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.”

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

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.

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4 comments

  1. This is great guidance for people who are regularly doing presentations for clients. We tend to get stuck in the norm of presenting and forget about the other senses of our audience. Thanks

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  2. Terrific blog – great images, great themes, you are the “blogmeister” of Georgetown! I really appreciate your participation in Big Dog Data – it helps share opinions with other students.

    What kind of an impact do you think Garr had on Apple? An argument can be made that Apple has applied this so called “Zen” concept in its product design. One counter argument is that Apple has had many failures using these same precepts. They once had a beautiful server that was air cooled and melted!

    Should teachers at Georgetown embrace this concept of simplicity? Can this be applied to a complex topic like web site analytics? Is the concept of “Zen” too suble to apply to a quotidian concept like PowerPoint?

    Lisa also read this book – should this be mandatory for all students? Suggested reading? Would a professional communicator agree with Garr? Why is he living is Japan? Do other cultures besides the Japanese have anything to say about communication? An argument can be made that unusual Western characters like Cezanne had a good idea of visual communication. Where was the Zen in 19th century France?

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    1. Thanks John for the kudos! I’m glad you enjoy the blogs. 🙂 Here are some responses to the questions and ideas you posed:

      APPLE CULTURE & DESIGN: I’m not sure if “Presentation Zen” was a product of Apple’s culture or if Garr was a pioneer that helped impart that into the culture early on. I agree with your argument that the “Zen” concept won’t work everywhere. Even Garr acknowledges that and suggests that presentations should have 3 main parts: (1) the presentation visuals that tell a story with mostly images, (2) your narration, and (3) a detailed takeaway to back up your argument or story. He doesn’t advocate throwing away detail – just detail presented in the right place, right time, and right way.

      PRESENTATION ZEN AT GEORGETOWN: I agree that Georgetown should embrace this concept of simplicity. However – it’ll be difficult because it takes so much longer to put together a powerful and refined presentation with images than it is to throw texts together in a PowerPoint.

      DATA VISUALIZATION: Presentation Zen can be applied to topics like website analytics. What it would look like is the presentation visuals behind you will have images that tell you a story. You’ll also need other visual aids – like a super graphic – printed as a handout. Edward Tufte is a renowned pioneer in this field of information design and data visualization. I actually own 5 of his books and attended one of his 3-day lectures.

      SOCIAL MEDIA CLASS RECOMMENDATIONS: I would recommend this book to be read, especially as part of our final social media presentation assignment. Perhaps you can pick a few chapters that are more relevant and provide it to the class as a handout. I think a couple of chapters in there were extremely enlightening to me.

      Presentation Zen provides an alternate (and better) way of presenting. All students will benefit from it – whether be it how to choose graphics, colors to use, placement of graphics, how to develop a PowerPoint. It’s a good mix of the art and the process of communication and presentation.
      Garr’s approach is one of many – but I think our culture is moving towards that. The simplification of complex ideas – be it turning big data into comprehensible trends and useful concepts.

      GLOBALIZATION AND COMMUNICATION: It sounds like Japanese culture definitely has a huge influence on his approach. I’m sure other cultures have a lot to say about communication as well, and certain types of communications and approaches are better suited for one country versus another. However, as economies and cultures globalize, communication styles will start to converge more and more, though it will still take a while.

      Hopefully this helps! Thanks,
      Christine

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