The Spiderman Principle of Meetings and Presentations

Kevin Smith’s approach to addressing any audience is the same as mine. He writes in his recent memoir that anytime a person is speaking to a group of people, in any context, the speaker has a duty to be entertaining.

I couldn’t agree more.

I have attended hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of meetings over the course of my lifetime where the person making the presentation, conducting the workshop or otherwise delivering the content made no effort to engage the audience in an entertaining and memorable way.

I will never understand this.


Regardless of who you are or what your previous experience might be, I believe that every person is capable of being entertaining while delivering content if he or she is willing to invest the time and effort required to prepare. This could involve the use of humor, self-deprecation, storytelling, drama, or surprise. It could mean designing a presentation that allows for meaningful and engaging interaction between attendees. It could include the use of food or props or even a costume. Whatever it takes to make your presentation entertaining and memorable to your audience.

Smith argues that the speaker or presenter is obligated to be entertaining for the sake of the audience. It’s what I call The Spiderman Principle of Meetings and Presentations (though Voltaire admittedly said it first):

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

If you are conducting a one-hour meeting, you have effectively stolen one hour from every person in the room.

If there are 20 people in the room, you are now equivalent to a 20 hour investment.

It is therefore your responsibility to ensure that the hour is not wasted by reading from PowerPoint slides, providing information that could have been delivered via email, lecturing, pontificating, pandering or otherwise boring your audience.

But I also believe that there is a second, equally important reason to be entertaining:

It is a more effective way of conveying content to an audience.

When a student-teacher presents me with a lesson that he or she would like to teach my class, my first question is always this:

What’s the hook? What is the reason for my students to listen and pay attention to you?

Far too often inexperienced (and ineffective) teachers believe that if they design a lesson using all of methods and strategies that they have learned in college, students will sit quietly, attend fully and absorb the content.

For about two-thirds of an average class of students, this will probably be the case. But for the other third, effective lesson design is never enough. These are the students who slip through the cracks in many classrooms. They are the kids who have ability and potential but lack the necessary skills in order to learn. They are the children who are not predisposed to quiet, thoughtful attentiveness. They are the kids who can barely sit still. The ones with one foot still on the baseball diamond and one finger still on the videogame controller. They are the students who do not believe in themselves or their capacity for a bright future. They are kids who come to school hungry and tired and still reeling from the chaos and violence of an evening at home.

These are the students who need a reason to listen.

I believe that it is the teacher’s responsibility to provide a reason to learn. A meaningful, entertaining, engaging, thrilling, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants reason to keep their eyes and ears and minds open.

This is why every lesson requires a hook.

A hook is not a statement like, “This material will be on Friday’s test” or “This is something you’ll use for the rest of your life.”

A hook is an attempt to be entertaining, engaging, surprising, thought-provoking, challenging, daring and even shocking. This can be done in dozens, and perhaps hundreds of ways.

A teacher can be funny. Surprising. Animated. Confused. Even purposefully depressed. A teacher can offer students uncommon levels of choice or challenge them with meaningful, winner-takes-all competition. A lesson can include something students have never seen before or (even better) something they have seen a thousand times before but in an entirely new context. A teacher can use storytelling and drama and suspense to convey information. The lesson can include cooperative learning in groups that the children will actually enjoy. Students can be made the center of the lesson. Students can be invited to teach the lesson. Lessons can be broken up into smaller, rapidly changing segments in order to hold student interest.

This is just a smidgen of the strategies that teachers can use, and most of them, if not all of them, can also be used by a person running a meeting, conducting a workshop, or otherwise stealing an hour from people in order to convey content.

This is how I approach teaching on an everyday basis. I believe with all my heart that I am stealing seven hours of their childhood from each of my students on a daily basis. I am paid to be a thief. I rob my students of hour upon hour of the most precious and fleeting time of their lives. Therefore, I have a duty to make this time as meaningful, productive, memorable, and yes, entertaining as possible.

The best thing about all this:

If I do so, not only will my students be happy, not only will they look forward to school every day, but they will also learn better. Retain more. Become more skilled and knowledgeable and equipped for all that life has to offer.

Delta Airlines understands this. They recently produced an in-flight safety video that conveys the necessary information in an entertaining and surprising way.

Someone at Delta realized that if they are going to subject thousands of passengers a day to a dry, repetitive, but important safety video, why not make an effort to do better?

And they have. When your in-flight safety video has more than a million views on YouTube already, you know you’ve done something right.