Presentation Zen: Clear, Simple and Tell a Compelling Story

Garr Reynolds, Presentation Zen

No matter what kind of presentation you make - there is no excuse for being dull.

Garr Reynolds, Presentation Zen

If you've experienced a really amazing presentation in your life, you probably have Garr Reynolds to thank in some way. The author of several best-selling books including Presentation Zen and The Naked Presenter and the popular website Presentation Zen, Garr has done more to change the way people create and deliver presentations (for the better) than anyone else on the Web. He's spoken worldwide at firms such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Apple, and was at one time the manager of Worldwide User Group Relations at Apple Inc. He is currently an associate professor of management at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka and resides in Japan. Garr was also named to the SAY 100 business channel by marketing guru Seth Godin. As Seth puts it: "Go ahead and read twenty past posts and your personal marketing quality will double. The way we present/market in small rooms matters a great deal."

We caught up with Garr recently to ask him about some of his all-time favorite presentations, things we can all do right now to improve our next presentation and what we could learn from Steve Jobs the next time we fire up Keynote.

What are some of the best presentations you've experienced and what made them great? Obviously Steve Jobs was a very effective presenter on stage and I have talked a lot about him on my website and in my books over the years. In fact, Jobs's presentation style is one of the things that attracted me to joining Apple back in 2001. What was remarkable about Jobs's approach to keynotes is that his visuals were always rather simple and flowed in good harmony with his conversational narrative.

Jobs's approach was the antithesis of the all too common Death-by-PowerPoint style of busy, ugly, text-filled slides and a boring, unnatural delivery style. Jobs made it look easy, but a lot of preparation when in to his keynotes. Simplicity and naturalness are actually hard to achieve, but result in effective communication with the audience.

Another presenter who I greatly admire is the medical doctor Hans Rosling, one of the founders of Gapminder.org and famed for his amazing TED talks (he's the Jedi Master of data visualization). What I like about Dr. Rosling is that his presentations feature visualizations of data that are clear and simple and tell a compelling story. Even though Rosling uses quite a bit of data he does a great job of giving context and presenting the data (using Gapminder visualizations) in a way that is illuminating and memorable. Yes, his visualizations are compelling and illustrate his points well, but Rosling's passionate delivery style is also compelling.

No matter what kind of presentation you make - especially a keynote-style presentation in front of a large group - it is never sufficient just to give information and there is no excuse for being dull. It is not the data only which are important, it is what the data mean. If presentations were only about information transfer, then we could just send people a document and stay home. We come together to share to make a contribution, to connect and exchange ideas.

Are presentations getting collectively better, staying the same or getting worse? Why? Since the time I started with Presentation Zen in 2005 and began writing books in 2007, things have certainly gotten better. At least the awareness of what makes for a good presentation and why it matters has increased. It's still true today that the majority of conference talks and business presentations as well as college lectures and even student presentations are just not very effective, but I see far more great talks and presentations today than I used to.

There is still a long way to go, but organizations like TED (and TEDx) and Ignite and Pecha Kucha, and many more give people the chance to present their work and share their stories on stages like never before. Unfortunately, in spite of all the great examples of presenting effectively and visually on stage, many people and organizations still equate the use of PowerPoint (or other slideware) necessarily with bullet points, bad images or clip art, and a boring, disengaged delivery style. They then think they are being clever or innovative by banning PowerPoint.

But PowerPoint is not the problem, it is poor planning, poor ideas, poor design and the poor use of PowerPoint that is the problem. PowerPoint can be a fine tool for showing helpful visuals so long as people remember to keep things simple. Frankly, you should ignore 90% of PowerPoint's features. A powerful, full screen image or a large and clear quantitative display is far more important visually than distracting animation, superfluous transitions, and the gratuitous use of colors and other effects.

What's one simple thing we could all do right now to make our presentations better? Close your computer and get off the grid and really think about the purpose of your presentation. Too many people go right to software and start writing outlines or fidgeting with software features. Great presenters take the time to slow down and really think about what is important and what is not. Many presentations are ineffective because the presenter tries to cram too much content into the talk. By first taking the time to sketch out your ideas on paper or a whiteboard before you ever begin to use multimedia, you can see the big picture and you are much better able to eliminate the nonessential from your talk or presentation and build a solid structure and flow with the important content that remains.

You've traveled a lot - are there any cultures/countries where the people seem inherently better presentation givers? In some ways we are at a disadvantage here in Japan because all through school we do not get many chances to stand and deliver presentations in an engaging way, and speeches are almost always read or memorized. Most teaching from junior high school on is test-based, didactic and rather dull, so we lack role models. However, even in Japan things are changing, albeit slolwly, and there are more and more people presenting in engaging and more visual ways. Presentation books now flood the market in Japan and many of them are advocating a more visual approach and advising against the use of bullet points, poor images, and reading slides. Death-by-PowerPoint is still common in Japan - and around the world for that matter - but good examples of presenting differently are growing.

What are the most popular posts of all-time on Presentation Zen? And what if anything do those posts say about our collective presentation angst? For a long time it is was a couple of posts comparing the Steve Jobs Zen aesthetic approach to his keynote talks vs. Bill Gates' more typical slide-driven approach. Bill Gates is much better today and his talks on TED are quite good and his visuals are simple and of high quality. But back in his Microsoft days, Gate's stiffer delivery and bullet-point driven approach was quite a contrast to Jobs's more relaxed and seemingly simpler approach.

Everyone knows that the typical presentation which features a dispassionate person talking to a screen full of bullet points and impossible-to-see charts and graphs is ineffective, and there is a great deal in the cognitive sciences to support the idea of abandoning this sleep-inducing method. Presenting differently and effectively is a highly creative activity. The Presentationzen.com Website introduces myriad ideas from the Zen arts, graphic design, and speech communications, entertainment, etc. that challenge people's assumptions and inspire them to present their work and their stories by being more creative and embracing the tenets of restraint in preparation, simplicity in design, and naturalness in delivery.

What would your readers be surprised to learn about you? Although I am a jazz guy, I actually enjoy going out and singing karaoke with my family and friends. I can sing at least a couple dozen popular Japanese pop songs from the '80s and '90s.

You can see Garr in action at TedX or follow him on Twitter @presentationzen

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