[Garr Reynolds. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2008. pp. ix + 230. ￥2,499. ISBN-10: 0-321-52565-5.]
Presentation Zen is a book intended for people in any field who give presentations with slides. The 10 chapters, divided into five sections, are filled with striking photography in full color and many practical examples of presentation slides that clearly illustrate the main points. At the end of each chapter are bulleted summaries of important ideas. Garr Reynolds accomplishes what he proposes early in the book: “a good balance of principles and concepts, inspiration and practical examples” (p. 6), including providing insights from other accomplished presenters. We have used the concepts in this book in developing recent conference presentations as well as in presenting information to our students.
Reynolds invites us to let go of ineffective habits that we may have unconsciously learned through witnessing hundreds of bad presentations. He reminds us that it is useful to believe that we are creative and willing to make mistakes—both essential for progress. He encourages us to plan most of the presentation away from the computer in the early stages, an exercise we have all recently tried with good results. “Planning analog” (Chapter three) describes using such things as paper, pens, whiteboard, and post-its. Then, you can ask yourself some simple and useful questions: “What’s your point?” “Why does it matter?” (p. 62). To drive this point home, in the Elevator Test (p. 64) the reader is asked to imagine a situation in which a presentation is cancelled because the boss has a schedule conflict. On the way down in the elevator, the boss asks for a quick summary of the presentation. If presenting your main points in just a few seconds seems impossible, chances are you need to work more on just what your main points are.
Reynolds sees preparation in three parts: the slides, the notes only you will see, and the handout to be taken away by the audience. He advises keeping the slides simple and making the handout as detailed as you think necessary to avoid information-crammed visuals that can distract the audience from understanding what is most important—what you say.
In the Design section Reynolds teaches how to use pictures, text, and empty space effectively. He provides useful online sources for great images, and models the use of suggestion, empty space, stillness, and simplicity in his slide design.
Inthe Delivery section, Reynolds advises us “to be in the moment” (p. 185). What is special in this section comes from Benjamin Zander, conductor for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, who says “rather than getting bogged down in a sea of measurement where you compare yourself to others and worry about whether you are worthy to be making the presentation or whether someone else could be doing it better, instead realize that at this moment in time—right here right now—you are the gift and your message is the contribution” (p. 196). Reynolds reminds us also of the importance of humor to move us into that resourceful state.
A number of salient principles from Presentation Zen have influenced our presentations of late. In the preparation stage, we go less immediately to presentation software, for even the templates of PowerPoint can have an undue influence on how we organize our message. Replacing tired old slide backgrounds with vivid images that bleed off the page brings dynamism, allows for contrast, and makes our messages more memorable. Our teaching is also influenced as we design handouts and manage class in ways that help us communicate our lessons more clearly, with designs that provide support rather than adding to the noise.
This is not only an excellent book for our learning and presentations—it is so artistic you could leave it out on your coffee table for guests to look at. Truth be told, we wish every academic who does presentations would read and apply Reynolds’ suggestions. They would save us from the proverbial “death by PowerPoint.” Potential readers should be warned that Presentation Zen could have two unintended side effects. First, the ideas are infectious, and once they take hold it can be hard to resist spending your next few weekends searching for amazing visuals. Second, your newfound awareness of how easy it is to make quality presentations may cause you to have a little less patience for text-filled slides at your next conference or meeting. This is the one book that we recommend to all our colleagues who give presentations. We think Presentation Zen can greatly increase our effectiveness as we teach, give presentations, and facilitate the improvement of our students’ presentations.