Updated on 02.12.09

Review: Presentation Zen

Trent Hamm

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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  1. Curt says:

    Great read. For me, it comes down to entertainment. The primary question is how can you be entertaining while communicating some important information? Unfortunately I’m not a natural entertainer so I need to try very hard to be entertaining when I speak.

  2. Amanda says:

    Personally, this is my biggest weekness in business. I can’t wait to tackle this one….& Toastmasters!

  3. Jen says:

    Ted.com is a gold mine of great presenations for study and general enjoyment.

  4. Jules says:

    My favorite lectures in organic chemistry were the ones that started with one or two perfectly innocuous molecules, which got reacted with so-and-so and then turned into something huge by the end of the hour. Those lectures involved the prof writing left to write across a blackboard, explaining the reactions as she went along…and then lifting it up, continuing across the second and third, and then bringing the first back down. It was awesome.

  5. Irfan Habib says:

    Presentation Zen is certainly one of the best books on presentations I’ve read. The approach outlined in the book is simple, natural and leads to beautiful presentations, the last time I used this approach I was amazed at how interested everyone looked.

  6. Bethany says:

    I teach public speaking, and I’m pleased to see that this book includes a lot of the advice I try to get across to my students. You should have a point (or a story) and everything you do should be supporting that purpose. If it’s not, then it’s probably boring, distracting, or wasteful.

  7. clint says:

    Many good points in this review. I gave technical presentations for over 20 years to professionals in my field and always worked hard to make my talks easy to take something away from. I handed out sheets with the details so they didn’t have to take notes. Audiences like info grouped and listed. It’s easier for them to anticipate as they listen. Like, “the 5 keys to investing success” or “the 3 secrets to cooking with tomatoes” or “4 things to never do on a first date” Joining a local Toastmasters club was the most practical and fun help I ever got to get over stage fright and gain confidence in my presentation skills. Keep it simple.

  8. Lisa says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this book – but really check out his blog too – and slide:ology by Nancy Duarte…

  9. Sharon says:

    Trent, the only really good way to get better is to get help. Toastmasters is the most cost-effective method around. You’ll get good good feedback, encouragement, and get to see a wide variety of different speaking styles from which you can pick and choose for your own use as you settle into your own personal style.

    Planting someone in the audience to give you good feedback is also helpful.

  10. Joe says:

    I have been considering this for some time. Thanks for the great review – I am adding it to my list. I present all the time and it sounds like this could help.

    I too believe that communications skills are critical to success in many jobs in this world.

  11. Michelle says:

    I’ve been a member of Toastmasters (a speaking group) for nearly 5 years. It is a great way to learn from doing. The group is always supportive, will give you both supportive and productive encouragement, and you’ll meet other people also looking to improve their speaking skills. The groups vary based on the people so check out a few of your local chapters to decide which is right for you. The website it http://www.toastmasters.org.

  12. kathryn says:

    Sounds like great advice…especially the part about being able to state the main point in one sentence.

    However, the point that ‘If your slide is nothing more than a reiteration of what you’re saying in bullet point form, then that slide is useless’ made me stop. I think I disagree. In education, we been taught to use of both text and spoken word when presenting new information. Yes, it’s potentially redundant, but it also can be extremely important when trying to help people with different learning styles learn and remember information. Having key points or an outline available in text helps many people follow and better understand what you are saying out loud. Of course, this does NOT mean wordy slides and reading from the screen; but I think there is a place for bullits in good presentations…especially where you are trying to get the audience to actually learn and remember several main points.

  13. russ says:

    I’ve lately been listening to The Public Speaker podcast from QDNow podcasts. The website is http://publicspeaker.quickanddirtytips.com/

    Trent, it’s nice to have a book that puts it all together and can be used as a reference and guide. Thanks for the review

  14. Sharon says:

    The main points in the slide also help the many people with hearing loss understand your presentation.

  15. Parveen says:

    Nice review Trent. I too believe that being able to effectively communicate is really important in our day to day life. Not only in the office but also at home with family and friends. I think I will combine one of your other tip and try to find this book in my local library. I was wondering if you (or my fellow blog readers) have read/come across any other book that deals with effective communication in general? It’ll be great if you can post just the name or another review.

  16. Soo says:

    Great review, thanks Trent. I recently read Presentation Zen and immediately set about changing my Powerpoint presentations in line with Garr’s advice (and I have no design skills whatsoever). I also studied many TED.com presenters. Whilst still a novice at this new approach I can confirm that IT WORKS! For those who grew up relying on PowerPoint templates I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The author does does not cover presentation skills in the classic “improve your public speaking abilities” sense – instead Garr’s focus is on improving the content and visuals of your presentation, which in turn, free you up to communicate more impactfully with your audience. Those questioning the advice in your review are coming from a different angle which is not the subject matter of this book. I suggest checking out presentationzen.com to better understand how greatly the concepts can improve one’s presentations. Thanks again.

  17. Sean says:

    Giving a speech in my Toastmasters club tonight.

    I’m definitely a really big non-fan of PowerPoint. I hate it when people just read off slides. Kind of insulting to the audience. Glad to hear that you’re not settling for that, Trent!

  18. SteveJ says:

    Most of my presentations are very technical. So what happens is you write a 150 page document (or 3 or 4 of them), a 5 page brief document, and then a slide deck to do the presentation. The presentees attend dozens of these presentations a month. You might have one chance every few years to get in front of them. So what invariably ends up happening is that the only takeaway is what’s on the slides (that they’ve printed out and carry with them). As a result, the slides have a kitchen sink feel to them, as it’s well known that’s all that will be read, and if it’s in powerpoint, it’s gospel. Does Presentation Zen have any advice for combating this sort of situation? There’s key information you need to get across, you know your audience won’t read any supporting documentation, nor take notes, and your boss will be pissed if you leave out the one bullet point out of 50 that might grab the audience members attention. I’ve literally had people rave about how great something I presented was and then not remember what it was about 6 weeks (20 presentations ago for them) later.

    I hate the existing system and I want to challenge it, I just don’t know how to combine an interesting presentation with making sure these 50 points get disseminated. One thing I’ve tried is just tacking on a few slides at the end that I don’t actually cover during the presentation. But there’s always someone in the crowd that wants clarification on point 28, and then everyone else wants to know why we’re avoiding talking about the other ones.

    Kinda late posting on this one, but I’ll check back if anyone is behind on their reading like me :)

  19. terry says:

    slide:ology by Nancy Duarte is also a great book about presentations. It’s very visual.

  20. nd says:

    SteveJ (#18) – your situation in similar to mine. The impact of the slides is just as important as the face time, since that’s what people physically take away. If you do find any solutions, please post them here!

  21. KJ says:

    A few additional thoughts:

    1) Practice your presentation OUT LOUD. Find a room where it won’t seem funny to speak aloud to a wall and do it. Hearing the sound of your own voice can actually be surprisingly distracting when you’re ‘live’ in front of an audience, so better to work through that in private.

    2) Reconcile yourself to the idea that it WILL NOT go EXACTLY as you envision/plan it – too many variables in a public forum that are out of your control, and you won’t necessarily perform in lock-step with your vision, either. That’s not necessarily a bad thing- the performance can often inspire grace notes which were not in the original presentation which can make it even better so don’t fear this.

    3) Toastmasters is great, but do shop around your meetings if you can -and move on to a different meeting if you aren’t being affirmed and appropriately challenged. To wit- I attended one Toastmasters group until the following incident: One woman got up and gave a gangbuster presentation about something about which she was passionate; the ‘leader’ then spent the entire post-game analyzing and critiquing the ‘fact’ that she was ‘overly-emotional’ and ‘shaky’ (which she was not). By the end of it (even though many of us confronted him in real-time about this), she went from being happy/confident to self-conscious/compromised. Turned out he was a fundamentalist Christian with some pretty rigid ideas about how women should behave- her performance triggered ‘issues’ in HIM which had NOTHING to do with her competence and appropriateness of her behavior. I moved on to a different group with a better leader; it was worth the extra 20 mile drive to do so.

  22. Franklin says:

    Thank you for thee good writeup. It in fact was
    a amusement account it. Look advanced tto far added agreeable from you!
    However, how could we communicate?

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