You do not need to pound every detail into the head of each member of your audience either visually or verbally.  Instead, the combination of your words, along with the visual images you project, should motivate the viewer and arouse his imagination, helping him to empathize with your idea and visualize it beyond what is visible in the ephemeral PowerPoint slide before him.

Garr Reynolds 

Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds is one of the most influential books in modern presentation.  Taking a minimalist, information-centered approach, Garr explains how to use your audience’s time in the most effective way.  Focusing on visuals and graphic methods, Garr is certainly talking to commercial audiences first.  But his message of simplicity is perfect for scientists as well.

As with most books on presentations, Garr Reynolds is focused on the business market.  Unlike most of the others, however, he takes great pains to keep his book simple and focused on the elements that any presentation must have to be successful.  His explicit advice on preparation, slide design, and presentation style is entirely appropriate for the scientist.

Reynolds is about simplicity. Simplicity allows the audience to understand you, and it allows them to place themselves inside your idea.  Rather than pounding all the details into the audience’s head with a Powerpoint hammer, Presentation Zen leads you to approaches that help you,

“…motivate the viewer and arouse his imagination, helping him emphasize with your idea and visualize it beyond what is visible in the ephemeral Powerpoint slide before him”.

He lists important elements of the Zen presentation ethic as simplicity, subtlety, elegance, suggestive rather than descriptive, naturalness, empty space, stillness, and eliminating the nonessential.  In other words, pretty much the opposite of everything that PowerPoint encourages us to do, like filling slides with words, using complicated repetitive templates, and adding animated gimmicks.  However, Reynolds recognizes that we live in an age where PowerPoint, Keynote, and presentation software are an integral part of our lives.  He gives us ways to accomplish elegant, persuasive communication using these tools, rather than despite them.

Design – in the sense of aesthetics – is not a strength of the scientific community.  We cherish elegance, but the need for completeness tends to overwhelm it.  We receive no training in the basic elements of design aside from the lucky few of us that took advanced art classes.  This is not a topic that we are likely to pursue in night school, so it is delightful that Reynolds give us some basic considerations applicable to slide creation. He uses the concept of “signal to noise ratio”, similar in application to Edward Tufte’s “data ink”, to help us understand how to remove things from our slides and make them more readily understandable. He even gives concrete examples of how to deal with bullets – how many, and some better examples of creative ways to show multiple points without bullets.

Letting the viewer’s imagination, and your description, fill in the details instead of writing them all on the slide can make the presentation much more fun to watch, and still get the details across.  In this example Reynold’s ditches the repetitive elements of template, and picks one key text element instead of six – letting the story evolve in the viewer’s mind, making it memorable.

Chapter 7 is entirely composed of a series of presentations that embody Reynolds’ ethic, including several scientific presentations.  They illustrate two of the three fundamental aspects of presentation zen – simplicity and restraint.  The temptation to tell your audience everything you know will not wow them – in almost every case it will cause them to understand less.  While many authors of presentation books will tell you that the key to a great presentation is practice, Reynolds will tell that the key is preparation.

“One reason many presentations are so ineffective is that people today not take – or do not have – enough time to step back and really assess what is important, and what is not.”

Often we worry about the mechanics of the presentation – like the number of bullets per slide – when we should be asking ourselves, “What is the core point I want to convey?”  Reynolds rephrases this as two key questions: 1) What is your point? and 2) Why does it matter? Too often in science we find ourselves presenting to demonstrate how much we know, trying to prove to the audience that our erudition makes us worthy of their attention. We drone on and on, and if we ever do get to the question of why the audience should care, many of them are dozing happily and miss it.  Reynolds encourages us to always ask, “So what?”, and to answer that question in the first minute of the presentation.  Like all good story tellers, he encourages us to grab the audience’s attention in that first moment, and earn their continued attention rather than expecting them to donate the next hour to our bad preparation.

With the question of intent and preparation out of the way however, Reynolds gives the scientist excellent advice on some of the most critical mechanics questions.  He is often cited as the creator of the derogatory term sliduement, by which he means a PowerPoint deck filled with writing.  But rather than just denigrating it, he acknowledges that we often have a good reason to do this – the leave-behind. How can people understand our presentation when they only see the slides (and we all know this is a common occurrence).  Garr suggests an expedient that I have found to be both easy to implement, and more than acceptable to the audience.  Create your presentation deck with great graphics and minimal words on the slides, and create a handout that is composed of the slides with your notes below them.  This is a standard PowerPoint or Keynote option.  It keeps your slides clean and understandable, and gives the later viewer plain-english detail with which to understand them in your absence.  Presentation Zen is full of practical advice like this that scientists can immediately use to improve their presentations.

One of the most difficult aspects of a scientist’s path to better presentations is to improve their delivery.  Sure, we hear we should practice.  Certainly we should be natural and address the audience directly. This is Reynolds’ most philosophical material, drawing on analogies to judo, jazz, and swordsmanship.  While I appreciate those comparisons, I doubt I can imagine them as I face a new audience.

Again following his ethic of concrete suggestions however, Garr gives us a brilliant ten pages of direct “must dos” around the opening moments of the presentation – connecting with your audience. Make it personal – why do you care about this topic?. Bring conflict into your story (in science, this is the conflict between the previous understanding of the world, and your work’s revision of that understanding).  Face the audience, use eye contact, don’t read your material.  You certainly have heard all this advice before, but in the phrasing of Presentation Zen I think you will find it actionable, and memorable.

Garr maintains an interesting blog at http://www.presentationzen.com

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