Garr Reynolds and the Zen of Engaging Presentations

July 19, 2011

In a world committed to effective training-teaching-learning, publication of Garr Reynolds’ beautifully produced and engagingly written book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery three years ago would have resulted in the disappearance of “death by PowerPoint.”

The world seems to have other ideas. We still suffer through poorly designed PowerPoint presentations, where far too much text is crammed onto slides that are then read to painfully bored and tuned-out learners. Which is a shame since so much of what Reynolds suggests and displays throughout his book and on his ongoing Presentation Zen website makes so much sense and is so easy to incorporate into our work.

PowerPoint…is not a method,” he reminds us early in the book; “it is a tool that can be used effectively with appropriate design methods or ineffectively with inappropriate methods” (p. 12).

And as we all know from those ineffectively designed slides delivered in inappropriate ways, we still have a long way to go before we overcome our kneejerk horror at the thought of sitting through even one more PowerPoint presentation that is less than completely engaging and inspiring.

Where Reynolds is most effective is in having produced a book that practices what he preaches: it’s clearly written, engagingly incorporates clean design and strong visual imagery to produce a cohesive work on the art of presentation, and cleverly wraps in upon itself by offering suggestions that are on display throughout the book for readers astute enough to watch for them.

Approximately halfway through the book, for example, he suggests the effectiveness of “chunking”—grouping “similar ideas while looking for a unifying theme. The presentation may be organized into three parts, so first I look for the central theme that will be the thread running through the presentation. There is no rule that says your presentation should have three sections or three ‘acts’ from the world of drama. However, three is a good number to aim for because it is a manageable constraint and generally provides a memorable structure.”

It’s at this point that we notice how Reynolds himself has broken his book into three large interwoven sections—preparation, design, and delivery—and we become even more conscious of how well he uses clean, effective photographs and minimal type in or around those photographs to transfer his ideas from his mind to ours. If we see the book at a variation on the sort of presentation he is encouraging us to produce via PowerPoint, we viscerally understand the wisdom and attractiveness of what he is proposing. And we have to ask why more of us aren’t already doing what he suggests.

There’s nothing fancy here—which is, course, one of the book’s biggest strengths. Clarity and simplicity are the overarching themes he encourages us to explore and incorporate into our work. His brief surveys of a variety of other works including the Heath brothers’ Made to Stick, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, and even Brenda Ueland’s classic book on writing, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit and presentation methodologies including PechaKucha keep us focused not only on the creative aspect of what we need to offer as trainer-teacher-learners, but remind us of the importance of creativity and a user-centric viewpoint if we’re going to be effective in our endeavors.

As he leads us toward his final chapters, he reminds us of the potential power of effective presentations at a very human level when he suggests that presentations are contributions: “I don’t think I have ever given a presentation that was not at some level about making a contribution. Certainly, when you are asked to share your expertise with a group who are on the whole not specialists in your field, you have to think very hard about what is important (for them) and what is not (again, for them). It is easier just to do the same presentation you always do, but it is not about impressing people with the depths of your knowledge. It’s about sharing or teaching something of lasting value” (p. 196).

If we needed any further proof that Reynolds cares as deeply about his audiences as we should care about ours, we find it explicitly in his admonition that “If your content is worth talking about, then bring energy and passion to your delivery. Every situation is different, but there is never an excuse for being dull” (p. 211).

Reading—and rereading—Presentation Zen leaves us with plenty of inspiration. And examples. And encouragement. Perhaps what we most need to do is carry a copy with us whenever we are attending presentations—or offering them ourselves—and simply wave it as an offering to anyone who has not yet moved from death by PowerPoint to life through inspirational—and inspired—presentations.


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