Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds

Coexist. Flickr by Robert Engberg.

Communicating ideas is fundamental to my work (and most people’s, I suppose). So when Jennifer Gonzalez, over at The Cult of Pedagogy, did a post about Presentation Zen, I knew I needed to read it. I create slide decks for the classes I teach, the conferences I present at, the dissertation I will eventually defend…

“A good oral presentation is different than a well-written document, and attempts to merge them result in poor presentations and poor documents” (p.13).

Based on Dan Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, Reynolds writes about six aptitudes: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning.

Design starts at the beginning: “consider your topic and your objectives, your key messages, and your audience. Only then will you begin to sketch out ideas that will appear in some digital visual form later” (p.16).

Stories can be used “for teaching, for sharing, for illuminating, and of course, for honest persuasion” (p.16-17).

Symphony is about “synthesis and the ability to use seemingly unrelated pieces to form and articulate the big picture before us” (p.17).  Symphony is about illuminating a bigger picture – relationships between relationships, recognizing patters, seeing nuances and simplicity within the complexity. Symphony means “utilizing our whole mind – logic, analysis, synthesis, intuition – to make sense of our world (i.e., our topic), find the big picture, and determine what is important and what is not” (p.17).

Empathy is about putting yourself in the place of the audience and where they are coming from. Empathy is also about noticing when the audience is not getting it, stopping, and making adjustments.

Play might seem out of place, but seriousness does not equal better communication, better understanding, or better learning. In fact, humor makes for memorable moments and creative connections.

Meaning is to be made in the unique situation of a presentation. The presentation is a moment to share what the presenter feels is important.

Seth Godin: Communication is about getting others to adopt your point of view, to help them understand why you’re excited (or sad, or optimistic or whatever else you are.) If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the meeting and send in a report. (p.20)

–> Powerpoint is not a document creation tool <–

Giving a presentation is a creative act. Creative acts require “an open mind and a willingness to be wrong” (p.43). Think: simplicity, clarity>, brevity.

The Approach


  1. Close your computer and take out some paper, a whiteboard, or a stick in the sand
  2. Slow down. Busy-ness kills creativity.
  3. Ask the right questions. Overlook the immediate need and wonder what led to the need.
    • What’s the story here?
    • What is the purpose?
    • What do I want them to do?
    • Why was I asked to speak?
    • What is their background?
    • What is my absolutely central point?, or If the audience could remember only one thing (and you’ll be lucky if they do), what do you want it to be?(p.61).
  4. What is your point and why does it matter? What is your elevator test?
  5. There are three parts to a presentation: Slides, speaking notes, and handout.
    • Create a handout to leave behind with your facts, figures, and references.
    • NEVER share the slides, because if your slides are valuable on their own, what are you doing up there talking?

Crafting the Story

  1. Stickiness is simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, stories.
  2. Story and storytelling: “clear beginning; provocative, engaging content in the middle; and a clear conclusion” (p.80). Internalize your story. Stories are information + emotion + visualization, then wrap it in unforgettable anecdotes.
  3. Use your own voice.

Create a storyboard

Step 1. Brainstorm.

Step 2. Group & identify the core, i.e. one key idea that is central. Maybe it has three “acts” or “themes”.

Step 3. Sketch out the storyboard either on blank paper or use a print out of blank slides.

Step 4. Open Keynote (or whatever slideware) and start building the flow.

Nancy Duarte: If you feel tempted to use a picture of two hands shaking in front of a globe, put the pencil down, step away from the desk, and think about taking a vacation or investigating aromatherapy.


  1. Simplicity “is about clarity, directness, subtlety, essentialness, and minimalism. Designers … are constantly looking for the simplest solution to complex problems” (p.104). “Beauty and visual elegance are achieved by elimination and omission” (p.107).
  2. Naturalness is about only using what is necessary.
  3. Elegance
  4. Amplification through simplification

N.B. Simplicity is not easy. This approach will not save you time. But it will make your presentations meaningful, powerful, and memorable.

Seven General Design Principles

1. Signal vs. Noise Ratio: The goal is to have more signal, less noise.

2. Picture Superiority Effect: Present information with a picture. “Images are powerful, efficient, and direct” (p.135).

3. Empty Space: It has a purpose and it is active. It directs the eyes to what is important. Use balance (symmetrical – not very interesting, asymmetrical – more powerful) and the rule of thirds.

And the Big Four: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity

Finally, the delivery.

Be present, and observant of oneself and the situation, others, and the environment.

Based on the writings of Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra:  “You are the gift, and your message is the contribution. There is no ‘better,’ there is only now.”

“You made a mistake? How fascinating! Another opportunity to learn something just presented itself” (p.196).

Zander again: “Lighten up, and you lighten up those around you” (p.198).

Connect with the Audience

Only use 90 percent of your allotted time. And never go over. Leave them hungry for more and not overwhelmed by the quantity of information. Buy a remote so you don’t have to walk back and forth to the laptop every 3 minutes.

Now to put this all into practice? Don’t change everything at once. Work on one thing at a time, play, reflect, grow. Notice where it’s working, where it’s not. Ask for feedback. Try.

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