Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds

New Riders, 2008, 229 pages, C$32.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-321-52565-9

I started reading Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen blog a few years ago. At the time, I had a professional interest in good presentation techniques (I’ve been known to give day-long PowerPoint seminars to needy colleagues), and if that part of my day job has lain fallow for a while, I’m still a faithful reader: Not only am I still continuing to develop presentation skills for myself, but Reynold’s style is engaging and rich in insights. Presentation Zen, the blog, is structured around the “blog like you’re writing a book” concept championed by such well-known experts as Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki and Avinash Kaushik: Their blogs are dedicated to a specific theme and features fewer-but-longer posts all revolving around the blog’s common theme. Each entry is worth a quick read, and when they’re taken together, these type of blogs feel like a continuing education program in a given field.

Presentation Zen, the book, is more than a snapshot of Presentation Zen’s first few years. It’s a package. Much as Reynolds will repeat that a presentation isn’t a document, a collection of blog posting isn’t a book. While regular readers will nod at a few common themes and approaches (“Oh, here’s the bento box riff!”), Presentation Zen also happens to be one of the best-designed technical books I’ve read so far.

Which is more than appropriate for a book that presents “Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery”. As the title suggests and the subtitle makes clear, Reynolds is out to promote the idea that less is better. That presenters should separate the presentation from the document, and should strive to make the slides a part of their speech. An American designer/consultant periodically working and living in Japan, Reynolds is ideally suited to shake up the traditional view of slideware presentations. Presentation Zen seeks to stop people from hammering any type of argument in the dull six-bullets-per-slide PowerPoint format. It argues against repeating the content of a presentation to any living breathing audience. It suggests cleaner graphic design, eye-popping stock photography, flexible unity of design and (shock!) logo-less templates. (The examples of chart re-design on pages 123-125 are worth the price of the book by themselves.) It gives pointers on how to behave in front of an audience, it encourages presenters to think of themselves as creative thinkers and even throws in a detailed method for preparing presentations—away from the computer. A good chunk of the book is pure inspiration, with strong quotes and inspiring passages citing Zen philosophy elements.

More importantly, it practices what it preaches. The book is fantastically designed: its gorgeous photography, generous white space, full-color layout and copious examples (including Guy Kawasaki’s foreword, which is presented as a slide show) not only give instant credibility to the book, they also enhance the sheer reading pleasure of the book. Yes, I said “sheer reading pleasure” for a business book. Reynolds’ prose is as clean and accessible as the rest of his book, and the book’s cleverly chunked structure is as compelling to read as, yes, a blog. How much fun is it to read? Well, consider that I got the book from my organization’s library (they bought it on my recommendation) and ended up reading it for pleasure at home. I may even buy a copy for myself.

I also goes without saying that Reynolds’ ideas may not be applicable to all contexts and organizations. Presentation Zen is provocative in how it forces readers to think about why its recommendations may clash with their corporate culture. As far as my industry is concerned, it’s obvious that there are cultural penalties for making attractive presentations: People expect efficiency and speed in drafting presentations, which makes pretty design immediately suspicious. (The irony is that the same “quick and speedy” presentations usually involve lengthy “urgent” revisions by dozen of people that drag on forever and produce eye-straining results.) Other cultural factors make it impossible to even try separating the content from the presentations: Absent managers and meeting coordinators will insist on being provided on copies of the deck for distribution and “study” (Another ironic truth: nobody ever reads presentations once they’re given), and loudly complain if they can’t make sense of the presentation by itself. I could go on, but nobody ever wins in the corporate machine.

But this isn’t a reason to give up. It’s easy to see how Presentation Zen can be a terrific addition in any preventer’s quiver of design techniques, even in the most rigidly traditional environments. I have already discussed the standout passage on how to simplify and redesign overly-busy charts, but other passages about slide design, presentation storyboarding and stand-up delivery can be stealthily adapted to every corporate template. Plus, hey, no one ever knows when some shock tactics may not be more efficient that the usual routine. (I’m not confessing to any practical implementation of any Presentation Zen ideas in my own presentations. Oh, no, never.)

Of course, Presentation Zen is only as effective as its readers allow it to be. Let’s face it: presentation geeks like myself, who love designing and delivering presentations, already have a pretty good idea of what to do, and how vital it is to avoid “Death by Powerpoint”. Reynolds’ book has probably already reached a good chunk of its audience. Meanwhile, the truly hopeless PowerPointers bore on blissfully, completely unaware of a different way of doing things and unwilling to learn better. Thus it falls upon the converted masses, the Presentation Zen readers and the game-changers to take this book and shove it somewhere in their corporate culture where it can do some good. Suggest it to your organization’s library. Cite excerpts. Make copies of choice passages and leave them stapled to bulletin boards. Kill your audiences with Presentation Zen techniques and don’t leave them wondering how you did it. The topic may be zen, but this is an all-out war against dull presentations and ugly slideware decks. Read the book, live the book and get your next marching orders from Reynolds’ blog.

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