Month: October 2012

3 Lessons from Presentation Zen

By: Christine Lai

“Today, literacy is not only about reading and writing – which are necessary – but also about understanding visual communication. We need a higher degree of visual literacy and an understanding of the great power that imagery has for conveying important messages.” – Garr Reynolds

When I picked up Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, I thought I’d be reading about how to design and deliver great presentations. Reynolds does readily relay his insight into the pillars of great presentations with amazing elegance and focus. However, his message of practicing the Zen mindset gives his writing a soul that sets it apart from the rest.

Take a chance - Goldfish jumping out of fish bowlPresentation Zen is beautifully organized, as Reynolds advocates for all presentations. He breaks the book down to preparation, design, and delivery, with key points summarized at the end of each chapter. Examples of poorly design slides set next to brilliantly improved ones distinctly show how simple changes can make huge differences in your visuals. Colors, graphics, and quotes are strategically placed to break up text and clarify his points. Not only was it a pleasure to read, but it was art to admire as well.

I had many aha moments throughout the book. However, the three main messages that stuck with me are –

  1. Take an emotional approach. The common pitfall in presentations is the coldness of facts, statistics, and numbers on a slide. Humans are fundamentally emotional beings who love stories. We remember stories that carry emotion because they resonate with us. So make sure you use the PUNCH – make it personal, unexpected, novel, challenging, and humorous.
  2. Practice visual storytelling. Images are emotional. Choose simple yet impactful graphics in your presentation to complement your story. Images should fill up the entire screen with key words or quotes overlaid to emphasize the message. Remove extraneous headers and footers that detract from storytelling. In other words, you should be telling the story – the audience should not be reading off the slide.
  3. Always think about the audience. Presenters often recycle presentations. They don’t take the time to understand who the audience is. When you don’t, the audience stops listening. Not only are you wasting your time, but the hours of each individual falling asleep to your presentation. Presenters also make the mistake of making it about themselves. Remove irrelevant details and “fun facts.” They might make you feel better about yourself, but it’s not about you. It’s about the audience and what you can contribute – be it 10 minutes or 2 hours.

You could categorize Presentation Zen as a business self-help or how-to book. However, Reynolds distills a truth and wisdom that opens the door to a new lifestyle and philosophy. He inspires not only presentations of quality and clarity, but also self-reflection and contemplation of how you can create your own visual style. As Orson Welles said, “Let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others.”


Publication Date: January 8, 2004; December 18, 2011 (second edition)
Over 200 reviews with 4.5 start ratings on

Garr Reynolds is a highly sought after expert on design, branding, and effective corporate communications. Reynolds draws on extensive experience on visual design and presentations as former Manager of Worldwide User Group Relations at Apple Computer in the U.S. and Japan. With the success of Presentation Zen, Reynolds has published subsequent books and blogs on presentation best practices and tips.

Other Resources

7 Tips in Choosing the Right Graduate Class (and Getting the Most Out of It)

By: Christine Lai

“We have to choose between what is right, and what is easy.” ― J.K. Rowling

As I’m navigating through the graduate school process, I was quickly overwhelmed with the number of choices for classes that are offered. Should I take a class in technology entrepreneurship? I want to start my business someday so that may be helpful. How about a social media class? Learning how to use Twitter from professionals will be helpful for my career. But are there are classes I should take first – perhaps required classes?

Graduate School TextbooksFor graduate students, school is one of our many priorities. Work responsibilities and family life also take up our already limited time. So how do we make the most of graduate school once we’ve been accepted? Is it different from how we chose and attended classes in undergrad? Here are a couple of tips for choosing the right classes and getting the most value out of your time and money.

Why does choosing the right graduate classes matter?

Employers are not looking for those who just check the graduate school box. You need something to show for it. That translates into taking the right classes that (1) furthers your skills and (2) expands your network. Your graduate classes should be strategic in furthering your career or your life goals.

What are some common pitfalls when choosing graduate classes?

Common pitfalls fall under bad content, structure, and network, which I’ll discuss later. The two most common mistakes students make when choosing graduate classes are:

  • Taking classes in subjects you’re not interested in. If you are not interested in the subject – ask yourself, are you in the right program? You are paying for the class in money AND time. If it’s a required course for the program, weigh your investment in the program and the value you get out of it. If you take one class that is less than useful, but 9 great ones – so be it. If half of the classes you are taking are irrelevant, then why are you in the program in the first place?
  • Taking a badly structured class. In graduate school, you should be learning from not only the assigned material, but also from your instructor AND your peers. If the course does not allow you to tap into your classmates’ diverse knowledge and experiences, is it worth taking? If you’re just learning the material in the book, would you get a similar learning experience without spending that extra money for the class itself? If it’s a required class, is there a way to get to know your classmates – perhaps meeting them outside the class or during a happy hour?

So how do I figure out which graduate classes I should be taking?

When you’re looking at list of classes, examine at the syllabus and research the professor. Shop around for classes during the first week. When you are evaluating these classes, think about these questions.

  1. Find a class with good content. Will this class teach me a useful skill or give me knowledge in an area that is helpful for my career or life goal?
  2. Make sure the class is well-structured. Is this class structured well to optimize learning? In other words, are the assignments useful? Will the class incorporate engaging discussions?
  3. Check if the class is taught by a knowledgeable instructor. Is this class taught by someone who is respected in this field? Does the professor facilitate discussion?
  4. See if you can learn from your peers. Does the class have engaging and knowledgeable fellow classmates? Can you learn from them?

If you answer is “no” to 2 or more out of the 4 questions, reconsider taking the class. Think about how much you will learn if the professor isn’t knowledgeable and reads straight off the textbook. Think about how much you will be able to get out of the class if it has bad content and structure.

What are some tips to get the most out of the classes I am taking?

Once you’ve chosen your classes, your work is not done. You need to actually take the class. Here are 3 additional things you can do during class to get the most out of it.

  1. Make sure that you are learning something new. Don’t be lazy and take a class because you already know the material and it’s easy. Especially when you are taking classes relevant to your field of work, the goal of the class is to make you a more attractive prospective employee. You should be learning a new skill – whether it is how to better leverage social media for work or learning the basics of how to build a business plan.
    If it’s nothing new or if you are already a subject matter expert in the material – then why are you in the class? If you are the smartest and most knowledgeable person in that classroom, you are in the wrong room.
  2. Apply what you learn. Grad school is not undergrad because we already have work experience or are currently working. Graduate school should complement what you are already doing in your field or enable you to get closer to what you’d like to do. If you are in the technology field and enrolled in a technology management program, then you should bring what you learn from your classmates and apply them to your daily work. If you are enrolled in a program that has nothing to do with your current field, you can still apply what you’ve learned – be it to become a better writer or critical thinker. All fields are related – you just have to look how they are related.
  3. Make friends. The difference between high school and even college is that your classmates already have large networks. Networks that you are interested in being a part of. You are trying to learn from them as they are to learn from you. They can inspire you to try a new venture, think about a work problem differently, or open your eyes to fields you weren’t aware of before. It’s a conversation, exchange of information, and learning process.

More and more people have MBAs and graduate school degrees. Make the most out of your time and money. Otherwise, your time and money are better spent trying to get a promotion or a raise on your current job or finding a new career. Please do not pay tens of thousands of dollars and spend hundreds of hours of your time just to say you went to graduate school. Instead, make sure graduate school complements your life goals – whether be it to change careers, learn a new skill to get a promotion, or meet new friends who give you insight as to where to take your career.

Do you agree with the criteria for choosing graduate school classes? Are there any other factors that you take into consideration when choosing classes? Please share in the comments section below.

Other Resources:

Here are additional resources for those who are figuring out whether grad school is right for them or evaluating grad school choices.