I lent my Presentation Zen book (authored by Garr Reynolds and bigged up by no less a guru than Seth Godin) to a neighbour about five years ago. Wish I hadn’t as it remains timeless, at least in my memory.
The book doesn’t talk about presentation tools, although there are many more of them around nowadays and most better than the stalwart PowerPoint.
It’s about telling stories, designing for maximum impact and ensuring that messages are memorable.
Presentation Zen’s philosophy was diametrically opposite to that used at Microsoft when I was there in the noughties. Our internal business reviews seemed designed to obscure - by throwing so much detail onto a slide that we’d actually have to hire bigger and bigger screens so that we could read them!
We’d also send the whole deck out a week in advance so that everyone could pore over the detail and find individual data points that might allow a contrary point of view. Amazingly, people did actually read all the slides, but it has to be said that the business insights that made sense came from customer feedback much more than they did from the dull statistics presented in red 4-point Arial.
Back to the zen.
Garr Reynolds gets you to think about what the real purpose is for the meeting and why you might need a presentation to help that purpose along. He encourages you to think about the three things you’d like your audience to remember that you said during the presentation -- and then consider the stories that you’re going to have to tell to make that feat of memory happen.
And only then does he get into design of the slides and the delivery of the messages.
Reading the book for the first time reinforced something I learned back in the 80s when first starting out in sales, and being told to take a presentation techniques workshop run by a bunch of actors.
Back in the day we weren’t presenting from PCs as they hadn’t been invented, so it was A4 transparent plastic pages called acetates that we used, together with an overhead projector that shone a bright light through the acetate, bounced it off an eye-height mirror and onto a white wall behind you.
If you walked in front of the mirror, the picture you were projecting would be obscured - and you’d also be blinded by the bright light. Great tech!
The actor designated to show us how to deliver powerful messages was all about movement, and, being used to bright lights, she didn’t turn a hair when she walked across the beam.
But then she did a curious thing.
She projected the image for a few seconds – enough for the audience to read the screen. Then she switched off the projector.
Suddenly, instead of reading the slide, the audience focused on the actor, not the message. They were all ears and all eyes and all attention. What came next was much more remembered than the slide ever would have been. Curiosity had been raised - and without distractions, minds were abler and more likely to process the information she provided.
Which brings us onto the title of this blog.
When you’re presenting using PowerPoint or Keynote, try pressing the “b” button. It blanks the screen. Deliver your message to your rapt audience. The press “b” again and you’re back on track.
Of course, if you read Presentation Zen, you’ll need the “b” key a lot less. But “b” is also a great way of handling objections.
If an unexpected question comes up just walk back to the laptop, blank the screen (which gives you time to think), answer the question in isolation from the slide deck, and then get back on track.
I’m too young to remember the other time we Brits commonly used the “b” button in technology* found on almost every street corner – maybe a reader will have a picture to share. But I encourage you to see how “b” can help your presentation game reach its heights.
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* Telco people will know what I’m talking about here – apparently the technology remained in rural Scotland until 1992, but had been replaced by 1959 in London. So there’s at least one thing I’m too young to remember, then!