Zen and the Art of Presentations

Aug 17 2010

“Our lives are frittered away by detail; simplify, simplify.”  - Henry David Thoreau

“Power corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”  - Edward Tufte

After 20 years in research, I have attended some terrible presentations; many of them given by me.  I hope I’ve learnt a few lessons along the way, and made some improvements in style, although I have a long way to go to achieve the standards of some of the best.  For a masterclass in presentation skills I recommend watching some of the TED talks which you can access at www.TED.com.

Much of the fault lies with Bill Gates and Microsoft for the invention of PowerPoint (although other software suffers the same problems, and let’s not forget that Steve Jobs and Apple actually sold PowerPoint to Microsoft).  I am sure it was invented for techies to present ideas to management, and it is definitely very presenter oriented, rather than focusing on the needs of audience or content.  Although used as standard in business and market research, it has the worst signal to noise ratio of any known method of communication.  I’m not sure what Bill is trying to communicate in the picture below, although his recent TED talk suggests that he may have read the same book as I did over the weekend, as he’s definitely upped his game!

Edward Tufte has a visceral dislike of PowerPoint which comes across clearly in his short article on the cognitive style of powerpoint.  Edward Tufte is the grandfather of data visualisation, and well known for his teaching on how to present data with great clarity and visual style.  He doesn’t believe PowerPoint is up to the job, especially when presenting dense information and numbers (so beware if you are a quantitative researcher!).  He argues that PowerPoint actually reduces the analytic quality of information, foreshortens evidence (and hence thinking), and has a low resolution versus paper-based (and other formats of) information.  Think of how big you need to set the fonts for people to read the slides (as Bill clearly hadn’t until recently).  He also argues, rightly, that the hierarchical and linear structure of the medium forces presenters to think in the same way, to the detriment of argument and interaction, as most ideas do not have such a simple structure (and humans think in non-linear maps and stories, not bullet points).  The problem he sees is that we are letting technology dictate the format and sequence of our ideas, which means that we lose the critical relationships that exist between those ideas.

He gives some clear examples, including a very funny PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the more serious impact of PowerPoint on the Columbia space shuttle disaster, where the use of PowerPoint within NASA served to underplay the seriousness of the loss of a small area of tile which provided thermal protection on re-entry.  Richard Feynman said during the subsequent review, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”  He could have been talking about PowerPoint.

On the lighter side, Edward Tufte recounts a story about Louis Gerstner’s first days at IBM.  He had asked for a briefing on the state of the business, and was subjected to the (then standard IBM practice of) a set of projected transparencies.  He stepped to the table and politely switched off the projector, and said, “Let’s just talk about your business”.  The story of this created a viral impact around the business, which Louis Gerstner describes as similar to that which would have happened if the US President had banned the use of English in White House meetings.

So is there any antidote apart from banning PowerPoint?  Much as I would like to, I don’t think it will happen, but Garr Reynolds has some great tips for improving presentations, making use of the benefits of PowerPoint and image projections, and adapting it’s style to better reflect that of our thinking.  In Presentation Zen, he explains how to make presentations clearer and more meaningful, by focusing on simplicity, restraint and naturalness in the preparation, design and delivery of presentations.

All the tips are designed to help focus on creating meaning and mindfulness (hence Zen) before the technology and software take over.  Garr Reynolds starts by discussing the six skills that Daniel Pink outlines in A Whole New Mind for successful professionals in the 21st century:

Design - to paraphrase Donald Norman’s words, “Design is an act of communication between you and the user … which can explain itself”.

Story - Mark Turner calls storytelling “narrative imagining”, using our brains which our wired to tell and receive stories (think of a presentation like a ‘show and tell’).

Symphony - seeing the big picture is vital to the success of any presentation in bringing all the pieces together so that your audience can see all the complex relationships which exist.

Empathy - in a presentation empathy means you should put yourself in the position of your audience (and that the audience should be able to do the same).  It’s important to notice when your audience ‘get it’ and to adjust to their reaction.

Play- humour and playfulness can really help to make points and help the audience see your point (as long as they are used in the right way).  Laughing people are more creative!  It will help make a presentation enjoyable and memorable too.

Meaning - presentations are all about sharing your ideas and expertise with others.  There is great meaning in making real connections with your audience.  (And as we’ll see later, connections are bound to happen if  you make sure that your presentation has meaning itself).

Presentation aptitudes by Garr Reynolds

“Failing to Prepare is Preparing to Fail”

As with most things in life, preparation is the most important part of the process.  In preparing, simplicity is critical in sifting and sorting your materials and this should be done BEFORE you touch your computer.  In fact, I strongly recommend that you switch your computer off, and do all your preparation on paper, so you avoid the bullet point trap (and can clearly see all your material from where you sit, which you cannot do on a computer). Ask yourself lots of questions about the presentation: How much time do I have? (plan to use less); What’s the venue like?; Who is the audience?  What are they expecting?  What is the story?

Above all, start by asking yourself, “What is my point?”.  Or perhaps better, “What is the single thing I would like my audience to remember from this presentation?”  That is, start with your end in mind, what do you want the audience to take away (because, as sad as it is, they will forget 95% of what you present even with a great presentation).

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” - Leonardo da Vinci

Focusing on your main message will help you to keep the presentation plan as simple as possible, while retaining the key message and content that you need to get across.  Try and make your main message as sticky as possible, and follow the rules of Make It Stick if it helps.  Find ways to communicate your idea which are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Stories (making your presentation a SUCCESs).  Simplicity is the most important - market researchers often forget that if everything is important, then ultimately nothing will seem important.  Reduce your message down to its core so you can focus on what is most important to your audience.  Typically that will mean eliminating 90% of the questions or discussion guide that the presentation is based on.  There is almost always something unexpected in any data set, and assuming you have talked to consumers then you should have concrete and credible information.  Emotions and stories will come from the individual consumer truths in your data and from your own creativity in finding a way to connect all your pieces together.

Presentation Zen recommends first brainstorming your ideas (perhaps with others), before working on structuring and sorting the key ideas and then preparing a story board (for example stick a series of post it notes on your desk in order).  All of this should be done before firing up your computer and starting to work with the slides themselves.

One very important reminder (which I often forget myself) is that there are three parts to a presentation: slides, notes and handouts.  Clients only see the slides during the presentation which should be amplifying (and not repeating) what you say.  However, you can use notes to help yourself remember your thoughts (and also to provide your audience with a record).

Handouts Can Set You Free

Handouts are a great way to share more detailed and dense information, and are a much, much better medium for sharing numbers if you need to during your presentation.  If you need to make detailed comparisons of numbers during the presentation, make a point on a slide and provide hand outs so that your audience can see the detail.  PowerPoint is very poor at presenting detailed numbers or even charts that require close reading, and your audience will learn much more from looking at the information on paper.  Handouts provide much more flexibility for you to focus on storytelling in the presentation, while providing concrete and credible data which the audience can view during or even after the presentation if they need to see the detail.  Remember that in any audience, some may want and need to see the detail, but others will not, and will appreciate your focus on key points (while others are kept happy with the data tables and charts).

Show restraint

It’s very easy to cram your presentation with everything you might need, but using notes and handouts will set you free to design your presentation with a clear focus, eliminating material which is not relevant to your main message.  When designing your slides, remember to restrain yourself at all times.  Also remember the “Picture superiority effect” - pictures will be remembered much better than anything else in your presentation.  So ask yourself if text or numbers can be replaced with a simple picture (and nothing else) which you can verbally explain from your notes.  Use empty space in charts as it will help the audience to take in your message more quickly - it’s simply not necessary to fill every space on the page!  That also applies to company logos too (the audience know who you and your company are anyway, and you can remind them at the start and end of the presentation).

Above all, restrain yourself so you can keep things simple.  Simplicity amplifies messages, while detail dilutes them.  (Would you rather watch a presentation by Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?)  Simplicity means subtracting not adding.  Try and maximise the signal to noise ratio on each slide (ie what is the key message vs what is superfluous).  This may mean stripping out a lot of the detail in charts and tables until you only focus on the key comparison which makes the point you need to make (remember again that you can put all the other detail in a separate handout).

Bullet points are to be avoided if at all possible - remember that we only use them because they’re in the template.  If you go out with your friends does anyone speak in bullet points?  Use a minimum of text, but try and retain a naturalness in your words (like your speech).  Bullet points work well to summarise key points, in between the main body of your presentation, but that is the only time they should be used.  If you have lots of things to say, then say them, and let your audience look at a relevant picture while you talk.

You can give a balanced feel to your slides by using space and asymmetric designs (notice that all the most interesting and pleasing photos do not have their subject in the middle of the picture).  Presentation Zen highlights four other themes to successful slide design.  Contrast (of colour, shape, line texture, size) helps your audience pick out the most important points (remember brains are built to look for differences in the landscape). Repetition also helps reinforce key points, but more importantly can help create a sense of unity in your overall design.  Not through a company logo though - there are plenty of imaginative ways to add some interest, while highlighting the key ideas in your presentation and reinforcing the message.  Alignment helps slides to look tidy, well designed and professional.  Finally, use proximity to help draw attention to the connection between pieces of information - for instance, a caption should be near the item it explains.  Ensure that everything in the slide serves a purpose and appears in the right place.

Do What Comes Naturally

If you have prepared throughly like this then your presentation itself will be easy and slick as you should be confident in your materials and your mastery of the presentation storyline.  However, it’s always good (and strongly recommended) to practice before you present for real.  When you are presenting, forget your worries and be yourself.  The best presenters are natural, even if not perfect in their style, they present in the same way that they talk with their friends.

I used to be a very nervous presenter (and still often am), but have found that I am most nervous when I have not prepared.  If you have prepared well, then you know your material better than your audience, and as long as you speak naturally and confidently, and have a clear message and engaging story, your audience will know it.  Speak as if you are having a conversation, and as with any conversation make it two way.  Interruptions and questions are not a problem if you are prepared with a clear message and thought process behind that message.  Above all, enjoy yourself.  You are centre stage and should make the most of it!

Stay simple and your presentation will flow naturally

Presenting is about making a connection with the audience.  If you have a sticky story, and clear and well designed material, then present with passion, and help your audience to feel the passion in your message.  Make sure that they can see you (don’t hide behind a lectern or in the dark).  70% of most human communication is in body language, more than 20% in tone of voice and less than 10% in words.  That’s why your passion, and well designed visuals, will help your audience take away much more than the words you speak.

In the spirit of Zen, keep it simple, restrained and natural and your presentation will be a great SUCCESs.


The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within by Edward R. Tufte (2006)

Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? by Louis V. Gerstner (2003)

Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds (2008)

A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink (2006)

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath (2007)

Marketing Research: Tools and Techniques by Nigel Bradley (2007)

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