Slow Down (for the main point) (Issue 1025)

In which we are reminded that, when giving presentations, we should slow down to the speed at which our audiences can comprehend.

I love Gilbert & Sullivan operas. My mother was unrepentantly old-school English middle class. She grew up listening to the operas and, when I was a young child, she took me to a half-dozen community theater Gilbert & Sullivan presentations and played the recordings frequently. I have a pretty good sense of how things are supposed to go.

Happily, for me, an amateur theater group in Massachusetts stages two of the operas a year. This Fall’s production: The Pirates of Penzance. Oh, joy, and, on balance, I enjoyed the performance. The pit orchestra was strong without overpowering. The soprano who played Mable, the female lead, was spectacular. The two male leads, the Pirate Captain and Frederic, were quite solid.

One of the most famous of the Penzance songs is “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”. To an even greater extent than other G&S pieces, it’s PACKED with terms that well educated British late 19th Century or early 20th Century audiences would have known and with which modern audiences aren’t familiar. For example, Animalculous, Sir Caradoc, the Frogs of Aristophanes, Babylonic cuneiform, and Caractacus’s uniform.

To help a bit, Caractacus was a 1st-century AD British chieftain who resisted the Roman conquest of Britain. Who knew, right?

The word play is exquisite and the song, even when performed by highly trained professionals, is a lot to follow unless you’ve swept the libretto in advance for unfamiliar terms.

In this Fall’s performance, the pit orchestra began the piece at about 115 beats per minute. I thought, “That is FAR too fast.” The actor playing the Major General started with the pit and, it seemed to me, they sped up a little during the performance. He included all the words. The audience rewarded him with rousing cheers.

And I wondered: “Who did you do that for?”

As in, “what was the point?” That audience members would return home, giggling with delight, saying, “Oh, you can’t BELIEVE how fast the Major General sang his lines; he was wonderful”? That the actor would feel satisfied that he had ejaculated Gilbert’s obscure, multisyllabic references so rapidly one could barely follow? That the pit string section would feel they’d had a good workout?

While it’s possible that the directors considered their audience and concluded, “comprehension be damned, the faster we go, the better they’ll like it,”, I think it’s more likely they thought, “this is supposed to go fast, we can go fast, so we’ll go fast” without considering the audience’s capacity to comprehend and catch Gilbert’s point – that he didn’t’t think much of the British military’s evolution.

I applauded enthusiastically at the end and passed the stage director and music director without comment as the audience dispersed. Had they asked me, I would have said, “Suggest your patrons prepare ahead of time – share the link or the libretto. And S L O W  D O W N” during the performance. People comprehend spoken words, particularly new concepts, slower than we can speak them and our main job is to ensure that they firmly grasp our main point.

Nick Miller and Clarity train banks and bankers to attract and develop deeper relationships with small businesses. Many more Sales Thoughts like this and a host of other articles and resources at .

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