break the rules of good presenting, you should have a good reason. Preferably one that goes beyond simply trying to stand out. Switching off the lights could be fine if you're talking about human perception, for example, and want to demonstrate how our hearing is intensified when we can't see. Assuming all that has something to do with your talk, which in the above case it didn't.

Did it help the presenter in any way? I doubt it. A few days after the event, all the 10 talks of the evening are a blur. I couldn't really tell whether some specific topic was covered in that last talk in the dark or in some other talk. So content-wise, I think it's safe to say, it didn't help. It was simply too distracting. I guess it did help in establishing the presenter as a non-conformist. I can only guess that was at least part of what he wanted to achieve.

Please don't "break the rules" for effect only. Do it if it feels appropriate, but have a purpose and a clear goal that you want to achieve with your actions.

(Photo Credit: Hands in Chains by Mike Mozart, CC BY, from Flickr)

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Creative Commons Licence "On Breaking The Rules" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.