When you think Presentation Zen isn’t appropriate, that’s when you need it most

I meet many people who have read and enjoyed Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds’ masterpiece which tears up the received wisdom of presentations, and offers a completely different approach. Most accept that it has improved their presentation style significantly.

However, even these PZ disciples often tell me that they think Garr’s approach isn’t practical for certain types of presentations. It’s fine, they say, for a TED talk or a sales pitch, but you can’t use a Presentation Zen for a detailed technical explanation of how to run a particular widget.

I disagree. But I see where they are coming from. Many PZ readers get the impression that a ‘zenified’ presentation is one which features slides with lots of beautiful photos and very little text. The attractive design and plentiful visual examples in the book naturally have something to do with this.

But Presentation Zen is not a style: it is an approach. It is a different way of thinking about presentations, which does not prescribe the use of quality stock photos, although they may often feature in a resulting slide-deck. The end-result of using the Presentation Zen approach is an interesting, relevant and memorable presentation – not just some pretty slides.

Here are three situations where people say Presentation Zen isn’t appropriate.

1. A boring subject. You are required to present a study of 19th-century economic theories and their impact on the Crimean War to a group of 16-year-olds. They are fully expecting to be bored stiff and have no interest at all in the subject, you know this, and you’re all going to be very relieved when it’s over, after which they will remember precisely nothing because they weren’t listening. How can you possibly use the Presentation Zen approach for something so boring?

The answer is that if the subject is worth presenting, it is worth presenting in an interesting way. It is worth thinking about your audience and finding a way to make it relevant to them, to make them want to listen, and to help them to learn. In fact, it is the most boring subjects which can benefit the most from the Presentation Zen approach.

I recently heard an example of a bailiff who needed to make a presentation to other bailiffs about the rate of repossessions. Boring job, boring people, boring subject, boring presentation, right? Wrong. This bailiff used the Presentation Zen approach to craft an interesting and engaging talk, with a few clear and simple graphs and a little humour, which the audience loved.

The bottom line is that people don’t like to be bored, and if they are used to being bored, or are expecting to be bored, then it’s all the more important to find a way to make your talk interesting to them. This in fact is where Presentation Zen can be of greatest value.

2. A technical presentation. Imagine you need to use a presentation to explain how to use a particular piece of software.  There’s no chance at all of using Presentation Zen here, right?

Wrong. Once again, Presentation Zen is not a style. With the Presentation Zen approach, you will shut down your computer, consider your key messages and the success criteria for your talk, and think creatively about the best ways to help your audience to internalize those key messages. While the end-result may not include stock photos with a few words, it should be an interesting and engaging way of getting your messages across, with or without visuals, and in any case it’s unlikely to feature too many bullet points.

Many years ago I was a trainer for an IT infrastructure course we gave to all IT new-hires in a major corporation. This covered a lot of technical detail in many different areas, and it was in need of a new approach. I reinvented the course using a storyline – where participants had to imagine themselves starting a tiny company with nothing more than a phone, and building up additional bricks of infrastructure as the business grew until they had their own centralized data center and wide-area network.

This new structure helped participants to stay engaged, and to realize not just what each piece does, but why it is needed and how it fits with all the other pieces. I also introduced a large number of exercises to break up the flow, keep people involved, and help them to learn by doing, not just by listening.

This was before the time of Presentation Zen, but the approach is just the same. Find a relevant and ideally enjoyable way for the audience to learn. Think creatively, use the power of storytelling, and make the key messages memorable.

Coming back to the software explanation example, you might use screen captures, or videos, or a live demo, or you might get the audience to learn hands-on with their own computers. Any of those would be more effective than throwing out dozens of bullet points over a two-hour monologue and hoping some of it sticks.

3. A review of business results. Quarterly or annual results – absolutely no chance of pretty stock photos here, right? Correct – but that doesn’t stop  you using the Presentation Zen approach.

A customer approached my company Ideas on Stage asking for our help with his procurement department’s annual all-employee review, where he had to present the year’s results and the plans for the year ahead to 250 people. He gave us 108 highly detailed graphs as a starting point – most years, these would have been the slides. There is a lot to measure in procurement, especially in such a big group.

We helped him to simplify his messages, showing only the information which supported his main points, and we produced a deck of about 35 slides, all of which were simple, clear and attractive, often with simple graphs showing only the relevant information and making the key message stand out, and without a single stock photo. We then helped him to rehearse delivering those key messages with passion and belief. It was a resounding success. The Presentation Zen approach works very well for results presentations.

There are two simple conclusions.

  1. Presentation Zen is about more than just pretty slides, and Garr’s approach could lead you to deliver a presentation with no slides at all.
  2. It’s at those times when you may think this approach is least appropriate that, on the contrary, it can make the most difference.

If you haven’t yet read Presentation Zen, I strongly recommend it. If you have, I recommend re-reading it. Over time, we tend to forget much of what we read, and remember only a key takeaway or two. The two obvious takeaways from Presentation Zen are “don’t use slideuments” and “use simple slides with photos”, and sadly that’s all many people remember. Yet there is far more to it than that, and it is one of those rare books which thoroughly deserve to be revisited regularly.

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7 Responses to When you think Presentation Zen isn’t appropriate, that’s when you need it most

  1. Thanks Phil for this clear and committed post.
    On my side, I also often meet newbies that just consider PZ has “fetch nice images on Google and that’s it” (btw: without any consideration for the rights to use the image…).
    And in addition to “PZ is just not applicable in my context” we regularly have “but it takes to much time”.
    For this one, Seth Godin comes to the rescue with what I call the “crash course for a preZentation”; in summary: just do your (regular) homework with the Prepare phase (in analog!) as you stated and then (if running out of time and/or “design” skills) consider the simplest slides ever: a background color + 1-3 words in big on each slide. Simple, far better than boring bullet points and does not “consume” to much time in the design phase.
    Btw, merry Christmas to you and your family (+Pierre)

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks Charles-Antoine – I love that “It takes too much time” argument – like you, I hear it often. Some people just don’t get that they are presenting because their audience is important.

      You have 100 people coming to spend an hour listening to you – that’s a hundred hours of audience time. And you can’t afford to invest even a tenth of that time to ensure you’re going to use their time effectively? Then save their time and yours and cancel the presentation. Do it properly, or don’t do it at all.

      Wishing you an excellent Christmas and hope to see you again in 2012!

  2. [...] apply: 1) a boring subject, 2) a technical presentation, and 3) a review of business results (Source).  Waknell’s article is called “When you think Presentation Zen isn’t [...]

  3. [...] be emailed or sent via Dropbox (this is 2012!), I sent him Phil Waknell’s masterful article “When you think Presentation Zen isn’t appropriate, that’s when you need it most.&…  Visual presentation is still a [...]

  4. Alex_ says:

    Do you have any samples of financial presentations using the zen techniques ?
    I know that the post is one year old but it would be great to have an answer.
    Thank you.

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