Presenting Tips from the Tao Te Ching

What, you may wonder, can Lao-tzu’s ancient poetic masterpiece tell modern humanity about presenting, public speaking and performing?

Modern presenting is cluttered with business speak about targets, key messages, outcomes and rules for success.  All of which have place and purpose; none of which are as fundamental as they insist.


People Central

As with any performance form, a presentation, and its delivery, is far more subtle and interesting than a simplistic business recipe.  After all, at the heart of a presentation is a person – and people are brilliant, unpredictable and ultimately the only reason to be interested in a presentation.

The Tao Te Ching talks directly to the person at the centre of the performance offering profound insight as to how to make connection where it’s needed most.  (I wonder if Lao-tzu was good with PowerPoint too?)


Practical Presentation Pointers from a Mystical Monk

“There is no greater illusion than fear,

No greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself.”

When it comes to presenting this is true (not so sure about warfare!).  Simply, if you put a protective shield around yourself by being too scripted, using too many slides or holding too much physical tension, your audience cannot connect with you.   A little vulnerability goes a long way.


“The hard and stiff will be broken,

The soft and supple will prevail.”

You have to be able to go with the flow in performance.  Rigidly sticking to your plan when the audience is desperate to open up discussion will cut you off from the crowd and prevent your presentation from taking flight.  Note ‘supple’ not ‘loose’ – suppleness is toned and lithe, with a little bit of give.


“Those who know don’t talk,

Those who talk don’t know.”

Silence is a beautiful thing.  In the heat of the moment it can be tempting to talk your audience into submission.  Allow silence into your presentation, allow the audience to come to you, let their imaginations fill in the gaps.  A room full of words can become difficult to breathe in.


“Express yourself completely,

Then keep quiet.”

Say what you need to say, and then see what happens.  You may want to embellish, add detail and jabber on, but you’re only trying to feel less awkward on the podium.  Once you can be quiet with an audience, you’ve won.


“True words aren’t eloquent,

Eloquent words aren’t true.”

Keep your language simple and to the point.  The temptation to add unnatural flourishes and over articulate your ideas can be hard to resist, but it can seem like you’re trying too hard to impress.


“Act for the people’s benefit

Trust them, leave them alone.”

Make sure your message is about the audience, not all about what you want.  Why are you there talking to these particular people?  What can you give to them?  How can you improve their life?  If your audience know what is in it for them from the outset, they’ll be willing to hear you out.


“Not knowing is true knowledge.”

Next time someone throw’s you a question you can’t answer; be happy, it’s a chance to build a conversation and explore the idea together.


“I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.”

The biggest presenting fear people have is being made to look foolish.  Well, it happens to us all – that perfect moment when your mind goes blank and you feel the panic rising.  But the panic need not rise.  Everyone’s obsessed with success, targets and professionalism these days, but performance isn’t about these things.  With an audience in front of you, there’s always the chance you’ll look like an idiot at some point.  So enjoy it.  Lighten up.  The blankness in the mind is the real you.  It’s the interesting you.  When you’re functioning in that zone, you’re in the most exciting place.


“Failure is an opportunity.”

Simple as that. Even flopping completely, failing to take the stage, or to speak, or collapsing in a heap isn’t the end of the world – it’s a chance to learn and have another crack.


Lao-tzu knew a thing or two.


David Windle


Copyright David Windle 2011