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December 2005

The "purple cow" of presentation design firms

Duartes_2Last Friday I took the long flight from Osaka to San Francisco, arriving Friday morning, six hours before I left. I made it to Mountain View in Silicon Valley in the afternoon to meet with Nancy Duarte, Mark Duarte, and many of the team at Duarte Design, a firm which specializes in presentation design. I gave a short presentation for many on the team and had a small tour of the company. I had to leave early the next day, so I was delighted that I could spend a couple of hours at Duarte before driving up here to Oregon the next day. There are several firms and individual specialists which do presentation design in the United States, but I don't think anyone approaches the quality and expertise of Duarte. These guys are the "purple cow" of presentation design. It's no surprise, then, that their clients include many of the top brands in Silicon Valley.

Though I was dead tired from sleep deprivation and jet lag, I had a fabulous time at Duarte Design. I was very impressed. They have a wonderful philosophy and approach, an incredible client list, and a terrific working atmosphere. No wonder they are so creative! The company has such a positive and relaxed atmosphere.

Duarte Design has a real appreciation for the need to appeal to the logical and the emotional aspects of presentations and presentation graphics. From the Duarte website, your can get a good feel for how Nancy and her team "takes an outline or half-baked slides and transforms them into a clear presentation that wins customers for her clients." Checkout these five great articles by Nancy which appeared in Presentations Magazine.

Duarte Design delivers great visuals in the end. But in the beginning of the process, they "go analog" and often take the client's ideas and create a sketch of possible visuals. Here you can see a sample concept sketch for an infographics project for Cisco (click "slideshow"). Duarte does a fantastic job of showing its work on its website. Also checkout their work on presentations, motion, infographics, etc.
The Chico connection
Several of the staff at Duarte are graduates of California State University, Chico. Chico State has a fantastic design program (Department of Communication Design), and in fact Duarte has set up a small office in the town of Chico as well. I'd heard about Chico State's great design department before. In fact, one of my close friends in Japan received her design degree from Chico and has always praised the quality of her experience there. She now is a very successful designer, working with some of the world's top brands in Japan. Chico State is obviously doing something right with their design department. If you're thinking of getting a degree in design, I'd give Chico State a look.

(Read an interview with the Duarte Design founders.)

Talking at them vs. talking with them

Last week, Harold Pinter's Nobel Lecture was shown in Stockholm. You can see the video of his speech as well as the transcripts (English, Swedish, French, German). Depending on your political leanings, your appreciation for the content of his speech may vary greatly indeed. But I think it is quite provocative, important, and worth a look.

Pinter on political theatre
I found Pinter's thoughts on writing political theatre interesting. With regards to political theatre, Pinter says,

"Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles,  from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will."

Again, Pinter is talking about writing good political theatre, of course. Still, he is talking about communication of ideas and I think we can apply a bit of his thinking to our own presentation approach. For example, is this (below) not good advice for many of us when presenting?

  • Avoid sermonizing
  • Be as objective as possible
  • Do not constrict or confine your audience, but engage them
  • Approach your topic and your engagement with the audience from a variety of angles. Surprise them. Allow them the opportunity to challenge, clarify, and offer up other opinions.

In part because of the "cognitive-style" of PowerPoint, many business and academic presentations inhibit engagement, interaction, and an "open-minded exploration of the truth." The "death-by-PowerPoint" approach treats the audience as if they were drones. And if not drones already, at least the presenter can hope with this approach that with enough didactic pitching of data, and ambiguous and superfluous visual material, the audience will become drone-like. In this presentation approach, you subdue the audience, beat them to death. Then in the end when there are few objections, you say that you are successful. You say that your audience got it. Understood it. And agree with it. Look, no objections!

An important question to ask
We should ask this question: Are we speaking at our audience or with them? If a speaker assumes he already knows all there is to know about the topic — or is simply not interested in hearing another side — he will tend to speak at an audience. This could be true regardless of whether slideware is used or not, though slideware may emphasize his dominance. Slideware itself, if one is not careful, could indeed make the presenter's whole approach seem pushy, overbearing, and one uninterested in debate or discussion. Says Edward Tufte, "PowerPoint's pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers...." Tufte goes on to say in this Wired article from 2003, "Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?"

I don't know about Stalin, put the PowerPoint-aided presentation approach of many business people and academics today — and the rhetorical approach of many politicians today behind the podium or in front of the camera — reminds me of the scene from the Nineteen Eighty-Four
inspired TV commercial (called "1984") created to launch the first Macintosh computer. This commercial was created long before people used slideware (1983), but it is interesting to see how the "big brother" figure, energized with belief, conviction, and sound bites, dominates and talks at his dazed audience.

      1984_head   1984_ppt
Both screen shots above are from the actual commercial. Left: The "big brother" figure gives his "presentation" complete with text (running below his chin) and other on-screen "data." Right: A passive audience absorbs the speakers wisdom (as the heroine enters to save the day). Notice the slideware-like text of the speech projected on the back of the auditorium. It seems the creators thought this would be the kind of multimedia communication experience you would see in a nightmarish, didactic, presentation in a future dystopian society. It is quite interesting — some would say disturbing — that many presentation situations today are not too dissimilar to the fictitious, far-fetched scene in this 60-second TV commercial created in 1983 for a computer company.

Above: A screen shot edited in Photoshop with the text of the speaker's content appearing in bullet point slideware style.
"We shall prevail." I assume this is an intentionally ironic choice of words since this kind of communication approach is not interested in "we" except in the sense that "we" (that is, "us") must capitulate. And in real life, too, often audiences do capitulate, or at least appear to do so either out of boredom, resignation, or simple relief (joy?) that the speaker is finally finished.

See the original 1984 TV commercial here. The Curt's Media site also has a good discussion on the making of the video. This is still regarded as the "best commercial ever" in many circles.   

(In this post I did not elaborate at all on the real meat of Pinter's speech for it is far outside the scope of this site. Two quick comments, however: (1) Seeing the speech on video, after having read the transcripts, made it very clear to me how much Aristotle was right — the pathos and the ethos are extremely powerful proofs. Reading the contents was one thing, but listening to the man and seeing his face and getting the content was quite another. Actually, I am quite interested to hear your thoughts on the "presentation" of his ideas in Sweeden as well. For example, how different might it have played in front of a live audience? (2) I feel a bit uneasy even referencing Pinter's speech at all because the importance of his content — whether you agree with him or not — is infinitely more important than the simple contents of this website, presentation design. In the whole scheme of things, of course, the items we talk about on this website don't amount to much at all really.) 

Can you be an objective advocate of ideas?

Brent Edwards posted his impressions of a recent Edward Tufte seminar he attended. (I can't wait to attend one myself.) I found this comment by Mr. Edwards on the seminar worth noting:

"In his seminar, he (Tufte) advocates that you view a presenter skeptically, making sure that they are a "detective" without bias rather than an "advocate" of their ideas. Tufte certainly sounds like an advocate in much of what he preaches."

Interesting. If we are an advocate of our ideas, does this mean that we necessarily lack objectivity? Is advocacy of an idea and rational objectivity impossible? Is "objective advocate" an oxymoron?

Tufte_1I was not at Tufte's seminar, but if in fact Prof. Tufte expressed something similar to what Mr. Edwards reports, then perhaps what Tufte is saying is that we should not let the advocacy of our ideas overwhelm our reasoning or skew the evidence we are presenting. That is, we must not let our belief about the idea obfuscate the evidence in support of that idea. Obviously Tufte recognizes that we carry around biases with us and that true objectivity is difficult to achieve. And if I remember correctly from my undergraduate days studying philosophy, Aristotle also knew that objectivity can be difficult. Aristotle, of course, put great emphasis on the importance of objective reasoning and appealing to logical argument. Maybe this is why today we are also concerned with sound logical argument, at least in most Western cultures. But Aristotle knew, too, that people are emotional creatures and that we can not ignore that fact.

Logic, emotions, ethics
Aristotle said that good rhetoric (arguments, presentations) can be broken into three separate artistic proofs: appeals to reason (logos or logic); appeals to emotions (pathos); and appeals based on the character of the speaker (ethos or ethics). The logical construction of the argument and supporting evidence, the emotional reaction of the audience, and the character of the presenter are all important elements of a successful presentation. Aristotle says, for example, that ethos and pathos are so important that if ignored the greatest logical appeal in the world could still be for naught. And while emotional appeal is necessary, Aristotle deplored the idea of using only emotional appeal to sway audiences at the exclusion of reason (and often truth, I might add).

AristotlePerhaps Tufte's concern today is that too many presentations ride on the speaker's personality or on the speaker's enthusiasm and conviction about the idea rather than on solid, logical reasoning and evidence concerning the idea. Because people are emotional, as well as logical beings, do we not need to take great care to avoid taking advantage of people's emotions? Certainly marketers — and governments too —  appeal to our fears to "persuade" us to take action, usually with a great obfuscation of "the facts."

Open mindedness and objectivity are paramount. However, I think being an "advocate of an idea" does not necessarily make me incapable of objectivity. And I believe a demonstrable passion for the presentation topic is indeed something good for a presenter to possess. However, it is also true today — especially in the political arena — that emotion, conviction, and strong beliefs have replaced an open-minded exploration of the truth. And this is not a good trend at all.

Books by Edward Tufte
I highly recommend Tufte's books. Tufte's books will teach you a lot, and they will also make you question conventional wisdom about how "evidence" is displayed. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is my favorite.

Visual_dis       Visual_ex

Envision       Dog

Tufte's seminar
Tufte has a limited seminar schedule, and charges $320 per person (including his books). $160 for students. This sounds like a pretty good deal. Wish he'd come to Japan.

If any of you have attended one of Edward Tufte's seminars, please share your thoughts. Love to hear from you.

    The Tufte photo is a public image from typeweight at Flickr.

The size of your deck is not important

Konishiki_sizeA lot of people ask me how many slides they should use in their "PowerPoint deck." That is, how many slides should be used for a single live presentation? My answer these days is "between zero and a thousand."

When I gave my "Art of Presentations" presentation last week at P&G in Kobe (for ACCJ), someone asked me at the end how many slides I had used. So I asked people what they thought. How may slides did I use, I asked (I spoke for 55 minutes). Guesses ranged from 40 to 60. The answer was 285. The audience was at once surprised and amused. Then I asked them, imagine if I had said something like this at the start of my presentation: "Hello, everyone. Thanks for coming. I have 285 slides to go through tonight, so let's get started...." The audience burst out laughing. One man said, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that he would have ran for the exit doors had I opened that way. And with that, the audience got it: In my presentation, the number of slides was obviously not important. The slides simply supported the talk. People were not conscious of how many slides they had seen or "where I was in the deck."

It's not the slides, it's "the moment"
Once people start counting slides, all is lost. The focus should be on the message and the moment. And "the moment" is a kind of synchronicity among presenter, audience, and supporting visuals that allows the audience and presenter to have a connection that is more like conversation and sharing and less like a didactic stream of bullets, "chart junk," and a ceaseless, incessant "blah, blah, blah" that an audience must endure. A presentation approach which resembles a speaker "getting through a deck of slides" treats the audience like a room full of video recorders. Mutli-media learning theory and cognitive science suggest, however, that this approach is not inline with how people most effectively handle new information. (See this older article, and works by professor Richard Mayer, such as this book).

It's the wrong question
Loori_book_3If your audience is conscious of the number of slides you are using — "too many" or "too few" — then that usually means you have inappropriately designed your visuals or are using them in a way that is not helping much. It's not the number that is the problem. I have seen both good and bad presentations that used no more than 10 slides, and I have seen both good and bad presentations that used more than 250 slides. I talked about this idea in my post on the Lessig Method a couple of months ago.
OK, but seriously, how many slides do I suggest? Honestly, it is not something I worry about. There are a million things to worry about, but the size of my "PowerPoint deck" is not one of them. So, maybe the best answer I can give you is to use the "appropriate amount" of visual support. And only you (and your coach if you have one) will know what that is. As John Loori says in The Zen of Creativity, "...make a choice about what's important, and let go of the rest." And the number of slides is not important.

Related Presentation Zen links
Are we asking the right questions?
Should lectures be conversational?

Presentations and "meta-spaces"

JasperEarlier this week, Jasper von Meerheimb, Sr. Art Director for Universal Studios Japan, gave a wonderful presentation (see photos) for Design Matters on "Meta-spaces," defined as "multi-dimensional visitor destinations designed to facilitate personal transformation in public settings." The presentation was very good and had just the right amount of content. 55 minutes. The content was provocative and with discussion could easily have been a 2-hour presentation. Lot's of things that make you go "hmmmmm...." Of course, visually, the presentation (he used Keynote) was simple, beautiful, and made use of a lot of photography as he explained key concepts.

Two things Jasper talked about stood out to me and are represented on two of his slides below. In Jasper's case as a designer, he is talking about "looking at the whole individual (user)" and "integration" in the context of designing spaces such as parks or shopping malls, etc. But if you think about it, the ten items listed on the slides below can also get us thinking about how to better design presentation visuals, and in fact the entire presentation, including content selection, approach, and delivery. Software designers/programmers and others too might want to take a moment to ponder these ten elements.

The Whole Individual.
Presentations are usually about great content, of course. Otherwise, why waste people's valuable time. But people (audiences) are not just sponges there to absorb information. Even the brightest among the brightest in the room will tune out if you "present" only data (and more data, and more data...). We have to appeal (not dumb down) to the whole person, do we not? Often to people who are "not like me" who have different assumptions and experiences. We need to target people's imaginations, emotions, and senses too. And often, we desire that people change their behavior as a result of our efforts. Too often, presenters focus only on the intellectual. The intellectual side is necessary, but it is one aspect of many. The best presentations take the "whole person" into account.


An Integrated meta-space. OK, I know I am stretching this, but in a sense you and your computer/projector and a room full of people are a kind of "meta-space" experience. Certainly the best visuals need to be (at the minimum) relevant as well as easy to grasp without too much explanation. The visuals support your talk, often in subtle ways. Some of the best presentations are multi-faceted in that they leverage many kinds of tools such as video, audio, photography, physical objects, whiteboards, and so on.

Get out!
I always suggest to people, especially to college students, that they "get out" and make connections and stretch themselves. Get out of your office. Get out of your house. Get out of your routine. You just never know where that next source of inspiration or that next cool person will come from. But that next inspiring bit of information or that new contact is not coming from your living room or your dorm room. You will have to sit on the riverbank a very long time before the birds of knowledge or inspiration fly into your mouth. Instead, "get out there" and see what happens. I started Design Matters more than anything else because I wanted to see what happens when you bring a diverse group of creatives and business people together in the spirit of sharing and growing professionally (and in other ways too). I always learn something new.

Photo of Jasper Courtesy of T.K. Photok13

Spreading the word

Seth_slide2Seth Godin says, "The more you give away, the more it's worth" (see original slide). I agree. If you want your ideas to spread big, then you've got to evangelize and get others to want to evangelize your idea or cause. You can't pay evangelists though. You can't pay your friends to love you and you can't pay strangers (or customers) to love your ideas. Apple User Groups,* for example, are incredible communities full of unpaid "Mavens" (a la the Tipping Point) that help spread knowledge about Apple products and technology, provide invaluable tech support (that Apple can't provide), and have "converted" a great many people "to the Macintosh way." What I'm talking about goes beyond just "selling" your idea, though. So what's the difference between a sales approach and an evangelism approach? According to the "father of evangelism marketing," Guy Kawasaki, "Sales is rooted in what's good for me. Evangelism is rooted in what's good for you." (See Father of Evangelism Marketing).

I'm trying to spread an idea. I'm trying to do my very small part to rid the world of awful, ineffective, time-wasting "PowerPoint presentations" that leave both presenter and audience feeling uninspired (at best). The idea that I'm trying to spread is that conventional wisdom about presenting is completely off kilter. Borrowing from the works and examples from such people as Lessig, Kawasaki, Jobs, Atkinson, Tufte, Sierra, Takahashi, and many others, and drawing on influences from the worlds of visual communication and design, Zen, cognitive science, multimedia, etc., I am attempting to shake things up a bit. The aim is to expose people to other ways of presenting and to get them thinking differently about their presentations. The more people hear me (and others like me) speak the more valuable this idea becomes. So, in the spirit of Guy Kawasaki's call that we revolutionaries "poop like elephants" (give of our time and spread our ideas generously), I gladly "give it away" when I can. And so do many, many others. It just makes sense to do so.

Evidence of my "pooping"
A few people have asked how the "free presentations" went last week, so here are some pictures from two of my presentations where I "gave it away."

Above: Speaking here in Osaka for the Osaka Sister City Association. Really nice people. Had a chance to mingle for an hour after the presentation over some tea and delicious desserts.

Above: Presenting for ACCJ at the Far East Headquarters of Proctor & Gamble in Kobe. A crowd of about 115 in attendance on a Friday night. (They had to bring in extra chairs). I spoke in English and had a simultaneous interpreter in the booth above. Some in the audience listened to the interpretation through headphones. The auditorium feels kind of like a mini United Nations. Wonderful place.

I was happy a few of my Gaidai students attended the event. From left to right, Rafael (Philippines), Julie (Kenya), me (USA), Jesse (Canada), and Jose (Ecuador). (The image on screen is available at

Above: Since the last time I presented at P&G, they added a monitor in front of the stage which mirrors what's on the large, bright screen behind the speaker. This is a wonderful thing. No excuse now for anyone presenting there to hide behind the podium. Great facility. I even made a PDF of my Keynote slides and loaded those on the house PC. That way if my Mac froze (there's always a first time) I could just press a button and switch to the PC already connected and ready to go.

*(Although you can not pay evangelist groups, such as Apple user groups, I would like to see Apple engage these user groups more and make them feel a little more "part of the team.")

More on giving it away

Here are a few links to some good "free stuff."

Jo_twist_1LEWIS PR presentations
If you're interested in the phenomenon of blogging — especially the "impact of blogging on corporate reputations and on the way the media operates" — checkout the three presentations available on the LEWIS PR site. LEWIS recently held a breakfast seminar on blogging in London and have put the three presentations up for everyone to see. The content is of interest. But what I'm impressed with is how they are sharing this info. Slides on the left are in synch with the video on the right, a video of good quality. The way they put this together in Flash is really quick and easy to use. I would love to see a Lawrence Lessig or a Tom Peters presentation in this format online. I need to make some of my own presentations available in this format.

The three presenters are Morgan McLintic, Loïc le Meur, and Dr. Jo Twist. What about the quality of the visuals and delivery in the presentations? These are three bright and articulate people, but yes, I would loved to have worked with the three of them before the presentations and reworked their visuals so that they would better support their key messages, making the experience even better for the audience. Hats off, however, to LEWIS for making these presentations available.

Nancy_duarte_1Duarte on presentation design
Duarte Design, located in Silicon Valley, works with the top companies in the area, from Adobe and Apple, to Sun and Symantec, and Google, HP and others in between. And there's a reason: They absolutely kick-ass when it comes to presentation design. Checkout the presentation visuals they did for Adobe, Cisco, HP, and others here. And they have a couple of case studies here. And here are five great, free "before/after" articles (pdf) by Duarte Design Principle, Nancy Duarte which originally appeared in Presentations Magazine. Great stuff! (I wish Microsft would use these talented folks...).

Speaking of free tips. Guy Kawasaki recommended this site to me for shortening my long urls before pasting them into emails. (Permalinks tend to go to the second line). For example, this permalink to a post from April looks like this:

After I run it through snipurl, it looks like this: