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.


Presentations on Presentations: Levels of Engagement

February 14, 2012

Given the strong belief that a fear of public speaking is the greatest fear most people have, it’s probably no surprise that we’re surrounded by presentations on presentations. Or that we can’t seem to be around our training-teaching-learning colleagues without finding ourselves engaged in conversations on the topic.

Looking at upcoming events for members of American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) chapters recently, even I was surprised to see how many, without formally coordinating their efforts, had scheduled keynote addresses on presentation skills and how to engage learners. (I’ll be attending one with ASTD Mount Diablo colleagues later this month, and just missed one at the ASTD South Florida Chapter earlier this month.)

Diving into a live online discussion with colleagues on Maurice Coleman’s latest T is for Training podcast late last week brought the topic to center stage again as we spent most of our time together talking about the challenges of writing training materials for other trainers. And during the discussion, a colleague mentioned a newly-posted and completely fascinating TED talk, by Nancy Duarte, on the structure of highly effective speeches (Steve Job’s introduction of the iPhone, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech).

All of this comes right at a time when I had the great good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Jerry Weissman, one of the most highly respected presentation coaches in the corporate world, and author of several books including Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story.

You have to be good if you’re going to sell more than 100,000 copies of a book about how to be a better presenter. Jerry Weissman is good. And he gets to the heart of great presentation skills by reminding us, throughout this wonderfully engaging book, of the importance of story if we want to hold the attention of audiences at a time when attention spans are as ephemeral as yesterday’s tweets.

Whether we’re new to the art of presentation or are experienced presenter-trainer-teachers benefitting from the useful reminders Weissman provides, he carries us through the presentation cycle with lots of guidance, including warnings of how we can go wrong: not offering clear points, not offering a clear benefit to our audiences (what’s in it for them, not us), not creating a clear flow of thought and information in our work, offering more details than an audience can absorb, or creating presentations that last too long.

He also offers the structure that telling a good story provides: taking listeners from where they are (Point A) to where they need to be (Point B) in ways that focus on them rather than on us. He provides a concise survey of structures we can incorporate into presentations to make them flow and reminds us of the importance of “verbalization”—rehearsing our work out loud “just as you will on the day of your actual presentation” (p. 164) numerous times so that the story that is at the heart of all we do will flow naturally from us to those who are depending on us to make that all-important journey from Point A to Point B. Furthermore, he models the very skills he is trying to develop by incorporating presentation stories throughout his book in an effort to help us understand the process viscerally as well as intellectually.

It’s often the lines that seem to be most casually tossed off that take us most deeply to the heart of presentation professionalism. Writing about his attendance at investment banking conferences, he tells us that he is there “because they let me observe many presentations in one place, in a short time.” And if someone of his experience and reputation is attending presentations to pick up tips, it makes us ask ourselves why we aren’t equally engaged in seeing what others are doing if we’re at all serious about continually honing our own skills.

There’s no mistaking the seriousness with which Weissman expects and encourages us to approach the art of presentation: “…every presentation is a mission-critical event” (p. 168). With that as our guiding light, we should all be on our way to successful and engaging experiences for those we serve.

We have plenty of great role models out there, including Cliff Atkinson and his Beyond Bullet Points, and Garr Reynolds and his PresentationZen. And we’re all aware of the syndrome known as “Death by PowerPoint”—those dreadfully painful moments when someone fills a slide with incredibly dense blocks of illegible type—and then insists on reading every word of the text as if that somehow is going to engage us in the topic rather than make us wish we were dead.

With so many resources available, we need to remind ourselves that help is on the way. In fact, it’s all around us. If only we’re willing to grab it and run with it.


Training, Story, and PowerPoint (Part 1 of 3)

January 1, 2010

Trainers and other presenters are rediscovering that revolutions sometimes involve little more than returning to the basics. Current discussions about the revolution in how PowerPoint is integrated into presentations, for example, take us back to the importance of good storytelling and narrative. It’s all about engagement at every possible level, where nothing is more engaging than a good story.

PowerPoint certainly is receiving its share of criticism from those who suffer through poorly prepared slideshows where the person in the front of the room does nothing beyond reading words and bullet points from slides to a somnolent audience—which seems about as fair as hating everything in the universe of chocolate based on a single experience of eating a candy bar ten years past its expiration date.

PowerPoint and its ubiquitous use of bullet points has been an effective tool for many of us who need help in organizing material. It is now growing to include a narrative/story-based style through Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points (a heavily revised second edition is available) and support from visual facilitators like John Ward. Trainer-bloggers including Michele Martin in The Bamboo Project Blog and Garr Reynolds in Presentation Zen are among those who have already written lengthy pieces on how trainers-teachers-learners can benefit from a more effective use of PowerPoint, and colleagues including Peter Bromberg are enthusiastically embracing hybrid versions of all that is being proposed.

There’s no real magic here, nor is any of this particularly complex. The largest step is the one taken backwards—far enough to see the larger picture of what makes a presentation cohesive and compelling rather than comprised of little more than single slides which jump from topic to topic without any consistent flow.

None of this needs imply that bullet points are dead. Edmond Otis’s slides for his well received Infopeople webcast, “Setting Boundaries with Library Patrons,” might drive Beyond Bullet Points aficionados absolutely crazy, but one of his viewers actually took the time to compliment him for effectively weaving the slides into his overall presentation. Edmond didn’t need to spend the extra time it would have taken to replace the bullets with strong visuals; the bullets—and Edmond—hit the target dead center and left a lively online audience inspired by a lesson they very much had wanted. No stale pieces of chocolate here!

What all of us as trainers-teachers-learners need remember is that we do not have to race from one technique or current trend to another in an all-or-nothing fashion. Outlines continue to work because they give all of us a helpful structure, and bullet points can be an effective tool. The visual beauty and stickiness of Beyond Bullet Points and “Presentation Zen” do not mean that we need to abandon those helpful bullet points, as Kelli’s presentation shows.

N.B.: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Infoblog.

Next: Cliff Atkinson and the Path Beyond Bullet Points


ALA Annual Conference 2013: Presentation Pain and Pleasure (Tips for Presenters)

July 3, 2013

Those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning are always on the prowl for ways to improve our presentation skills, so attending gatherings like the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference here in Chicago for the past several days has given us the equivalent of a presenter’s master class.

There were quite literally moments when we found ourselves exclaiming “I wish I had done that.” There were also those painful moments when we watched someone else falling into a presentation trap we wish we had avoided.

ALA_2013_Chicago_Logo_FINAL_CLR_0 (1)One of the most exquisite learning moments for me came as I was sitting with ALA Learning Round Table colleagues at one of their conference board meetings. The conversation centered around the question of whether the group should incur the cost of having a microphone for a presenter at a small event at an upcoming conference. I halfway—but only halfway—jokingly suggested that anyone who needed a microphone for that event in that small venue probably wasn’t the right presenter for the session.

ALA_Learning_Round-Table_LogoAnd that’s when a lovely colleague, with absolutely no rancor in her voice, said that although she knows many presenters believe they don’t need microphones to be heard, those presenters are inadvertently excluding members of their audience who are hearing-impaired—as she is. It was a humbling yet wonderfully instructive moment for any of us who let our egos get in the way of our goal of making it easy for every learner to participate in the learning opportunities we have agreed to provide—particularly those of us doltish enough to have never been aware of how effectively some of our longtime colleagues deal with challenges we never noticed they faced. Her comment was instructive—and inspirational. I immediately moved into full trainer-teacher-learner mode, documented that presentation tip, and tweeted it out to the conference backchannel as well as to colleagues across the country in the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) in the hope that a few more learners will benefit from our colleague’s suggestion.

Not so easy to share in the moment were the examples of poor preparation or presentation techniques that plagued colleagues at some of the sessions I attended—just as these same problems, somewhat surprisingly, plague some ASTD conference presenters even though we work in a profession where first-rate communication skills are essential. To have pointed those problems out via Twitter at the time they were happening would have tantamount to publicly humiliating the presenters—and I’m sorry to say that there actually were people on the conference backchannel who engaged in exactly that sort of cruel and unnecessary behavior. But I think it’s fair game, long after the presentations have ended and there is no obvious need to identify individuals under discussion, to offer yet another brief presenter’s tip sheet for anyone who wants to avoid the sort of presentation mistakes all of us have made—and wished we hadn’t.

We all learn the hard way that we need to plan, practice, revise, plan, practice, revise, and plan some more in the weeks and days leading up to our presentation. This will keep us from finding that parts of slides or entire slides have somehow disappeared from our PowerPoint slide decks when we’re in front of our audience.

It’s also very important to be in the space where we are presenting at least 30 minutes before we begin our presentation so we can be sure, by viewing the slides on the screen in that space, that any tech gremlins that have crept into our slides can be adjusted. That prevents us from finding that columns of text have shifted (which raises the question of why we’re even bombarding our learners with columns of text) and become an indecipherable jumble of words.

Being in the room before others arrive also allows for a final sound check of the microphone—and remember, we do want a microphone even if we think we won’t need one. Checking links to onsite resources we plan to use will prevent us from wasting five or ten minutes struggling to bring up a video or other online resource when we actually should be engaging with our audience during our formal presentation time. And being present as others arrive also offers the invaluable opportunity to begin connecting with the learners before the formal presentation begins and to be sure that their expectations for the session are what we are planning to deliver.

Avoiding references to how we have had to condense hour-long/day-long presentations into the much shorter period of time we have during the session we are currently delivering accomplishes nothing other than making us sound ungrateful and adding a bit of stress to learners who feel as if they are going to have to be extra attentive if they want to absorb this condensed version of what we wanted to offer. We knew, when we accepted the gift of being able to share information and resources with colleagues, how much time we had. It’s just plain polite to publicly thank those who brought us into that learning space and to effectively use the time we have rather than wasting any of it apologizing or grousing about the lack of time to do our subject—and our audience—justice.

Using slides that interact with and support our oral presentation rather than including the history of the world on a single slide keeps our presentations engaging rather than turning them into frustrating, overwhelming experiences during which audience members are forced to unsuccessfully try reading all that text while also trying to take in what we are saying. And we certainly don’t want to read content on the slides to our learners; we can safely assume they already know how to read, so if we want them to absorb content, we can join them in looking at the slide and giving ourselves enough time to read a line or two (e.g., an appropriate quote from someone who said it better than we ever will be able to say it), and we can use those slides to provide engaging images designed to help learners absorb key points.

Answering questions immediately rather than trying to postpone responses demonstrates that we care about our audience’s learning needs. There’s no reason why we can’t provide a one-line response—if we have one—and then return to our planned presentation after assuring learners that a longer explanation is on its way later in the presentation if that’s the case. We can also provide that one-line response and encourage interested audience members to join us after the session or contact us later via email to further explore the topic. Asking audience members to hold all questions until we are finished speaking implies that our content is more important than their questions are—not particularly the message we want to send to people who were nice enough to choose to spend their extremely limited and valuable time with us.

If we see our presentation/learning-facilitation opportunities as a collaboration with those who have agreed to spend time with us, we’re well on the way to providing the sort of transformative experiences that are at the heart of successful training-teaching-learning. And, not so surprisingly, we may even have the rewarding experiences of being asked to present again or to hear, years later, from those who learned from us, applied what we offered, and sought us out to thank us for offering them something of value.


%d bloggers like this: