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Presentation Zen Design, Garr Reynolds April 16, 2012

Posted by Marina Shrago in Uncategorized.

Garr Reynolds is one of the leading authorities on presentation design and delivery, former corporate trainer for Sumimoto Electric and currently Associate Professor of Management at Kansai Gaidai University.   He draws on his experience of life in Japan for examples and metaphors throughout the book as well as for fascinating asides on things like Zen aesthetics, bento boxes and umbrellas.  His blog is at http://www.presentationzen.com/ and is very much worth reading regularly.

Presentation Zen Design is a “practice” follow-up volume to Presentation Zen “theory” volume that gives general concepts of good presentation design illustrated by slide examples.  Despite its practicality it is an inspiring book.  The author fully believes that every presentation has the potential to change the world for the better, and with that plank set it is psychologically difficult to just copy last year’s slides.  Despite the commonplaces, such as praise of Apple’s keynote speeches and overuse of the phrase “death by Power Point” it’s a very worthwhile read.

The Presentation Zen approach is to see that most existing presentations are “out-of-kilter” with how people actually learn and communicate.   However, if one deliberately designs a presentation with an aim to make it efficient and graceful (rather like a mathematical formula) it can make a striking difference both to the audience and to one’s career.  Although Presentation Zen says that there is not “an inflexible list of rules to be followed by all in the same way” there are some basics that will work well for most presentations and these are shown in Presentation Zen Design.  Like Presentation Zen this book also includes inserts from other recognized presentation design experts.   Unsurprisingly Presentation Zen Design sets the same general aim for presentations as Presentation Zen:

  1. Restraint in preparation
  2. Simplicity in design
  3. Naturalness in delivery

Presentation as a whole is taken to consist of three parts: the slides, the speech, and the take-away document (not necessarily a printout) with the details that frees the listener from the necessity of taking notes. Presentation Zen Design is concerned primarily with the slides, so need to convey data (as opposed to a story) is presumed to be minimal.   To make a slide set stronger and stickier it is made to be more like a rock garden.  However, a lot of attention is given to practicing the speech itself, merging it seamlessly with the visuals, and there are some useful descriptions of what should go into the take-away document.

The value-add of Presentation Zen Design are sections on color, type, data and video and more specific tips and tricks on things like use of white space or putting together a color scheme.   Emphasis is on creating powerful visuals.  Wherever possible an emotionally charged image is substituted for text.   This is explained by references to Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind.  Many slides used as examples are by Duarte Design and there is a side note by Nancy Duarte.  We are rapidly nearing the point where class reading circles its wagons and becomes self-referential.

Some of the tips are very basic (e. g. making sure size of the images within the same slide is balanced, making sure that the text can be easily associated with the image), yet too many people ignore or are ignorant of even the basics. Others, like correct text/image placing, may be basic, but were news to me.

I feel that Presentation Zen Design  is more useful than Presentation Zen because many of the ideas (especially in the section on color) can be used for everyday presentations as well as for strategic presentations, however, the main focus of both books are strategic, life-altering presentations and the author does not seem to recognize the existence of any other kind.  At times, I was stricken with a powerful desire to see the author give an annual financials presentation to the board of a medium-sized bank.  He would probably try to substitute a report.  Boards like to have someone on hand to present and answer questions.  Another example of an orientation away from everyday presentation is the author’s insistence on the use of professional stock photos.  I have yet to work in a company that provides a budget for purchasing professional stock photos to most employees for most presentations.  Of course, no one would consider illegally using copyrighted images.

That said, reviewing even everyday presentations from the Zen approach is an unusual experience.  Try designing a presentation with a clear and deliberate intent.  Ignore existing slides, charts, and the corporate color scheme, starting from scratch and using a sketch pad before you approach a computer.  Try making a set of slides without bullet points, with ample white space, with a conscious use of color and shape balance.  Try ruthlessly to exclude everything inconsequential and to add meaningful, thought-out elements, explaining to yourself the intent behind each inclusion. You may not succeed, but you will be forced to think about what you are trying to say in a new way, and this freshness of thought will transfer to your speech.



1. Suhani N Mehta - April 18, 2012

“You may not succeed, but you will be forced to think about what you are trying to say in a new way, and this freshness of thought will transfer to your speech.” True. But I wonder that especially when people who were not present at meetings are trying to cope up with what was discussed, how would they understand from those non-bulleted, empty, pictorial slides? If there are details on slides and key notes at the bottom explaining the slides, it is easy to convey the idea to those who don’t necessarily attend those meetings, and to those who wish to remember some time later what was discussed in the meeting.

For reasons such as these, I feel that powerpoints would still exist in the way they are today unless some one comes up with a *novel* application that lets us overcome these challenges. Hmmmm a good final project idea! 🙂

Marina Shrago - April 18, 2012

You are right, Suhani, they won’t understand anything 🙂 Which is why they would want to use the take-away document I mentioned above that contains numbers and charts and is an integral part of every presentation, rather than the slide deck.

2. jhpittman - April 18, 2012

Marina –

Glad to see there is some correlation between the things that the various writers are saying. While in some ways it looks a bit incestuous, in fact I believe Nancy, Garr, and others are practicing many of the design principles we have explored in class and applying them to visual communication.

— Jon

Marina Shrago - April 18, 2012

Well, it’s no more incestuous than the Ptolemaic dynasty and getting the views of other authors through the inserts in Garr’s books is a major time-saver.

3. Joyce Bao - April 19, 2012

Thanks Marina for the great review! I’ve actually followed Garr Reynold’s blog before and found some tips very very helpful. It’s great that you mentioned Presentation Zen Design is a more useful book than Presentation Zen itself and I definitely will take a look at that. I have a question regarding your point about one of Zen’s general aims for presentations, which is “restraint in preparation”. I noticed the discrepancy between this and Nancy Duarte’s emphasis on taking a great deal of time to prepare for presentations (36-90 hours). So what is Zen trying to say and what’s the benefit of that?

Marina Shrago - April 19, 2012

Thanks Joyce! I think this may be a vocabulary issue. However, “restraint” in this case doesn’t mean “constraints”. It means self-restraint, i. e. a conscious attempt to be laconic.

That being said, 90 hours is 11.25 work days without lunches or breaks or interruptions to do one’s main job (that, which one is presenting about). That’s two and a half weeks of doing just the one presentation. In my world that’s highly unlikely.
Garr Reynolds specifically mentions that there are always constraints, including time constraints, and one should learn to see them as aids to invention. He quotes John Maeda “In the field of design there is the belief that with more constraints, better solutions are revealed.”

4. Laura Brandner - April 23, 2012

Hi Marina – Thanks for the great review. I’m glad you mentioned the part about “other presentations” – e.g. things like technical design reviews or other presentations that are a bit more “boring” than a persuasive sales pitch or a motivational speech. I’m struggling with how to apply these techniques to basic, everyday presentations. Did the author address this at all or might anyone in the class have suggestions of where to get advice on this?

Marina Shrago - April 24, 2012

Hello Laura –
Some things (color, shape, balance) are relevant to all presentations (and, indeed, to all design), as is the deliberate approach, but I don’t believe the author is aware of the existence of mundane presentations.

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