Do you ever get the feeling that your slides aren't quite making the grade? Have you ever been to an event and seen someone really good present, someone who has slides that are a bit different, slides that made you sit up and listen? Have you wondered how you could make the transition from 'boring, run-of-the mill' presenter to 'exciting, inspiring' presenter?
These were some of the questions running through my head on the train on the way back from the last conference I attended. I was not only fed up with my own presentations but fed up with everyone else's too! Some had felt like a waste of everyone's time! Yet services like Slideshare  have competitions for the best slideshow and there are often great entries…so how does someone like me do it?
Garr Reynold's Presentation Zen claims to offer the remedy; so I took a look.
An Approach, Not a Method
Reynolds starts off by setting us straight. Presentation Zen is not a step-by-step systematic process to good slides, it is an approach. Reynold's touches of Zen almost make it feel like a way of life. I must admit to a momentary feeling of disappointment. I had hoped that there would be 5 easy steps to brilliance, but then it dawns on me that my own bad slides have been 10 years in the making and I won't solve that in a day.
In response to the old adage "death by PowerPoint" Reynolds explains that it is not PowerPoint or any other slideware that is the problem, but the way it is being used. He makes the point that you are the presenter and that your slides should reinforce your words, not repeat them. His points beg the question "what about those who didn't attend the talk and want something to take away?" His answer is that we should ditch the slideument (slides + document) and create two separate documents: a slide presentation and a written document to accompany it. Presentation Zen focuses solely on the slide presentation that should be a backdrop to our talks.
The book is divided into 5 main sections: The introduction, followed by preparation, design, delivery and the next steps.
In his introduction Reynolds familiarises us with six fundamental aptitudes originally introduced in Daniel Pink's text A Whole New Mind. He applies these to the art of presentation:
- Design – Design starts at the beginning, not at the end.
- Story – Story can be facts, information data but a narrative always works well.
- Symphony – Time to see the relationships between relationships. This involves using unrelated bits of information to paint a big picture.
- Empathy – Empathy is emotional, it is how you relate to the audience.
- Play – Humour works.
- Meaning – This is your opportunity to make a small difference in the world.
He advocates that we start a new era with new thinking and open our mind to new ideas.
Preparation, preparation, preparation! Reynold's text, like many DIY handbooks, promotes the act of preparation. In this section he explores a number of different ways that we can stimulate our mind and find inspiration.
His most significant suggestion is that people do their planning 'analog', i.e. away from the PC. Holding a pen stimulates creativity and brainstorming should be done on paper. One approach might be to create a story board. Reynolds feels that 'alonetime' is fundamental in firing up inspiration.
One train of thought that Reynolds explores is the idea that constraints and limitations are powerful and often fundamental to creating good creative work. This notion of restrictions as liberators is exemplified through Pecha Kulcha, where each presenter is allowed 20 images, each shown for 20 seconds providing 6 minutes 40 seconds of talk time .
The focus by Reynolds on preparation is not unfounded. Spending time on the first stages of slide creation allows us to clarify the answer to the question 'what is my point?' and helps us to 'know our story'. It allows us to synthesise facts and give them context and perspective. The result, Reynolds argues, will be a conversation with our audience.
Throughout Presentation Zen Reynolds reiterates the need for simplicity. Simplicity equals clarity. It is linked to elegance and naturalness. Design is very much about subtraction. This need for simplicity leads on to the general design principles:
- Reduce the signal versus noise ratio – Take out irrelevant items including, if possible, organisational logos.
- Use good quality images – People remember visuals better than bullet points. Reynolds recommends a number of different stock photo suppliers.
- Empty space is good
- Contrast – Create dynamic differences.
- Repetition – Repeat selected elements in your presentation.
- Alignment – Use a grid to align objects successfully.
- Proximity – Ensure that related items are grouped together
These principles are illustrated by a number of high-quality visual examples. There are often before and after images and the difference small changes can make is impressive.
Although the book focuses primarily on the creation of good slides, assuming that if you are significantly involved in their creation then delivery should be unproblematic, it does also offer advice on delivery techniques.
The main recommendation is that if you are passionate and enthusiastic about your subject and allow yourself to be truly lost in the moment you will take your audience with you. Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, is hailed as the guru of presentations and many of his methods are discussed. Reynolds also offers advice on dealing with a hostile audience advocating that a presenter should remain natural, non-aggressive and in control at all times. He also explains that we all make mistakes and should not be frightened of doing so; if you want to improve your art this is a necessity. You must see yourself as permeable, not vulnerable, and allow yourself to try out new ideas.
Other suggestions include keeping the lights on, removing the lectern, using a remote mouse and giving much shorter presentations (leaving them hungry for more!).
The Next Steps
Reynolds closes with some pointers on the next steps in improving your presentation skills. He promotes extensive reading of books and online resources and offers many pointers to other experts in the field of design and creativity: Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, Kathy Sierra, Guy Kawasaki et al. It would be easy to end up with a full Christmas list of 'must read' texts but probably the most useful follow up source is Reynold's own blog . Other suggestions include joining the Toastmasters Association , exercising your right brain through creative activities and stepping out of your comfort zone. As the old saying goes 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.'
Presentation Zen is a great starting point for practitioners who are dissatisfied with their current slide creation techniques and presentation skills; but as Reynolds himself admits, it is only a first step. Making real changes in the slides you use will require research and commitment. For those of us working within an organisation it may quite possibly call for lobbying and culture change.
Taking the book at face value, as a source of inspiration and ideas rather than a step-by-step guide, I have only one real criticism. There were occasions when I felt Reynolds seemed slightly out of touch with the average working environment. Although he pointed out the benefits of constraints and limitations, he went on to make the proposition that if we put 25-30 hours into the creation of a slide presentation then we'd save other people that time too. I'm sure most of us could put together great slides in 3 working days but to expect most people to be able to free up that amount of time does seem a little unreasonable. Maybe he could offer a few more tips for those us who have to keep our logos on our slides, have to include sentences longer than six words and are expected to regurgitate other people's presentations at the drop of a hat! Some of the slightly arty approaches he suggests might not go down that well in the academic world, but then again who knows…I might just give it a go.
- Slideshare http://www.slideshare.net/
- Pecha Kucha Night http://www.pecha-kucha.org/
- Presentation Zen: Garr Reynolds blog http://www.presentationzen.com/
- Toastmaster Association http://www.toastmasters.org/