Review: Presentation Zen

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or entrepreneurship book.

p zenLately, I’ve been working hard on improving my presentation skills. Why? As The Simple Dollar gets more and more popular, more and more opportunities come my way for presentations. I hear things like “Can you give a ten minute talk to get people excited about money management and frugality?” all the time.

When I go into these situations, it would be very easy to just throw up a few PowerPoint slides of the best stuff from The Simple Dollar, more or less just read the slides, and get off the stage as soon as possible. I see other presenters doing this all the time. Here’s the thing, though: those “read the slide” presentations are boring. It’s very rare that they contain a message that people will remember. If the people in the audience look back on the presentation, it’s likely that they look back with boredom.

If you’re involved in a career where presentation is a regular part of your work – or you dream of such a career – presentation skills are an invaluable part of your skill set. If you want your presentation to be valuable – and thus have the audience perceive you as valuable – you need to learn how to give a truly compelling presentation, one they won’t forget. That’s basically the whole message behind Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen. Reynolds argues that most presentations are far too complicated and that simplicity is the key to great presentations – an idea I strongly agree with. More importantly, the book revolves around showing one how to do this.

Let’s dig in and see what we can learn.

Introduction
Presentation Zen opens by simply stating that presentations and written documents are very different things, but many people apply the same principles to presentations that they apply to their documentation (Reynolds refers to this as “Death by Powerpoint”).

In essence, a document is usually intended as a reference point – a collection of facts and information about a topic. On the other hand, when you present, you’re striving to tell a story. The document, in many ways, supports the presentation – it provides the little details that support the larger story you’re trying to tell.

The best presentation is one that tells a story that engages the crowd in as many ways as possible. This story has very little to do with the slides themselves – the story comes from you, not the slides. The slides should only be used if they directly support the story you want to tell, not to inundate with facts and details.

Preparation
When most people sit down to begin a presentation, they fire up PowerPoint and open up a template. Right there, you’re restricting yourself and the story you can tell.

Instead, Reynolds suggests starting with a much different slate: paper, whiteboards, an array of Post-It notes. Remember, you’re not making slides – you’re telling a story, so you want to put together the pieces of that story.

I particularly like using the Post-It method. It allows me to spread out all of the little pieces of the story and then easily rearrange them, remove them, add new ones, or do whatever I want.

The key, though, is to focus in on one key thing: what is the central point of the story I’m telling? When you go up there, you’re trying to communicate one key message. Can you state the entire point of your presentation in one sentence? If you can’t do that, you need to rethink what you’re presenting. Once you’ve got things whittled down to that one sentence, the entire flow of your story should go to reinforce and support that point. That’s your story.

Every slide you show should do nothing but provide the bare facts that support your point. If you want to provide supplementary material with more detail, have a takeaway document (or some other type of side presentation) that provides that detail.

Design
So, what should those slides look like? Most likely, you’ll start by tossing together the general outline of your story in slide form. That can be a start, but there’s one fundamental question you should be asking about each slide you toss up there: what value does this slide have? Is it providing any value that I’m not providing standing there speaking?

If your slide is nothing more than a reiteration of what you’re saying in bullet point form, then that slide is useless. If your slide has images that aren’t related to what you’re saying, those images are useless. Instead, every slide should contain only text, images, and pictures that actually contribute something to your story.

If you’re talking about something tactile and real, you should have a slide that depicts it. If you’re talking about some data, you should have a slide that displays that data as minimally and simply as you can – cut out all of the irrelevant data. Images are a great addition to each slide, as long as they’re not distracting from the main point and also that they cue some sort of emotion in the audience, an emotion that you want to be there.

This section offers a ton of great little tips for making great slides: making sure that pictures of people are facing your point and not looking away, using images as your backgrounds (and not those generic PowerPoint images), making sure that your slides all have a cohesive theme, and so on. The key, though, is to make sure that the slides really are doing everything they can to complement the story you’re telling.

Delivery
The biggest point here, from my perspective, is to watch a lot of great presentations by great presenters. Scavenge around on the internet for videos of presentations that are considered excellent and note the things that they do. Often, you’ll see that they eliminate barriers between themselves and the audience (meaning no podiums), they are self-deprecating and loose, and they’re paying attention to the audience and responding to their responses (which turns the presentation almost into a conversation).

In the end, that’s the real truth of the situation: a presentation is part of a conversation that you’re having with the crowd. You’re telling them something you’re excited about and enthusiastic about, and you want them to be excited and enthusiastic, too.

The Next Step
Merely practicing your presentation skills isn’t enough to keep growing as a presenter. You need to continue to grow as a person. Meet people. Grow in your knowledge, not just in your topic area, but in new areas, too. Look for opportunities all throughout your life to learn and to share what you know (using those presentation skills). Presenting is just the beginning of the conversation.

Is Presentation Zen Worth Reading?
I am of the belief that the ability to communicate well with others is truly a key part of modern life. Communicating well allows you to spread your ideas to others. It allows you to build connections with people. It allows a lot of people to gather an impression of you and even begin to build a connection with you. In short, knowing how to communicate is a giant benefit for most people in the modern world.

If you have any interest in improving your ability to communicate with others – and not just presentations, either – Presentation Zen is practically essential reading. It made me carefully reconsider how I communicate with others, not just in terms of when I give a presentation, but when I converse with someone I don’t know well. How can I tell a compelling and interesting story? That’s really what this book is about: storytelling.