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Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds April 18, 2011

Posted by Gabor Foldes in Uncategorized.
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Presentation Zen by Garr ReynoldsGarr Reynolds is an associate professor of management at Kansai Gaidai University where he teaches a number of courses, including presentation design. Garr lives in Osaka, Japan and as the title of his books gives it away, he frequently draws on concept and experiences originating from his adopted country. In his book, Presentation Zen, he outlines a more human approach to designing and delivering presentations that are engaging and memorable. It is important that it is an approach, not a specific list or guide, to creating visual aids for presentations. Accordingly, Presentation Zen contains a series of concepts, insights and examples for creating presentations that contain the appropriate content arranged in an efficient, graceful manner without superfluous decoration.

Garr claims that unfortunately the opposite, the “death by PowerPoint” has become the norm. The issue is not with the tools but with bad habits. Presentations we learned to create tend to be overbearing and often are a mere projection of the words spoken. The result often adds little to the talk, instead it ends up being distracting. That does not mean that they might not be right for certain types of presentations, such as a technical talk or when the presentation serves as a printed reference to a discussion. However, Garr cites Daniel Pink in claiming the in today’s “conceptual age,” good presenters have to engage the audiences left brain and right brain at the same time. Live talks enhanced by multimedia are always about storytelling and much more than the reading of a paper document.

Presentation Zen proposes a break with the slideware habit, and proposes a creative approach. The guiding principles are simplicity, clarity and brevity. Without aiming to provide a full list, below are some of the concepts Garr advocates.

Be creative. To induce your creativity, start with simple tools, such as paper, a whiteboard, post-its or even a stick in the sand, not with templates. Slow down to think about the big picture.

Focus on the right questions. Who is your audience? Why ware you asked to speak? What do you want them to do? What is the story? And most importantly: if the audience could remember only one thing after your presentation, what do you want it to be? What is your point and why does it matter?

Strive for simplicity. Separate your presentation into three parts: the slides your audience will see, notes only you will see and handouts. This way you can collect all the information but will not feel compelled to cram everything on your slides. Have a process: first, brainstorm. Second, group your ideas and identify the core, central theme. Three, storyboard off the computer using post-its. Fourth, use software to lay out the structure. Show restraint throughout the process, bring everything back to the central message. Simplicity is not simple and is achieved through the careful reduction of the nonessential, when designing think “subtract”, not “add.”

Design is not about decoration but making communication easy and clear. Therefore, minimize text, use bullet points rarely, find a picture that can tell the same story instead. Use the four main principles: contrast to highlight strong differences, repetition to give your slides unity and organization, alignment to create the sense of connection on your slide, and proximity to group related ideas together.

Presentation Zen is more of a learn-by-example book than a text to be followed word by word, although it does represent an overarching philosophy of how presentations should be created. I have two main criticisms of the approach. One is that contrary to the stated aim of creating “whole brained” presentations, the techniques focus very heavily on the “right brain.” Given that the slides are simplified down to the bare minimum, the resulting presentation only works in the presence of an exceptional motivational speaker who can efficiently create the corresponding metaphors in the mind of the audience. My second criticism is that by trying to avoid words and clutter, many of the examples go a little too far and produce something I would call kitsch, the reproduction of some popular images to represent something unrelated.

Overall, Presentation Zen is a collection of some great insights into designing effective presentations and anyone giving a live talk should ignore the concepts at their own peril.