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Visualization & Presentation

We’re reading some of these books on visualization & presentations in class. We’d love to know of other books that you are reading that belong on our list.  Please share your thoughts on books you have read as well.


1. Katie Swinerton - September 19, 2009

Checking out the books from our Visualization and Presentation list on Amazon, I was immediately attracted to Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. “Garr is a beacon of hope for frustrated audiences everywhere” – that is me! Between undergrad, my career, and now, ahem grad school, I have suffered through many bad PowerPoint presentations. Any ray of hope was something to go on.

Reynolds goes through how to prepare for a presentation, how to plan and craft a story, how to make slides that have a “zen” aesthetic and how to effectively deliver a presentation. I highly recommend reading this book – it has already started to change the way I make presentations. The tough part is that his recommendations really challenge the status quo. As a former consultant, it is hard for me to fathom doing a slide deck with a maximum of 6 words of text per slide. Fortunately, I am in a relatively safe environment (the business school bubble) right now that just so happens to demand presentations weekly, so I plan to experiment with his style a bit. It will be very interesting to see if I can continue to do presentations that go over rigorous content without lapsing into the standard, cluttered and bullet heavy presentations that we are all so used to.

Instead of continuing on with my reaction to the book, I think the most useful thing I can do is share some of the tips that I have picked up from the book:
1. Keep slides simple: slides should complement what you are saying, not repeat verbatim what you are saying. You are the star of the show – not the slides! Think about using very simple text and lots of images and white space.
2. Use handouts: instead of making your presentation data heavy, include the necessary facts in your talk and in a takeaway handout. That way, everyone gets the information they need, but they absorb it first by hearing you say it, and get the visual and details later. The handout should be what you send out after your presentation (not your slides), and it should contain highlights and explanations of your presentation.
3. Kill bullets: bullets are boring for the audience and for the presenter. They also lend themselves to being read directly which is a big no-no. Reynolds argues that the best slides have no text at all.
4. Use real photos: Clip art should generally be avoided. People have seen it before and it undermines your efforts to make a real connection with people. Instead, use high quality photos of real people and things as often as possible – these are much easier to connect with and to remember. Some good sources of photos are: istockphoto.com and flick.com/creativecommons. You can always take pictures yourself with a digital camera.
5. Use zen principles for slide design: contrast, repetition, alignment, empty space, proximity, and balance can make your slides much more compelling.
6. Deliberate delivery: Keep the lights on in the room so people can see you and you can connect. Use a remote so you are not tied to a lectern or reading your slides. Incorporate storytelling and humor into your words.
Two videos worth watching are: Reynolds at Google doing a presentation on presentation zen and a Ted talk by Dr. Jill Taylor, a brain scientist, about her experience having and recovering from a stroke. Both show presentation zen in action, at its best.

2. Mili Mittal - September 20, 2009

Back of the Napkin ~ a classic case of choosing a book by its cover. When I picked this up I was super excited: the book claimed it would teach me to use visualization to communicate and potentially to solve any problem I ever faced. Sounds great. Roam took me on a journey through ‘looking,’ ‘seeing,’ ‘imagining,’ ‘showing,’ on another path through the ‘who/what, how much, when, where, why, and how’ of visualization, and down a few other paths with a few other tools, but at the end of it all, I can’t say that I discovered how to see or show any better than I did before. For example, when Roam asked me to close my eyes and imagine a dog, bird, a couple with a baby carriage, and so on, to prove that my brain has the ability to see and differentiate between the ‘who/what, how much, when, where, how and why’ of a scene, I felt I was supposed to be blown away. I wasn’t. At numerous points after Roam introduced his tools I felt the same way: underwhelmed. So, at the end of book 1, I am wishing I had chosen by something other than the cover. Hopefully books 2 and 3 will do more for me.

3. Sehoon - September 20, 2009

“The Back of the Napkin”.

It needs to be noted that this book is about “visual thinking” rather than “visual communication”. The author tries to ground this term, visual thinking, by emphasizing that “looking” and “seeing”, in his own meaning, should come ahead of “imagining” and “showing”. In other words, the well-structured process of understanding and defining problems determines the quality of solving and presenting them.

For better understanding and defining problems, he proposes rather un-fancy framework of 6Ws, who/what, how, when, where, etc. However, the true essence of this book seemed to lie in how this 6W-based understanding can be effectively and efficiently translated into solving and communicating the solutions.

His framework of ” model” matched with “SQVID framework” are coherently linked with6Ws. Therefore, these connection of frameworks provide a simple, comprehensive and efficient ways of defining, solving and communicating problems with the aid of visual elements.

One concern is that although 6W-based problem definition framework look simple and easy to execute, it will require lots of experiences and good intuition to really come up with meaningful sub-questions and answers. At this level, the questions and answers may not simply be grouped as 6Ws, causing 6W lose its role as a framework.

4. Emily Lin - September 20, 2009

Below are some reflections about what I’ve read of the book: “slid:ology” by Nancy Duarte.
The book not only provides technical tips to improve the presentation development skills, but also a fundamental paradigm shift of what IS an impactful presentation. It requires a different mindset and devotion of time and focus. A great presentation can influence millions of people, especially in this internet age.
The presentation slides we are referring to is the visual aid that helps the audience to comprehend what the presenter is talking about. The powerpoint or flip-chart is NOT the presentation itself, but only a means. “Audiences can’t see and listen at the same time.” Often times we spend most of our efforts in developing the slides but forget that we – the presenters themselves – should be the focus. We should put emphasis on the points we want to deliver, rehearse, and create a presentation slides that help, not hinder, the messages.
“Treat your audiences as kings! They come to see what you can do for you, not you.” As all communication, understanding your audience is the first key to successful communication. Before starting to create slides, we should spend time thinking of who we will be talking to, what they want, and what is the best way to communicate. Sometimes creating a document to read is more effective than delivering a presentation. Often times we mix documents with slides by putting too much text and visual-unfriendly materials.
Less is more – this especially applies to visual communication. To deliver a clear message, there should be only one message per slide, and no more than three layers of concepts on a single slide. We often pack multiple concepts on a slide and thus create a dense but confusing image. The book provides several vivid examples of how to transform from a document-type slide into presentation-type slide. Simplicity applies to all information including concepts, text, data, images, colors and photos. “Think as a designer, not a decorator.” Useless and inconsistent information is noisy and distracting.
“Be prepared to be powerless.”- the book warns us at the very end. Again, the presenter should be the focus, not the slides. If things go wrong and slides can’t be projected, the presenter should still have the confidence and means to deliver his/her messages successfully. With this end in mind, the amount of time and focus spent on the messages and rehearsals would not be under-estimated. “The amount of time required to develop a presentation is directly proportional to how high the stakes are.”

5. Sean Simplicio - September 20, 2009

Charles Mingus, the great jazz bassist and bandleader, has a great quote about creativity: “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.” He reminds us that less is more; but he doesn’t say that it’s easy to do. But there’s hope for those of us non-geniuses out there.

It’s precisely that hope that designer Bill Buxton attempts to explore in his book “Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design.” Buxton exhorts those who participate in a design process to spend enough time at the beginning of that process to allow for creative ideas to come to the surface. Sketching, he argues, is a useful tool to allow such ideas to flow—both generative and reductive ideas—given that the very form of a “sketch” is informal enough to invite criticism, simple enough to be easily adapted, and cheap enough that it can be scrapped with no hesitation.

The book is many things, but Buxton is clear about what it isn’t. It isn’t a book with practical “how-to” tools on sketching (somewhat misleading from the title). There are no tutorials about how one with no artistic ability might begin to sketch out a process or a new product. Fear not: the good news is you don’t need any! The book is essentially a “state of mind” piece: a set of principles (followed up by myriad real-world examples) that allow design teams to help generate good ideas and involve users in the design process.

Essentially, sketching is more about capturing the experience of user interaction with a product, and less about the product itself. Learning how people would actually use a product is paramount. Buxton takes great pains to communicate that this type of user involvement must happen in such a way as to promote honest feedback. It is key, therefore, that a proposed design not look too “finished” so as to imply a lack of interest in significant feedback. That’s where the sketch comes in.

A sketch should invite criticism due to its ambiguous nature, and only suggest an idea instead of dictating a solution. Sketches can be made easily, quickly, and cheaply, and have a fluidity and openness with minimal detail so as to invite whimsy and creative thinking. These attributes enhance participatory creation—the foundation upon which successful designs are built. And sketches don’t have to come only in the form of drawings on paper. A sketch can be a physical mock-up, a video of a user interaction, a photo montage, etc. We’re only limited by our creativity.

This is definitely a thought-provoking book. It’s clear that Buxton (a researcher at Microsoft) has mostly interactive technologies in mind as he’s writing the book, but he does a really good job of incorporating many product types into the book to make it relevant for multiple disciplines. But it is predominantly principles-based. And, to my delight, he’s quoted (or coined) some great aphorisms that I would like to share with you:

“A problem properly represented is largely solved.”
This is the biggest rationale for sketching: getting ideas on the table early allows the bad ones to be thrown away early, instead of fixed (at a high cost) later.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
A corollary to the above: sketching allows so many ideas to be generated that you’ll likely anticipate a variety of possibilities that you hadn’t before.

“The future is already here…it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
An interesting insight about product development—essentially that everything that’s being introduced now has been around for a while. So, when approaching creating a sketch of a product, you might be able to create a simple model with materials you already have (or processes you already know).

“Success every time implies that one’s objectives are not challenging enough.”
This is a variant of the “fail early, fail often” mantra that you no doubt have heard. Apparently designers are a little better about dealing with failure than most of the rest of us. It’s not just a professional hazard for them—in some cases, it’s a professional requirement. Failed ideas (or ideas that don’t stand up to criticism) are necessary to help you advance toward those ideas that will succeed. Embrace it.

6. Pau Min - September 20, 2009

Having worked in consulting for several years, the process of selecting appropriate tools to visualize and present volumes of data in a simple and communicable way became a natural part of daily work. I stopped thinking hard about it and relied mostly on existing templates, previously used visuals and slides. However, reading Dan Roam’s “Back of Napkin” provided me with two fresh insights.

Firstly, Dan extends the usage of visualization beyond the typical presentation and communication process, and instead made it central to the problem-solving process itself. He proposes that any business issue can be broken down into 6 basic questions: Who/what, How much, When, Where, How and Why. Using these 6 lenses, we can then decide on the most appropriate visual tool that best represents the information we have, helping us to look beyond the numbers, see and recognize trends and imagine the underlying forces at work. This eventually leads us to either a set of deeper probing questions, or a likely solution for the issue at hand.

Secondly, Dan provided a simple yet elegant and structured framework to encapsulate the entire visual thinking and presenting process. The same six lenses that we have used to inspect problems can also be used to project the solutions and ideas. Adding to that, Dan introduces the SQVID technique that guides us through the delicate tradeoffs involved in customizing visuals to the needs of specific audience groups.

I must admit that Dan’s framework is not a ‘cure all’ solution. It merely provides a guideline, a starting point for us to think on our feet (or rather hands), throw some ideas in the air (drawing board in this case) and kickstart the discussion. Getting to the right solution still requires application of the inquisitive mind, collection of past experiences, strong analytics, all of which cannot be replaced simply by a visual thinking framework.

7. Christine Mucker - September 20, 2009

The Back of the Napkin – Dan Roam

This is a book about ‘solving problems and selling ideas with pictures’. The funny thing… the book is comprised of 90% words.

I would love to be able to move away from my natural inclination of conveying ideas with numbers, tables and bullet points. Simplified pictorial representations can be so much more powerful. The problem is – I still don’t know how change from quantitative to qualitative and retain the whole story.

This book has gotten me thinking… How can I improve my ability? What should I consider when trying to create a meaningful presentation? If nothing else, the book has made me search for alternate methods of communication. One idea in the book that inspired me – ‘Push visual ideas by finding multiple ways to show the same thing’. However, it’s the HOW do I show something multiple ways that still has me stumped. Maybe I haven’t quite gotten there yet.

I must admit, I’m still not completely finished with the book. It started off in my bag and I’d read it on the bus and at school… then it landed on my nightstand for the before the lights go out reading time. Now it’s relegated to the bathroom. It’s losing ground in my reading heirarchy.

I’ll keep you posted if, during it’s reign in the loo, any more meaningful insights are revealed.

8. Roshan - September 21, 2009

Slideology connected with me because it bridged my past career in consulting with my side project, helping to launch a graphic design start-up.

Slideology lays out some of the basic concepts of graphic design: size, color, gridlines, whitespace, typeface, etc. but then tries to convince Powerpoint users to think more like a designer when approaching a presentation.

The book started by encouraging people to start with pens, pencils, and paper and draw out the ideas that will form a presentation. Diving right into Powerpoint is not an effective way to stimulate creativity and create new ideas. It reinforced the idea of mindmaps, affinity diagrams, and sketching.

The most compelling part of the book for me was the data section, where the key message was about communicating the ‘so what’ behind the data more than the data itself. The natural tendency to create a graph and add more data to it is usually wrong and clutters up the message. People don’t need all the data, they need to know why they should care.

Overall, a good read. One and a half thumbs up.

9. Nii Sai Sai - September 21, 2009

Look See Imagine Show! Who/What Where When How/How Much Why? These are all part of our lives on a daily basis, but we do not know how they fit into a structured approach to problem-solving. Dan Roam does a great job of explaining how to use tools we already have to solve problems. The first big revelation for me was about my own comfort level with using pictures as tools for solving problems. I always thought my drawing skills were just average, but quickly realized that those skills could be a big part of my problem-solving toolkit going forward. The book provided me with a way to embrace visual thinking based on my personal ability to actually capture ideas using pictures.
The idea of using ‘active looking’ as the starting point to tackling a problem echoes a key observation mentioned in class about effective design thinking . . . identifying the problem or need accurately. Given the overload of tools, frameworks, best practices, etc. that we receive in school, our instinct is often to role up our sleeves and dive right into the fun of developing a solution to a problem presented to us. However, it is only when we can accurately pinpoint the problem that we greatly improve our chances of coming up with a solution which actually addresses the issues at hand.
In today’s world, information overload is a real problem. That makes is much more critical that we can look at a sea of data, identify very quickly what is there, notice patterns and groupings, and then figure out how to connect the knowledge we’ve gathered to the problem we’re trying to solve. That sounds much easier that is really is, but it is undeniable that if we can present the ‘story’ of the problem visually, we can convey the key messages to people much quicker and get everyone on the same page. Pictures are equally effective in showing people what the solution.
The 6 W’s that Dan Roam talks about really help in getting to the heart of an issue. As I mentioned earlier, most MBAs like to solve problems, right away. Taking a step back to first work through the who/what, where, when, how, how much, and why, helps provide clarity and direction. These questions can usually be answered using visual thinking techniques. The process of sifting through data to answer these questions could be tedious, but then the ‘aha’ moments along the way culminate in an end product which draws the biggest ‘aha’ because it hits the bull’s eye.

10. James Bender - September 21, 2009

This past weekend I read Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences. A fantastic book, it took me on a thinking journey through avalanches, tribal norwegian navigation, ipod development, trek top fuel mountain bike design, the wizard of OZ, and convergent vs divergent thinking. I enjoyed the manner in which Buxton used historical quotes and relevant products to help me better understand effective design. In a sentence, iteration and pencil on paper design produce amazingly fruitful results. Buxton is not afraid to pound his chest claiming that few can design in the way that he can. But by the end of the read, one starts to believe him.

My takeaways are that design can be hard and is paramount to the success of products and processes. Attempting to design solutions before the problem has truly been defined will cause headaches. However, taking the time to sketch the entire process will pay dividends in cost savings and quality. Moreover, truly understanding the challenge is usually the greatest design deliverance.

Lastly, the most important takeaway: simple is beautiful. So, make your blog entries short. 6 words on a power-point slide are more powerful. Brevity is next to Godliness.

11. Hannah Davies - September 21, 2009

The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam

“Visual thinking is an extraordinarily powerful way to solve problems, and though it may appear to be something new, the fact is that we already know how to do it.”

Comforting words indeed to someone as drawing-illiterate as me! The whole idea behind this book is that not only is it more effective to convey ideas and solve problems using pictures rather than words, it’s also easier. OK… I have to confess to more than a little skepticism when I started this book. I could happily buy the first bit. But, really – easier to draw than write? Yeah, right…

This book did not, by any stretch of the (un-visual) imagination, provide an epiphany of creative discovery. To be honest, I really can’t see it even changing my business presentations from the traditional PowerPoint deck to a new, funky back-of-the-napkin style (I am an MBA student, after all). What it did do, though, was provide a really interesting, useful, simple framework for tackling and communicating about problems from different perspectives, which I can definitely see myself using in both a business and non-business context.

The basic premise is that you should use three in-built tools to solve problems: our eyes, our mind’s eye or imagination, and our hand-eye coordination. Using this process helps us to really ‘see’ all aspects of a problem in a more holistic way, which makes it easier for us to find the right solution. The book takes you through a step-by-step process to doing this effectively, using six fundamental questions to guide the ‘seeing’ process (see the toolbox on the Wiki for a summary of the process). It also gives examples, techniques and lots of practice problems to help you get started. Plus, as you’d expect, it’s full of great illustrations!

Visual thinking is not something that feels familiar or easy (the main reason I chose the book). And whilst the Back of the Napkin hasn’t magically turned me into a great artist or superb visual thinker, it does offer a very simple, intuitive and clear framework to follow which I believe, with plenty of practice, really will help me to improve my problem-solving and presenting skills. I’d definitely recommend it.

12. Alison Zander - September 21, 2009

Dan Roam’s book, The Back of the Napkin addresses how to solve problems and sell ideas with pictures. I am a quantitative thinker and I do not instinctively draw pictures to convey my ideas visually. This book definitely encouraged me to draw ideas out. I’ve experimented with drawing, and I now know that I can draw well enough to convey my ideas to others and that in some settings drawings can be more impactful. I don’t know if I will ever be the “black pen” person that can’t wait to get in front of a whiteboard with a marker, but the book has encouraged me pick up the marker and draw.

This book also described frameworks to use when approaching visual thinking. Although the frameworks offered were great thought starters, the images the book used as examples are already used in business to communicate ideas. I think the book brought to light a fresh approach to problem solve and sell ideas through free-hand drawings, but the way that it was presented gave me the impression that I was going to learn some break through ways to be more effective. I think this book will help me draw ideas rather than listing them especially in brainstorming sessions, but I didn’t really get a new perspective from this book and I found myself wishing I had picked something else.

13. Ornwassa Siamseranee - September 21, 2009

Slide: ology

As a business professional and an MBA student, I am very familiar with PowerPoint. Most of my business interaction involves PowerPoint, and my roles range from being a listener to a presenter, as well as everything in between, such as an editor of others’ presentation, a preparer of the presentation for others to deliver, and a presenter of a presentation prepared by others.

I have used PowerPoint since I was in college, which has now been over 8 years. Over the years, I have developed my own style in preparing the presentation based on adoption of some best practices I saw in others’ presentations. Being a career switcher from accounting to marketing, I am still attracted to details and organizations of things. So, my presentation normally contains a lot of boxes and frames, with moderate level of text. To add some interesting aspects to my presentation, I rely on color choices, images, and animations. My presentation often receives compliments for its neatness and its easiness to understand and follow. Therefore, during the last 4 years, I found myself using this same style over and over. My friends would recognize my slides and know that this is my style.

Reading through this book last week, I found many interesting tips and techniques that I thought I could use in preparing my next slides. Two days later, I had to prepare presentation for a class. After working on it for a while, I reviewed my slides and just realized that it was still in “my style”. Although I recognized the usefulness of the book and made up my mind that I would apply the concepts, I still ended up with my same old slides.

Why is it so difficult to break out from what we used to do and what we are comfortable with? Is it just me, or does this happen to everybody else? Or the fact that I have established my own style means that I have passed the experimenting stage? What should I do to always keep my mindset in the experimenting stage?

14. Graham Pingree - September 22, 2009

Presentation Zen

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:
a. Contrast is crucial, be sure the different elements of your slide are visually distinct
b. Repetition is OK, and helps focus on the audience on the most important points
c. Empty space is good when used appropriately
d. Connecting with the audience is key, so anecdotes and stories are very powerful

15. Emmanuel de Garsignies - September 22, 2009

“Presentation Zen”: less is more in presentation

This book offers an approach to prepare, structure and deliver successful presentations. I found the approach convincing in that it is applicable to most environments and builds on PowerPoint shortfalls, rather than ditching this tool.

The cause of the current “death by PowerPoint” status is well known to most of the users of this successful software: we are making it more than its original purpose of an assistant to produce visual supports for presentations. Slides are becoming more crowded as we use it as a memo or when we decide to squeeze some extra information, just in case.

The first step of working “off-the computer” does not really come as a surprise to presenters who experienced how much more time consuming it is to work on a structure after having built it electronically. But the tactical suggestions behind the recommended 4-step approach (1) brainstorming, 2) identifying the core message by grouping the ideas, 3) creating the storyline using post it or printing blank slides and finally 4) storyboarding using the slide sorter view of PowerPoint) come handy. I am curious to see if sketching the slides from blank PowerPoint notes helps boost agreement within a team.

Where the book really made a difference to me is in providing very tactical guidelines in the second step, that of designing the actual visual support. Multiple designing ideas are offered to make the support emotional and free of unnecessary information, i.e. really zen. I look forward to see the impact of banning 2-D charts and logos, maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio, as well as applying the rule of the thirds that I use often in photography to my slides (placing the important subjects at one of the 4 crossing points made by 4 intersecting lines).

However, I don’t believe the recommended approach of using a combination of 3 documents can work for any presentation (zen slides, speaker notes and handouts to be given at the end of the presentation). My experience in corporate setups is that the audience can be using the slides to validate a quantitative argument, and would still need at times a visual access to the information.

16. Katie Brown - July 19, 2010

I am new to the web site and wanted to share a little bit about myself. My favorite book regarding business and a new way of thinking about the future of economics this year was The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker. I have been practicing commercial real estate sales for 7 years and I’m 25 years old and found this book to be a mind opening idea generating read.

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