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July 2005

Wabi-Sabi and Presentation Visuals (part II)

Bonsai_1Work, if we're lucky, is a creative endeavor. Our presentations — high-tech or not — require our creativity in planning, designing, and delivering. Can ancient wabi-sabi principles apply to such a common task as a business or academic presentation?

Richard Powell, in his book Wabi-Sabi Simple, discusses how the ideas of wabi-sabi can be used today to make our lives better in various way, including our work lives. Take a look at what Powell says on creativity and think of ways this could apply to presentation design:

"The influence of wabi sabi on creativity begins with a simple premise: Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential. In bonsai and in haiku, you prune and trim what is nonessential in an attempt to shorten the distance between the observer and the observed. You carefully eliminate elements that distract from the essential whole, elements that obstruct and obscure....Clutter, bulk, and erudition confuse perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear and direct attention."

Not all wabi-sabi-inspired principles will have an obvious application to presentation design. But take a look at this chart from pages 10-11 of Powell's book. Here the author is contrasting wabi-sabi ideals with that which is "slick and stylish, plastic, and faux." What Powell calls "Tech Slick." Technology usage is important the author says, but a balance is necessary.

From this table below, how many of the ideas can you apply to the design and use of visuals or to the planning and delivery of your presentations?

Wabi Sabi
"Tech Slick"
Nature focused
Allows things to age
In the moment
The whole
Open and unresolved
Tolerates ambiguity
Soft edges
Technology focused
Strives for eternal youth
Bold and obvious
Conformity and sameness
Future oriented
Separated into parts
Works toward closure
Intolerance of ambiguity
Black and white
Square and measured
Hard edges

Wabi-Sabi and Presentation Visuals (part I)

ZenrockI first learned of wabi-sabi while studying traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony ("sado") fifteen years ago in the Shimokita Hanto of Aomori, a rural part of northern Japan. A perfect place to experience traditional Japanese values and concepts. While studying Japanese Tea Ceremony, I began to appreciate the aesthetic simplicity of the ritual, an art that is an expression of fundamental Zen principles such as purity, tranquility, and a respect for nature and a desire to live in harmony with it.

The ideals of wabi-sabi come from Japan and the origins are based on keen observations of nature. By really seeing natural beauty for what it was, the Japanese were able to derive key ideals and concepts that are hard to explain in words and need to be experienced and felt to be best understood.

Wabi literally means "poverty" or lacking material wealth and all its possessions. Yet at the same time feeling free from depending on worldly things including social status. There is an inwardly feeling of something higher, then. Sabi means "loneliness" or "solitude," the feeling you might have while walking alone on a deserted beach...deep in contemplation. These two concepts come together to give us an appreciation for the grace and beauty of a scene or a work of art, yet fully aware of its ephemerality and impermanence.

Some Westerns may be familiar with the term wabi-sabi through  wabi-sabi-inspired design, a kind of earthy interior design which is balanced, organic, free from clutter and chaos, and somehow quite beautiful in its simple presentation, never appearing ostentatious or decorated.

The ideals of wabi-sabi are most applicable to such disciplines as architecture, interior design, and the fine arts. But we can apply the principles to the art of digital storytelling (presentations with AV support/integration) as well. It's a design philosophy, but also an approach and a way of thinking that transcends the design of things (including presentation visuals).

One ideal of wabi-sabi which is quite powerful and practical for us is the application of empty space. A graphic, for example, may be mostly "empty" except for 2-3 elements, but the placement of the elements within that space form a powerful message. The same approach can be applied to a room. Many Japanese homes have a washitsu, a traditional room with tatami mats which is simple and mostly empty. The empty space allows for the appreciation of a single item such as a single flower or a single wall hanging. The emptiness is a powerful design element itself. In this case, the more we add, the more diluted and less effective the design of our graphic, or living space, etc. becomes.

A style of Japanese painting called the "one-corner" style goes back some 800 years and is derived from wabi and sabi. For example, in the "one-corner" style, you may have a painting depicting a large ocean scene and empty sky. In the corner there is an small, old fishing canoe, hardly visible. It's the smallness and placement of the canoe that gives fastness to the ocean and evokes at once a feeling of calm and an empathy for the aloneness the fisherman faces. Such visuals have few elements, yet can be profoundly evocative.

Sj_wabisabiWabi-sabi embraces the "less is more" idea talked about today, yet often ignored. Visuals created with a sense of wabi-sabi, if you will, are ones which are never accidental, arbitrary, cluttered, or busy. They may be beautiful, perhaps, but never superfluous or decorative. They will be simple. They will be harmonious even if imbalanced. Steve Jobs' visuals are often profoundly simple.

Can we enhance our visual communication in a high-tech business world by examining old Eastern principles from centuries past? Sometimes the best gems are found in the most unexpected places...

Dana Atchley (1941-2000): A Digital Storytelling Pioneer

Dana_atchleyHave you heard of Dana Atchley? Before his death in 2000, Atchley was a bit of a legend and certainly a pioneer in the digital-storytelling front. His clients included Coke, EDS, Adobe, Silicon Graphics and many others. He even worked with Apple as a charter member of the AppleMasters program. In the '90s, Atchley was helping senior executives create emotional, compelling talks that used the latest technology to create "digital stories" that connected and appealed to audiences in a more visceral, visual, emotional...and real way.

Dana Atchley's ideas about technology and storytelling were beginning to shake things up in the '90s. If Atchley would not have sadly passed at the young age of 59 back in 2000, presentations — even in the world of business — would be far more appropriate, engaging, and effective today.

Here's what Dana Atchley said about digital storytelling:

" storytelling combines the best of two worlds: the 'new world' of digitized video, photography and art, and the "old world" of telling stories. This means the "old world" of PowerPoint slides filled with bullet point statements will be replaced by a "new world" of examples via stories, accompanied by evocative images and sounds."

Read more of this article.

Take a look at what FastCompany was saying about Dana Atchley in 1999 in the article What's Your Story?

"Tired of delivering the same old business presentations in the same old way? Then join the Digital Storytelling movement, and take a lesson from its founder, Dana Winslow Atchley III. You may never use slides again."

"So why does communication about business remain so tedious? Most businesspeople describe their dreams and strategies — their stories — just as they've been doing it for decades: stiffly, from behind a podium, and maybe with a few slides. Call it Corporate Sominex."

"Digital storytelling is more than a technique. In fact, it's become something of a movement among both artists and businesspeople."

These bits from the FastCompany article sound so promising, don't they? I get excited reading this, thinking about the possibilities. Yet, since 1999, how much has really changed? Nearly seven years have passed. Some people are indeed using the digital technology in presentations the way Atchley envisioned. But there is such a long, long way to go before we rid the business world of the "corporate Sominex" phenomenon.

This year the Digital Storytelling Festival, founded by Dana Atchley and his wife, Denise, in 1995, continues in beautiful San Francisco. There is a lot to learn there. I hope the festival is, once again, the start of something big.

Must writing a good blog be painful?

Lying_downHave you ever strained a muscle in your back? If you have, you know something about physical pain. Thanks to a hard 40 mile mountain bike ride in hot conditions yesterday, I awoke today with a severely strained back muscle. I planned to write today, but found even sitting and typing in my office difficult — felt something like a sharp stick poked into my side (by an angry sumo wrestler) every time I moved in my chair. The only position in which I can work is horizontal. So, I am lying here in bed with my PowerBook G4.

The pain in my back both slowed me down and irritated me, prompting me to pause and rethink the Presentation Zen site I was writing for. I mean, what is the best way to write and share ideas here? Blogging is not easy, which is why I guess many people begin blogs (that's easy), but end up giving up on it in less than a year. They never taught "writing for blogs" when I was in college. A 20-page term paper or a 300 page thesis — that was relatively easy. But writing quick, short, yet rich and tight content for a blog...that's something else. I need to brush up on my blog writing skills. So, this pain in my back is a good excuse to lie in bed and surf the web for great blogs and great blog writing from which to learn.

Here are a few good articles on how to write well for weblogs.

From A List Apart

10 Tips on Writing the Living Web by Mark Bernstein

How to Write a Better Weblog by Dennis A. Mahoney

From (membership required, but free)

How to Write Compelling Blog Posts by B.L. Ochman

Don't Bore Me With Your Blog by Susan Solomon

Now, where did I put that aspirin...?

Tom Peters on Presentations

Tom_petersIn May, Tom Peters gave his insights on what he calls "Presentation Excellence" on his website. Great, great, great stuff from a guy who knows a thing or two about speaking to a crowd.

Tom also posted his tips — 56 in all — for Presentation Excellence. It's all great advice from someone who has a lot of experience speaking to groups big and small. Below I list what I believe are the "best 11" of Tom's 56 tips, just to give you a quick look. Tom posted his tips in a PowerPoint file on his site which you can download and then port into a Word file, reformat, and save as a good looking PDF to share with your staff. Here, I have combined some of his tips to keep it to 11 and added my brief comments below each of Toms' tips. (So why a "Best 11"? Hint: Have you seen Spinal Tap?)

(Download the Presentation Excellence PowerPoint document from Tom's site).

My "Best 11" of Tom Peters' 56 Tips (Tom's words in bold)

(1) Total commitment to the Problem/Project/Outcome

Authenticity. From the heart. You have to mean it. Absolutely fundamental. If it matters to you (deeply), it will matter to them.

(2) A compelling “Story line”/“Plot”

There's that word "story" again. Great presentations just don't contain great stories or anecdotes — the entire presentation is one grand story.

(3) Enough data to sink a tanker (98% in reserve). (Know the data from memory; ability to manipulate the data in your head)

Research. Facts. Evidence. Proof. Got to have them. But you probably only give them 2% of your knowledge in a typical presentation. But what if they want another one percent? Or what if they want an entirely different two percent from what you had prepared? Got to be ready for anything. If you know your topic inside and out — deep and wide — then there is nothing to worry about.

(4) Data are imperative, but also play to Emotion.

The brain has a logical left hemisphere an emotional right. We are presenting to people, who like it or not, are emotional beings. Even very technical presentations should not be data dumps alone. We must appeal to people's emotions.


Absolutely crucial. And where you connect with people is on the emotional level. You have great data, but is it the right data for them? Can you feel their pain? Can you tell a story?

(6) No more than ONE point per slide! NO CLUTTER!!!!!!!!! (no wee print/charts/graphs). Good quotes from the field. (Remember you’re “telling a story”).

Simple visuals for the screen, always. More technical, complicated data presentation can appear in the handout. (But what about Tom's PPT slides? We'll get to that another day....). QUOTES! Use them. This is one of the great things about slideware (PPT or KEY): the ability to bring in quotes from experts and display them in 58pt Gill Sans on a 20-foot screen. Wonderful.

(7) There must be "surprise"... some key facts that are not commonly known/are counter-intuitive (no reason to do the presentation in the first place if there are no Surprises)

Right. If you are just giving information, why present? Surprise, delight, challenge, engage the audience. People are busy — if they can get the same info from a book or an email, why bring them in to listen to a presentation? Make it matter.

(8) SMILE! RELAX (to a point) (fake it if necessary) ("up tight" is disastrous) (remember you are doing them a favor by sharing this Compelling Opportunity!)

This is one important way to connect. A smile may be the single most powerful form of nonverbal communication. By "fake it" I don't think Tom means be disingenuous and paint on a phony smile. The audience knows phony anyway. I think Tom means for us to remember that the presentation is also an "act" and the act must go on, even if we do not feel like smiling. We owe it to our audience (and ourselves) to be totally engaged in the present with our audience...and smile.

(9) EYE CONTACT!!!!!!!

Again, you want to make a powerful connection? You have to look people in the eye. In large rooms (and small) look directly at individuals. Do not just cast a general gaze to the back of the room. And of course, do not look at the screen (except in glancing), look into the eyes of the people you are talking with. What's a conversation without eye contact?

(10) Energy! Enthusiasm! .... Enjoy it! This is a Hoot! Remember your Goal: Change the world! ... A Presentation is an Act (FDR: “The President must be the nation’s number one actor”)

A presentation — big or small — is a performance, whether you like to think of it that way or not. Some think "performance" means "fake." Not at all. Have you ever seen a DVD performance of Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, or the 1968 Elvis Presley comeback special? Those cats (and chick) performed like crazy. They brought energy, enthusiasm, and had the time of their life on stage...and so did the audience. OK, we are not professional entertainers. But we must remember that our presentations are important opportunities to, in our own small way, have an impact...and change things for the better.

(11) Becoming an Excellent Presenter is as tough as becoming a great baseball pitcher. THIS IS IMPORTANT … and Presentation Excellence is never accidental! (Work your buns off!)

No, it ain't easy. In fact, it's hard. But careers have been advanced or derailed based on a presentation. Deals have been won or lost depending on the outcome of a presentation. Non-profits and volunteer organizations have won funding or folded up their tents depending on their performance in a presentation. Presentations matter. And it is something very worthy of our commitment and lifelong study.

Tom Peters' Design

Tp_design_3Management guru, Tom Peters, is at it again. You can call him what you will. You may even call him crazy. But he is also correct, I believe, in his jumping-up-and-down, evangelical endorsement of the power and importance of design.

Tom has four new books that have just hit the shelves comprising what is called the Tom Peters Essentials series. Actually, these are a repackaging of 2003's Re-imagine, but the smaller size make these very practical for taking on a train, or plane, or just down the street to the local Starbucks. I picked up my copy of Design yesterday, and I am very glad I did. Take a look at the cover (right). You can see Tom's mantra without even cracking the book — innovate, differentiate, communicate. Amen, Tom.

There are many good bits in this book that we can relate to the importance of presentation design as well. For example, in the book's Branding from the Heart section's "top-10-to-dos" list:

(7) Be a class "act." Rehearse your Brand Leadership thing with all the care and performative zeal of a...master thespian. Mantra: Look the part.

If you are going to be a leader, then you have got to be an outstanding communicator, motivator, story teller, and pitchman/pitchwoman.

(8) Stay soft. Cultivate a flair for the so-called "soft stuff" — the not-easily quantifiable heart and soul and blood and sinew of Who You Are. (Hint: You are not Your Numbers.)

Presentation skill is soft. Outstanding design of your visuals and supporting documents is soft. But without having great communication and presentation skills, life in business (academia, etc.) is hard. The thing about "soft" is... it's hard. But as we all know, the skills or abilities most valuable to us are often those which were the hardest to achieve. If it (excellent presentation skill) were easy, everyone would be doing it. But everyone certainly is not doing it. This is a very real, very strategic, potentially very profitable (and I just don't mean financially) area in which to differentiate yourself, your staff or your firm.

Presenting in Japan (part II)

Jpn_whiteb_1When you attend a presentation in Japan (where the speaker speaks in Japanese) you will find that when slides are used, they are usually filled with a great deal of Japanese text. Part of the reason for this is surely the influence of PowerPoint which encourages the user to fill the slides with text and bullets. But another reason may be the fact that the Japanese spoken language itself is more ambiguous and vague than, say, English or German. Spoken Japanese has many homonyms, words that sound the same but have different kanji. This can make spoken Japanese confusing sometimes, especially when one is attempting to explain a topic which is quite unfamiliar to the audience. Here's an excerpt from an article by Carl Becker (1986) which touches on the subject:

"This extreme plethora of homonyms in Japanese handicaps Japanese speech communication further. The more Chinese loan-words the speaker uses, the more he must pause to either verbally or pictorially (on a blackboard or palm of his hand) distinguish the word he is using from numerous homonyms. This method...detracts from the elegance and flow of the spoken language."

Becker, C. B. (1986). Reasons for the lack of argumentation and debate in the Far East. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 10, 75-92.

Often what is very useful for Japanese presentations, especially smaller, more technical situations, is a white board. This way the presenter can write a key term in kanji when necessary. Some of the better presentations I have seen in Japan have been ones where the speaker simply used the white board from time to time as his talk progressed.

But what about the "death-by-PowerPoint" type of slide presentations? Because of the nature of Japanese language, isn't a lot of Japanese text in a slide helpful? Yes, if limited to a word or two or a very short sentence, or a quote. The key is to keep it visual. If our slide has long Japanese sentences, then we are asking the audience to listen and read at the same time, something we should avoid since we are there to talk, converse, and connect. But if we are talking about a word or two in Kanji, for example, then this can be good visual support. This is true even for English, but especially true for short burst of display text written in Japanese (even with kana scripts) and Chinese given the visual essence of the script itself.

Japan is a very visual culture. Some of the greatest graphic design, for example, is from Japan. The written language itself is pictorial, so how did we end up with so many boring text-filled "visuals" in Japanese business and academia? There are many reasons, but two I have touch on above. The first is that the PowerPoint bulleted-list style was thrust upon Japan and the techniques absorbed from the West along with the imported software. More than anything else, it is simply habit now, reinforced by scores of "how to" Japanese presentation books that preach simplicity but encourage by example presenters to fill a slide with up to seven sentences of Japanese script. Secondly, the ambiguous nature of Japanese spoken language — which puts a lot responsibility on the receiver to fill in the blanks — can often be better understood if indeed supported by a display of written text. But, in my opinion, the positive influence of such supporting display text is greatly reduced (or negated completely) when a presenter places too much text on the slide. What is too much? Anything more than a simple Japanese term, phrase, short quote, or brief bullet list is too much...even in Japan.

Below are two examples. The one on the left would not be unusual in Japan (though the content may be). The slide on the right is more of a "Presentation Zen" approach — simple, visual. The Japanese in this slide says "The Art of Storytelling." I could use this slide when I talk about how marketing is really about the stories we tell, or how presentations are in essence about storytelling and connecting with an audience to inform, persuade, or motivate, etc. Most people can relate to telling stories around a campfire...we do the same when camping in Japan. The slide can help the audience almost instantly get what I am talking about...and it can help them remember as well.

     Jpn_slide       Simple_slide

Presenting in Japan (part I)

J_meetingWhile presenting in Tokyo the other day, the issue of cultural differences and presentation styles came up. There were essentially two questions: (1) is the "no bullet points" style of using highly visual slides with an engaging, warm, dynamic delivery appropriate in Japan? And (2) are there important cultural differences presenters must know before presenting in Japan?

In my experience, Japanese audiences are indeed used to rather static, bullet-point-filled monologues. This is "normal." But when a Japanese audience does encounter someone who engages, connects, shows their personality, uses professional images while at the same time weaving their content into a logical story with evidence and support, the response is almost always extremely positive. So the answer to question (1) is yes, though of course every situation is different.

This bring us to question (2), are there things foreign presenters should keep in mind when presenting in Japan? Yes, there are. In future I will touch on some of the issues in greater detail, but perhaps the biggest difference between a Japanese audience and an audience comprised of, say Australians and Americans, is that the Japanese will be very reluctant to participate when you put questions out to them. There are many and varied reasons depending on the context. For example, younger members of the audience may be deferring to more senior members (Power Distance). Or perhaps the audience members have never met each other and therefore naturally hesitate to risk a mistake in front of such a group (Uncertainty Avoidance).

The important thing is not to misinterpret silence or a lack of verbal feedback from your audience in Japan. In the West, a silent audience is often a bad sign — an indication that they did not understand, or they did understand but did not agree. You do not necessarily need to worry about an audience response that is more subdued than you'd expect in the U.S., for instance.

An awkward situation foreign presenters get into in Japan is when they plan for audience members to participate and then get noticeably thrown off by the lack of involvement. For example, last year I attended a presentation where the speaker had counted on the last half of his presentation being a Q&A session. The problem was, after 1-2 questions volunteered from the audience (which took a lot of prodding), that was it. No more questions. The presenter still had a great deal of time left, was visibly surprise and bemused, and ended up concluding his talk early in a very uninspiring manner.

A good presenter visiting Japan will do a thorough job of anticipating the questions first and then building those into the talk or into the Q&A time if the audience is indeed quite. Consult with your Japanese counter parts if you need help identifying possible questions or areas where there might be pushback during the planning stage of your presentation.

The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) provides a document entitled Communicating with Japanese in Business, a 35-page (pdf) document that provides a basic introduction to intercultural communication with Japanese.

Venture Japan also is a website which offers a basic introduction to doing business in Japan and some discussion on communication and culture.

Go visual

One of the main ideas behind the book Going Visual is that images are a powerful and natural way for humans to communicate. The key word here is natural. In other words, we are hardwired for understanding images and using images to communicate. For example, I grew up in a seaside home and I still recall using a stick to draw large pictures in the sand with neighborhood friends. We must have been no older than four or five at the time. There seems to be something inside of us that yearns to draw or otherwise show visually the ideas in our head through sculpture, paintings, photography, whatever. They say "a picture is worth a 1000 words." There's a reason.

Gerard and Goldstein on using images:

"...images have a unique power not just to convey information, but also to build unity and consensus around that information to promote action and decision making.... Because images are complete and detailed and deliver an information experience that has greater impact than words, a common base of visual information proves to be the most efficient form of shared experience from which to make decisions."

Images are powerful, efficient, and direct. Why, then, have we not used images more in business processes? For example, why do most PowerPoint slides contain far more words than images? One reason, historically, is that business people have been limited by technology. According to the authors, visual communication and technology go hand in hand. Whether we are talking about my stick at the beach, caveman paintings, or film photography. But here in 2005, most people do have the tools available. For example, we have digital cameras and editing software for easily placing photos in slides.

The authors show that the evolution of visual communication technology has three main elements: (1) Skill level — technology has gotten easier, (2) Time requirements — creating/using images takes less time, and (3) Audience reach — technology allows us now to communicate with more people visually.

To show the evolution visually, the authors display five charts in Going Visual. To explain their ideas concerning this evolution in my own presentation, I made my own slides with a very similar design with some modifications. I used these slides in a recent presentation on visual communication and they were most effective in helping the audience see just how far we have come and what a different world we now live in. Below are the thumbs of the slides.

1. 0    2. 1_2

3. 2_3    4. 3_1

5. 4_1    6. 5

Is the "1x7x7 rule" good advice?

Many books on presentations advise people to follow a "1x7x7 rule" — which means that we should use no more than one main idea per slide, no more than seven lines or text, and no more than seven words per line. There are many variations of this advice such as the "1x6x6 rule" or the "1x8x8 rule." Good advice? Generally, no. At least not if you are trying to have an impact. This slide below essentially follows the 1x7x7 rule, but could you imagine sitting through a series of slides like this?      

This older article on writing for the web discusses how bulleted lists are, on the other hand, quite good for helping web users scan a page.

I believe bulleted lists can be very effective when used within documents such as books, research papers, or articles as well. Bullet points in a document provide easily scannable "hooks" and summaries that can improve quick understanding and lead to better comprehension. In a live face-to-face presentation, however, bulleted lists are rarely effective since it is we who should be painting a memorable picture with our words, stories, and supporting visuals. Sure, once in a while, a bulleted list may be effective in a live presentation, but usually it is best if you move those items to the handout.

Michael Bernstein, commenting on the issue of bullets over at, had this interesting comment on the topic:

Powerpoint, though, is typically a group experience, and you can use many other means to provide the audience with shared experience hooks, most importantly by using your voice....

In fact, I'd say that bullet points try to do in text what good speakers do in life....

Well said.

The aspect of the ol' "1x7x7 rule" that I agree with, in terms of slide design, is that there should be only one concept or idea per slide. This could be a chart, a photo, a single word or sentence, whatever. But it is helpful often to simplify by keeping to the "one-idea-per-slide" rule.