Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book review: Own the room

I wrote a review of Own the Room: Business presentations that persuade, engage & get results by David Booth, Deborah Shames, and Peter Desberg. The review was originally published in Technical Communication, Volume 58, Number 1, February 2011.


We have all heard the adage “show, don’t tell.” That is the basic premise of Own the Room. Instead of repeating the stodgy, conservative style of business presentations full of bland facts and figures, the authors recommend enlivening your presentations with stories and surprise. The authors are an actor, a director, and a psychologist, all of whom bring their expertise to their modern presentation style.

The book reads as if the authors were giving a presentation, switching speakers in each chapter. Although unclear at first, this method lets them deliver personal and entertaining anecdotes. To explain your movements during a presentation, says Booth the director, for example, “if I want to shake the actors out of complacency or flat line readings, I change the blocking” (p. 169).

Own the Room offers a lot of useful information and entertaining stories, including pointers for making each stage of your presentation more interesting: Grab your audience’s attention at the start, use appropriate anecdotes to maintain surprise and intrigue, and drive your point home at the end. The authors include many specific examples of speeches using both their method and the conservative style so you can compare and contrast. They also make many interesting similes, such as how picking a team to give a presentation is like constructing a string quartet: “As in music, we are attracted to counterpoint” (p. 151).

Although most of the book can help you gain confidence, the authors devote a chapter to overcoming stage fright. Part of overcoming stage fright is being well prepared. After explaining the four stages of stage fright, they suggest cures such as breathing exercises for managing your anxiety and “changing your behavior, which is directly under your control” (p. 133).

One improvement would be a recap at the end of each chapter. For example, it would be useful to have lists of the roles a presenter can take, with related page numbers. Although the headings are easy enough to find, quick reference lists would make navigation easier.

All in all, I find the suggestions workable. For example, anecdotes are better for explaining “why” because we “tend to believe anecdotal evidence over facts and figures” (p. 52). And surprise engages your audience because (as Steven Johnson says) “researchers now believe that there is an entire neurochemical system in the brain devoted to the pursuit and recognition of new experiences” (p. 48). I plan to apply the authors’ approach to creating more engaging tutorials and e-learning.

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