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A picture is worth how many words? December 10, 2009

Posted by Graham Pingree in Presentation Zen.
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Garr Reynolds tackles the subject of PowerPoint in his book, and introduces an approach (distinguished from a process or methodology, which tend to follow more strictly delineated steps and guidelines) to creating better presentations. While I found the use of Zen as a referent and framework a little kitschy and contrived, I found several useful messages in Reynolds’ writings, the most potent of which I make note of below:

  1. He begins by noting that PPT presentations are distinct from documents, and meant to be visual signposts accompanying and underscoring the major points of a talk. He insists that the slides of a presentation should not be distributed to the audience, as their meaning is necessarily derived from the words that the presenter uses to tell his/her story. In the event of a particularly data-rich presentation, Reynolds suggests leaving behind a document of charts/graphs/text, but notes that PPT isn’t the ideal option for building such a stand-alone piece.
  2. He suggests the creative process of framing and mapping the presentation should be performed completely away from a computer (“going analogue”), in a solitary environment if possible. I found the practice of building a deck using paper and pen was liberating, even though my end-product reminded me of the scribbling of schizophrenic John Nash (Russell Crowe) in A Beautiful Mind. I found the solitude Reynolds recommends was consistent with the incubation period described in Design Thinking, allowing time to ruminate on what’s effective and what’s not.
  3. Reynolds continually returns to the idea of restraint and simplicity as keys to engaging presentations. He suggested the presenter should constantly return to the central question: “What’s my point? Why does it matter?” I found a rigorous focus on the central theme helped me eliminate extraneous material, streamlining my thoughts and better capturing the major point of my presentation.
  4. He mentioned a few stylistic suggestions for actual slide layout that I found helpful – most were fairly intuitive, but a useful reminder when preparing a presentation:
    1. Contrast is crucial, be sure the different elements of your slide are visually distinct
    2. Repetition is OK, and helps focus on the audience on the most important points
    3. Empty space is good when used appropriately
    4. Connecting with the audience is key, so anecdotes and stories are very powerful
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