Interview with Presentation Zen Master Garr Reynolds

"If you can get to Presentation Zen, you can do it all", said Mitch Joel in a recent Compete blog post. Mitch recommended that I interview Garr Reynolds to get on my way. Garr is the author of the best-selling book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery and the Presentation Zen blog. As someone who has spent her share of time developing and delivering PowerPoint presentations I was eager to contact Garr and begin the path to becoming a presentation master!

Garr is currently Associate Professor of Management at Kansai Gaidai University where he teaches Global Marketing and Multimedia Design. Garr is the former Manager of Worldwide User Group Relations at Apple Computer, Inc. in Silicon Valley. A sought-after speaker and trainer around the world, he’s a longtime student of the Zen arts and resident of Japan. He currently lives in Osaka where he is Director of Design Matters Japan.

I often refer to what I do in marketing as visually and verbally telling Compete’s story. What’s the number one thing you think makes a great story verbally? What about visually?

Emotion. Where there is emotion there is connection. If you speak like a real human being — which means reading slides is out of the question — and focus on your audience’s pain and the meaning of your brand or product or event in the context of that pain, then your story begins to hit people at a level that is more visceral, more emotional, and more memorable.

Visually, emotion matters too (as advertisers know very well), but above all clarity is the most important element in a visual. Visuals must not be decorative or contain superfluous elements such as logos or clip art, etc. High-quality photography is very effective as are simple and clear quantitative displays.

What can marketers do to better connect with customers when delivering their brand stories?

Stop sucking at presentations. Presentations with powerful visuals that augment your story can be very effective, but poor visuals or typical death-by-PowerPoint slidemares of bulleted lists and bad pie charts is much, much worse than using no slides at all.

What’s important is to understand your audience and know your story inside and out. If you know your story, if you have internalized it, then you don’t have to worry about memorizing a script. Don’t think in terms of memorizing your story, think in terms of internalizing it. Great actors do not memorize a script, they internalize it, it becomes part of them. If you internalize you are free to be in the moment with that particular audience. It does not matter if you have given a similar talk 100 times before, each audience is different. The more your story is internalized, the more it has become a part of you, then you have much more freedom to engage with this unique audience in a natural, conversational way.

They say that marketing is conversation. Well, your marketing presentation is quintessentially about conversation as well, and you can’t memorize conversation…you must keep it real.

You’ve written about the importance of removing barriers to communication. Are there 2 — 3 principles that apply across mediums (PowerPoint, web, print) in effectively delivering a marketing message?

Restraint, brevity, and beauty. Related to these three precepts is the concept of empty space. Whether we are talking about slides, web pages, or documents, careful and thoughtful usage of empty space or “white space” leads to messages that get noticed, understood, and remembered. More professionals need to realize that empty space is not nothing but rather a powerful something. Protecting negative space in a visual display or document is a good example of the kind of restraint that leads to brevity and beauty, both of which are appreciated by the viewer. Simplicity is our driving force, and simplicity contains myriad elements including restraint, brevity, and beauty.

You recently revisited your post, "Stand and Deliver: The comic & the presenter," in which you recommend looking to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld for presentation inspiration. Is there anyone else, comedian or otherwise that you think "gets it right" when it comes to presenting? What’s the one thing that person does that the rest of us can use today?

We can learn presentation and speaking lessons from unexpected places, which is why I often compare presentation mastery to other fields such as jazz, the Zen arts, documentary film, and comedy, etc. I admire the presentation skills of such people as Sir Ken Robinson, Steve Jobs, Al Gore, Rob Carter (FedEx CIO), comedian Bill Cosby, etc. There are lessons to be found even in observing fictional characters as well. For example, I’d have to say that Yoda is one of my favorite speakers of all time. Yoda understood the importance of economy in verbal expression. “Judge me by my size, do you?” Brilliant!

Never use a paragraph when a single sentence will do. A lesson for presenters today is that we should say only enough to get the point across and help our audiences understand. No more, no less.

At Compete, a lot of our business revolves around complex data sets. What recommendations do you have when delivering data-rich content in written and/or graphic formats?

First of all, throw out all your bad PowerPoint habits and invest in books by Stephen Few, Edward Tufte, and Nancy Duarte’s new book called “Slide:ology.” Also read the classic “How to Lie with Statistics” by Darrell Huff. Ask yourself if the data is really necessary to make or support your point. If (and only if) it’s absolutely necessary then do whatever you can to decrease the noise of the visual and increase the signal. Noise on a slide would include unnecessary colors, logos, clip art, or even thick lines and tic marks on a chart, etc.

Usually information and meaning are more important than mere data so be very careful and make certain you review your “data-rich” slides with a critical eye. Here’s a simple tip, rather than just giving a chart a title such as “Inflation rate,” change your title to something more meaningful such as “Inflation rate doubles” or “Inflation rate up 4%,” whatever underscores the point you are making with the chart. And if you have very complex data (that needs to be shown), consider distributing that in a handout instead.

Who should I interview next for the Compete Blog?

I suggest Dr. John Medina, author of the best-selling book “Brain Rules” — his ideas will change the way we all work and learn.

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