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Obento, Zen gardens, and Presentations

Zen_garden1In The Zen of Creativity, John Daido Loori reminds us that the Zen garden is a lesson in simplicity. Open space without ornamentation, a few rocks carefully selected and placed, raked gravel. Beautiful. Simple. The Zen garden is very different from many gardens in the West that are absolutely filled with beauty, so much beauty in fact that we miss much of it. Presentations are a bit like this. Sometimes we're presented with so much visual and auditory stimulation in such a short time that we end up understanding very little and remembering even less. We witnessed a large quantity of "stuff," but what of the quality? Is it not the quality of the evidence and the experience that matter, rather than, say, merely the amount of data or the length of the experience?

Leave them just a little hungry (for more)
Professional entertainers know that you want to end on a high note and leave the audience yearning for just a bit more of you. We want to leave our audiences satisfied (motivated, inspired, more knowledgeable, etc.) but not feeling that they could have done with just a little less. In a sense, then, a good meal is much like a good presentation. The best meals leave you satisfied but in no way full, stuffed, or heavy. Should not a good meal leave you wanting just a bit more? Wanting more not because you are unsatisfied with what you've had so far, but precisely because you are so satisfied, a part of you wished it would continue.

When I visit the USA, I always marvel at the size of the portions served in restaurants. Somewhere along the way, quantity has replaced quality in determining what is considered a good meal, at least in many parts of the U.S. (and I suspect in other parts of the world too). It's a little different in Japan. Food served in Japanese restaurants is usually served up in small portions presented on relatively large, attractive plates. Usually there is good variety and portions that are both appropriate and attractive in presentation. As Loori points out, this same dynamic form can be found in the Zen garden as well.

"We are nourished by the presentation as we are nourished by the food. And we walk away a little hungry."

                                                     -- John Daido Loori

The ekiben: another lesson in simplicity
Give them high quality -- the highest you can -- but do not give them so much quantity that you leave them with their heads spinning and guts aching. One example of a high-quality meal with a modest quantity is the Japanese ekiben. The ekiben is a special kind of bento sold at train stations in Japan. Eki means "station" and ben comes from "bento." We can find various kinds of ekiben sold on the platform or the shopping areas at all shinkansen ("bullet train") stations. I mentioned this before, but one of the greatest pleasures for me here in Japan is to travel by shinkansen, say, to Tokyo for a presentation, and then enjoy an ekiben on the way back to Osaka. It may seem funny that such an ordinary thing as a simple, traditional bento consumed on an ultramodern, high-speed train can be so remarkable -- even inspiring -- but for me at least, it's true.

Above: I took this picture while returning home on the shinkansen last week. Simple. Appealing. Economic in scale. Nothing superfluous. Made with the "honorable passenger" in mind. After spending 20-30 minutes savoring the contents of the bento, complemented by Japanese beer, I'm left happy, nourished, and satisfied, but not full. I could eat more -- another bento perhaps -- but I do not need to. Indeed, I do not want to. I am satisfied with the experience; eating to the point of becoming full would only destroy the quality of the experience I'm having.

The same bento 30 minutes later. The visual presentation of the ekiben promised a delicious break in the day. The actual experience was even better than its visual appeal promised.

A good bento, like a good presentation, contains high-quality and appropriate content which has been carefully selected, nothing superfluous, nothing arbitrary. The quantity is sufficient to satisfy and to please, but not so much that it ends up undermining the overall quality of the experience. The goal is to have just enough, but no more. A single bento can not contain everything we crave; we must choose the appropriate one for the time and place. Our presentations as well can not contain everything there is to say about the subject, A-to-Z. We must choose carefully, with honestly and integrity. In the end, whether we are preparing a meal or delivery a presentation, it is desirable to leave them just a bit hungry for more.

Living in Japan has taught me not to stuff myself with more than I need (good for my health) nor to stuff my presentations with the nonessential (good for my audience).

Bento-related links
Links to many bento sites (and info on bento).

Box lunches.
Bento (background info).
History of the Bento
Mimi Ito has pics of her beautiful bentos
A billion photos of bentos
Bento site
An unusual display of Japanese cuisine
BBC article.
PowerPoint abuse and the Japanese bento


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