Presentation Zen

Sunday, October 12th, 2008 0 comments

presentation-zenPresentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. New Riders.

“Millions of presentations are now given every day with the aid of PowerPoint or other software. Yet, most presentations remain mind-numbingly dull, something to be endured by both presenter and audience alike.”

Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen opens with an elegant and convincing critique of typical PowerPoint presentations. These presentations are ineffective because “putting the same information on a slide in text form that is coming out of our mouths usually does not help – in fact it hurts our message”, because the audience find it hard to process spoken and written information at the same time. Yet although most presenters have themselves endured poor presentations as audience members, business and conference norms encourage presenters to continue to present in the same ineffective ways as their peers.

Reynolds notes that traditional thinking about PowerPoint has been to treat it as “a kind of document-creation tool”. Instead, presenters should look to documentary films and comic books for a wider perspective on how to create effective presentations. Reynolds recasts the presentation as visual storytelling, and much of Presentation Zen sets out how to tell an effective visual story.

Presentation Zen looks, in turn, at the process of writing a presentation, how to craft messages and decide structure, presentation design, and presentation delivery. Although many business presentations are not delivered by those who wrote them, Presentation Zen is primarily aimed at those writing their own presentations. Less consideration is given to those compiling material for sales presentations to be delivered by an entire sales team, for example. For those delivering pre-written corporate material Presentation Zen will likely frustrate by merely illuminating corporate folly; this, of course, shows how effectively the book makes the case for visual presentations. For those in marketing or sales with responsibility for building slides to be delivered by entire teams and departments, the challenge with the Presentation Zen approach lies in creating visuals that guide and support a range of presenters to deliver core corporate messaging – where some of these presenters will need more ‘hand holding’ and visual support than others.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when preparing presentations is in “going digital” too early. In other words, many people simply type slide headings and bullet points directly into PowerPoint without ever stepping back to ask important questions about the audience or about their own objectives. Reynolds recommends “going analogue” – using paper and pen, whiteboards, or Post-Its to “brainstorm, explore ideas, make lists, and generally sketch out… ideas”. In this analogue stage, two of the most important questions to have in mind are “What is your core message?” and “Why does this matter?” As is all too obvious, many presentations are given without explicitly asking these questions. Following Reynold’s recommended approach encourages presenters to spend enough time preparing their presentations, and stops presenters getting ahead of themselves with slides before they even know what to say. Following this process will assist the vast majority of presenters.

The Presentation Zen approach is – as much as anything – about using visuals to support speakers, and about presenting these visuals in a simple and elegant manner. A typical Presentation Zen slide (if there is such a thing – hundreds are available to view at would be a stock photo image that ‘bleeds’ off the edge of the slide, together with a few words containing the essential message of the slide. Graphs are used – and presented in easy-to-read 2D formats. Quotes are presented attractively over full-slide images. Corporate templates are conspicuous by their absence – branding on each slide is considered unnecessary. For the most part, Presentation Zen slides appear to be static – with little use of animation. (Clearly, in a book, this will necessarily be the case – but there is limited talk in either the book or on the website about animations and builds.) The static nature of Presentation Zen slides, coupled with the use of explanatory text, means that – to an extent – these slides are self-explanatory.

Traditional slideware fails because too much is given away by the slide – making the presenter redundant. Yet some of the examples in Presentation Zen give the speaker too little support. If traditional slideware gives away too much (making the presenter redundant), Presentation Zen may go too far the other way – with very little core content supported visually. Further, some of the visuals that are produced suffer from being self-explanatory. The advantage of slides that don’t make sense on their own is that the audience find they want the presenter to make sense of the visual; self-explanatory slides disengage the audience.
To understand how the Presentation Zen approach works in practice, consider an example from page 133 of the book, where Reynolds shows a before-and-after treatment of a traditional slide. This slide is about blogging, and draws an analogy between blogs and sharks, arguing that just as sharks must keep moving to stay alive, blogs must be regularly updated with a predictable frequency if they are to be successful. The treatment of this material in the Presentation Zen style shows a full-slide image of a shark, with the tag-line “Blogs are like sharks”. The rest of the content is left for the speaker to convey. Yet while the visual may help the audience grasp the metaphor, the actual core material is not given any visual support. The audience may well remember that blogs are like sharks, but this will mean nothing if they do not understand or retain the core message – that blogs should be regularly and predictably updated. This is of course just a single example, but the point applies more generally. Where the Presentation Zen approach removes content into speaker notes and only provides visual support for the title of the old material, speakers can be left with a lot to do.

For exceptional speakers, a single large image on screen may be enough support. For the average sales person, delivering a corporate presentation day-in and day-out, it may be that a richer visual support is needed. Reynolds recognises that “if you need to explain something quite complex, then build (animate) the parts of your chart or diagram in steps in a way that is logical and clear”. But little detail on how to do this is given, even though in the corporate world an awful lot is indeed quite complex.

Perhaps this ‘static’ approach to visual support is indicative of a graphic design bias in the Presentation Zen approach? PowerPoint is capable of extensive animation; and subtle use of movement and builds can help convey meaning. Reynolds gives examples of documentary films and comics as great examples of visual communication. But films, of course, use animation. Another example Reynolds could have given was TV weather forecasts – where on-screen graphics and presenter synchronise elegantly to convey complex information.

Where Presentation Zen truly excels is in talking about design. This is not a PowerPoint (or Keynote) ‘How To’ book. What Presentation Zen does do is to make the case for effective design – by advocating the removal of the non-essential. By utilising strong visuals (such as stock photos), and with elegant layout that makes full use of white space, grouping, and alignment, Presentation Zen advocates an aesthetic that is attractive and effective. The temptation with PowerPoint is to add more, to each slide, and to each presentation. What Presentation Zen teaches perhaps most effectively is that simplicity is something to aspire to. Through use of photographs and plain text, this approach is also relatively accessible – meaning that individuals may be able to produce acceptable slides without professional support.

Presentation Zen is one of the most popular books about presentations on the market today, and it deserves that position as it is well written and informative. It presents an approach that will work for some material, and for some settings. A Presentation Zen approach will be immeasurably better than one written as a document within PowerPoint. But, the Presentation Zen approach still uses slides that are self-explanatory, and still fails to truly utilise the full capabilities of the medium – with animations and builds relatively absent.

Presentation Zen is an excellent approach for the individual, confident in his or her ability to talk around the subject with perhaps limited visual support. Where subject matter is more complex, or where speakers are more varied in their grasp of the material, visuals need to support the core material in a presentation, and not just help the audience remember the major content headings.

Share this page: