Previous month:
July 2006
Next month:
September 2006

August 2006

From design to meaning: a whole new way of presenting?

Pink My favorite book of the summer is Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind.  A simple book in many ways, and a most profound and well-researched one as well. At 267 pages (in paperback), it's a quick read. In fact, I read it twice, the second time underlining, highlighting, and taking notes as I went along. "The future belongs to a different kind of person," Pink says. "Designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers — creative and empathetic right-brain thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn't." Pink claims we're living in a different era, a different age. An age in which those who "Think different" may be valued even more than ever.

" age animated by a different form of thinking and a new approach to life — one that prizes aptitudes that I call 'high concept' and 'high touch.' High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative....High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction..."

                                              — Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind

Brain The whole left-brain (L-directed thinking) and right-brain (R-directed thinking) exploration put forth logically enough in the first part of the book is highlighter-worthy, even if it's nothing really new for many of us who keep up on this stuff (my mother survived  a very serious stroke on the left side of her brain ten years ago; I have read a good deal and learned a lot about this subject since then). What I found particularly valuable in Dan Pink's book were the "six senses" or the "six R-directed aptitudes" which Pink says are necessary for successful professionals to posses in the more interdependent world we live in, a world of increased automation and out-sourcing. You can quibble over parts of his book if you like, but I think there is no denying that these six aptitudes are indeed more important now than they ever have been. Mastering them is not sufficient, of course, but leveraging these aptitudes may very well be necessary for professional success and personal fulfillment in today's world.

Now, Pink is not saying that logic and analysis, so important in "the information age," are not important in "the conceptual age" of today. Indeed, logical thinking is as important as it ever has been. "R-directed reasoning" alone is not going to keep the space shuttle up or cure disease, etc. Logical reasoning is a necessary condition. However, it's increasingly clear that logic alone is not a sufficient condition for success for individuals and for organizations. "Right-brain reasoning," then, is every bit as important now  — in some cases more important — than so-called "left-brain thinking." (The whole right-brain/left-brain thing, of course, is a metaphor based on real differences between the two hemispheres; a healthy person uses both hemispheres for even simple tasks).

A whole new way of of presenting?
The six fundamental aptitudes outlined by Pink can be applied to many aspects of our personal and professional lives. Below, I list the six key abilities as they relate to the art of presentation. The six aptitudes are: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. My discussion is with presentations (enhanced by multimedia) in mind, but you could take the six aptitudes and apply them to the art of game design, programming, product design, project management, health care, teaching, retail, PR, and so on. (I purchased the Japanese translation of A Whole New Mind yesterday. The Japanese translation of the six aptitudes (left) are as they appear in the book, though I added the English word below the Japanese.)

Design_1 (1) Design. To many business people, design is something you spread on the surface, it's like icing on a cake. It's nice, but not mission-critical. But this is not design to me, this is more akin to "decoration." Decoration, for better or worse, is noticeable, for example — sometimes enjoyable, sometimes irritating — but it is unmistakably *there.* However, sometimes the best designs are so well done that "the design" of it is never even noticed consciously by the observer/user, such as the design of a book or signage in an airport (i.e., we take conscious note of the messages which the design helped make utterly clear, but not the color palette, typography, concept, etc.). One thing is for sure, design is not something that's merely on the surface, superficial and lacking depth. Rather it is something which goes "soul deep."

"It is easy to dismiss design — to relegate it to mere ornament, the prettifying of places and objects to disguise their banality," Says Pink. "But that is a serious misunderstanding of what design is and why it matters." Pink is absolutely right. Design is fundamentally a whole-minded aptitude, or as he says, "utility enhanced by significance."

Design starts at the beginning not at the end; it
's not an afterthought. If you use slideware in your presentation, the design of those visuals begins in the preparation stage before you have even turned on your computer (if you're like me), let alone fired up the ol' slideware application. It's during the preparation stage that you slow down and "stop your busy mind" so that you may consider your topic and your objectives, your key messages, and your audience. Only then will you begin to sketch out ideas — on paper or just in your head — that will soon find themselves in some digital visual form later. Too much "PowerPoint design," as you know very well, is nothing more than a collection of recycled bullets, corporate templates, clip art, and seemingly random charts and graphs which are often too detailed or cluttered to make effective on-screen visuals and too vague to stand alone as quality documentation.

Story_3 (2) Story.
Facts, information, data. Most of it is available on-line or can be sent to people in an email, a PDF attachment, or a hard copy through snail mail. Data and "the facts" have never been more widely available. In this context, says Pink, "What begins to matter more [than mere data] is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact." Cognitive scientist Mark Turner calls storytelling "Narrative imagining," something that is a key instrument of thought. We are wired to tell and to receive stories. "Most of our experiences, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories," Turner says.

Story_1 "Story" is not just about storytelling but about listening to stories and being a part of stories. We were all born storytellers (and story listeners). As kids we looked forward to "show and tell" and we gathered with our friends at recess and at lunchtime and told stories about real things and real events that mattered, at least they mattered to us. But somewhere along the line, "Story" became synonymous with "fiction" or even "lie." "Oh, he's just telling you a big fat story," they'd say. So "Story" and storytelling have been marginalized in business and academia as something serious people do not engage in. But gathering from what college students tell me, the best and most effective professors, for example, are the ones who tell true stories. My students tell me that the best professors (from their point of view) don't just go through the material in a book but put their own personality, character, and experience into the material in the form of a narrative which is illuminating, engaging, and memorable. My hardest course in graduate school was an advanced research methods class. Sounds dry — and the textbook was dry — yet the professor told stories, gave example after example, and engaged the class in conversations which covered a great amount of important material.

In the end, we can all benefit from increasing our appreciation for Story and becoming both better listeners and storytellers. Story can be used for good: for teaching, for sharing, for illuminating, and of course, for honest persuasion.

Symph (3) Symphony. Focus, specialization, and analysis have been important in the "information age," but in the "conceptual age" synthesis and the ability to take seemingly unrelated pieces and form and articulate the big picture before us is crucial, even a differentiator. Pink calls this aptitude Symphony:

" the ability to put together the pieces. It is the capacity to synthesize rather than to analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair."

                                         — Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind

The best presenters can illuminate the relationships that we may not have seen before. They can "see the relationships between relationships." Symphony requires that we become better at seeing, truly seeing in a new way. "The most creative among us see relationships the rest of us never notice," Pink says. Anyone can delivery chunks of information and repeat findings represented visually in bullet points on a screen, what's needed are those who can recognize the patterns, who are skilled at seeing nuance and the simplicity that may exist in a complex problem. Symphony in the world of presentation does not mean dumbing down information into soundbites and talking points so popular in the mass media, for example. To me, Symphony is about utilizing our whole mind — logic, analysis, synthesis, intuition — to make sense of our world (i.e., our topic), finding the big picture and determining what is important and what is not before the day of our talk. It's also about deciding what matters and letting go of the rest. Audiences are full of busy, stressed out professionals with less and less time on their hands. A symphonic approach to our material and our ability to bring it all together for our audience will be greatly appreciated.

Empathy (4) Empathy. Empathy is emotional. It's about putting yourself in the position of others. It involves an understanding of the importance of the nonverbal cues of others and being aware of your own. Good designers, for example, have the ability to put themselves in the position of the user, the customer, or the audience member. This is a talent, perhaps, more than it's a skill that can be taught, but everyone can get better at this. Everyone surely knows of a brilliant engineer or programmer, for example, who seems incapable of understanding how anyone could possibly be confused by his (or her) explanation of the data — in fact he's quite annoyed by the suggestion that anyone could "be so thick" as to not understand what is so "obvious" to him.

We can certainly see how empathy helps a presenter in the course of a live talk. Empathy allows a presenter, even without thinking about it, to notice when the audience is "getting it" and when they are not. The empathetic presenter can make adjustments based on his reading of this particular audience. You may have had the experience of "changing gears" during your talk with great success. You may have also suffered along with others in the audience when a presenter seemed not to empathize with his audience at all, even droning on past his allotted time, oblivious to the suffering he was causing. The presenter with empathy — who empathizes with his audience — will never go over time, and in fact may finish a bit before his time is up.

Play (5) Play. In the conceptual age, says Pink, work is not just about seriousness but about play as well. Pink quotes University of Pennsylvania professor, Brain Sutton-Smith who says, "The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression. To play is to act out and be willful, exultant and committed as if one is assured of one's prospects." Each presentation situation is different, but in many (most?) public speaking situations playfulness and humor can go along way. I do not mean "jokiness" or clown-like informality. But many of the best business presentations or seminars that I've attended over the years have had elements of humor. As Pink points out, "Laughter is a form of nonverbal communication that conveys empathy and that is even more contagious than the yawn..."

Surf_play Indian physician Madan Kataria points out in Pink's book that many people think that serious people are the best suited for business, that serious people are more responsible. "[But] that's not true," says Kataria. "That's yesterday's news. Laughing people are more creative people. They are more productive people." Somewhere along the line we were sold the idea that a real business presentation must necessarily be dull, devoid of humor and something to be endured not enjoyed. And if you use slides — and God help you if you don't — the more complex, detailed, and ugly the better. After all this is serious business, not a day at the beach. This approach is still alive and well today, but I hope in future that this too will become "yesterday's news." It's possible. Remember, for example, that twenty years ago or so business — especially big business — rejected the idea of a graphical user interface for "serious computing" because business should be "difficult" and "serious," ideas that seemed incongruent with a mouse (how cute!) icons, pictures, and color, etc. Today, of course, almost every serious business person users a computer with a GUI.

Meaning (6) Meaning. I don't want to put too fine a point on this, but making a presentation is an opportunity to make a small difference in the world (or your community, or your company, or school, church, etc.). A presentation gone badly can have devastating impact on your spirit and on your career. But a presentation which goes insanely well can be extremely fulfilling for both you and the audience, and it might even help your career. Some say that we "are born for meaning" and live for self-expression and an opportunity to share that which we feel is important. If you are lucky, you're in a job that you feel passionate about. If so, then it's with excitement that you look forward to the possibility of sharing your expertise — your story — with others. Few things can be more rewarding than connecting with someone, with teaching something new, or sharing that which you feel is very important with others.

Frankly, the bar is often rather low. Audiences are so used to death-by-PowerPoint that they've seemingly learned to see it as "normal" even if not ideal. However, if you are different, if you exceed expectation and show them that you've thought about them, done your homework and know your material, and demonstrated through your actions how much you appreciate being there and that you are there for them, chances are you'll make an impact and a difference, even if it's just in the smallest of ways. There can be great meaning in even these small connections. Take the time before the presentation to meet people, linger afterwards to speak with as many as you can. This is where the relationships are really formed and where a difference can be made.

Many people find a great deal of meaning by volunteering their time and "giving it away." Think about volunteering to present for free to non-profit groups, schools, etc. When it comes to "meaning" these have been some of the most rewarding speaking opportunities. It's an opportunity for you to share your knowledge and wisdom, broaden your own network, and it serves as good practice for you. What could be better?

The slide builds in six stages beginning with Design. The vector images are from iStockphoto with some extra editing on my part.The content is adapted from pages 65-66, "Introducing the six senses."

Design. Story. Symphony. Empathy. Play. Meaning. These are not the last word on the aptitudes needed by the modern presenter, but mastering these along with other important aptitudes such as strong analytical skills will take you far as a communicator in the "conceptual age."

Daniel Pink's blog
Revenge of the right Brain by Dan Pink (Wired)
Dan Pink interview with
Changing world is leaving the SAT behind by Dan Pink (USA Today)

Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself (2002) by Dan Pink.
The World is Flat. A good companion book to A Whole New Mind.
Love is the Killer App. I kept thinking of this great little book while reading A whole New Mind. Good advice for the "Conceptual Age" man or woman.

Is it broken?

Seth_godin_4 Seth Godin made a nice little presentation at GEL 2006. I like it. I think you will too. In case you are wondering, the name of the font Seth used in his slides is called "Shatterboxx." This font is perfect for his topic (Get it? Shatterboxx? Broken?). You'd never use this for text in a document, but for Seth's presentation it worked well. The font is for very large type, display type. His visuals were just that, visual.

Listen near the end to what Seth says about Edward Tufte's favorite statistical graphic, Napoleon's March. Is it broken?

Some Tuf(te) Love
And speaking of Edward Tufte, what a treat it is to be able to hear an NPR interview about Tufte's new book. (The name of the book is Beautiful Evidence.) There is a short video clip of Tufte presenting at Cal Tech available there as well.

Tufte_2 I think Tufte is brilliant and I love his books. They are important books and I've learned a ton from them over the years. It's too bad, though, that he is known by many as the "guru who hates PowerPoint," because frankly, the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint essay does not meet his own high standards. Famous designer Don Norman has talked about Tufte on PowerPoint. "Pure nonsense," says Norman.  "...accompanied by poor understanding of speech making and of the difference between the requirements for a speech-giver, the speech-listener (the audience), and for the reader of a printed document."
Engineer Jean-luc Doumont also takes issue with Tufte on PowerPoint — Doumont published an essay called The cognitive style of PowerPoint: slides are not all evil.(APPLIED THEORY). You can download the essay from Amazon. Among other things, Doumont — an engineer with a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford — says that slides should be visual with clear messages and with " little text as possible."

Be Still, I am a huge fan of Tufte's work. And I think that there is indeed something to the idea that PowerPoint — judging from what we have seen over the last several years — does seem to take people down the wrong road. But there are also many examples of people making wonderful presentation visuals with PowerPoint. Are these just the 10% of presenters who Tufte says are able to rise above the cognitive style of the PPT software? He implies that about 80-90% of presentations given with the aid of PowerPoint are pretty awful. On this we can certainly agree. The causes and the solutions, however, are a very different matter. Nonetheless, if you want good advice about the visual display of data for documents — books, handouts, technical papers, etc. — Tufte is the grand master.

Is good PowerPoint design an oxymoron?
Stick2Good design is possible with PowerPoint, so long as one knows a little something about design and how to best display information appropriate for their own unique situation. Basically, I think, as Tufte thinks, that PowerPoint is really no more than a tool for displaying slides. The only reason I use Keynote, for example, is because it does less, not more (though it does it more elegantly, smoothly, etc.). In the end it's not about slideware or about tools at all. In fact, your average student or business person would be better off buying some basic design books (like this one) rather than a how-to-use-PowerPoint book. Hell, taking Betty Edwards' 5-day drawing seminar will make people better "presentation designers" in the long run than a book on PowerPoint. What a wonderful year it would be if you could attend an Edward Tufte seminar and a Betty Edwards seminar in the same year. Now *that* would be an education. I'd love to hear from folks who have attended either of these seminars.

If I were CEO of a large Silicon Valley company, I'd send my people to Tufte and Edwards, (Toastmasters, Bert Decker, etc.) and send my big presentation projects to Duarte Design. Tools matter, but better design education matters more. When the electricity goes off, who will remain the most effective communicators? As Alan Kay says, "Most ideas you can do pretty darn well with a stick in the sand."

In defense of PowerPoint by Don Norman

Clear visuals without lots of text (PZ)
The cognitive style of PowerPoint: slides are not all evil.(APPLIED THEORY).
Review of Beautiful Evidence (
Betty Edwards' popular book
The Elements of Graphic Design

The slideshow...

Slide_4 When I was in high school, I made a very cool 6-7 minute slideshow on environmental pollution for my class project in biology. The entire school saw it. The first part showed images of pollution and manmade catastrophes, including images of war. This was put to the song "Can't Stand to See the Slaughter (but still I eat the meat)" by Tower of Power. The second part featured images of the great beauty around us there on the Oregon coast set to the hopeful ballad entitled "Let Them See the Light" by Earth Wind & Fire. The slideshow was a visual affirmation of all the natural beauty around us juxtaposed with the manmade destruction and the hypocrisy of it (us) all (ah, to be seventeen again...). This was in the days before the "digital age" (I think the math teacher had an Apple II, the latest technology at the time) so I put my slides and music together with two 35mm slide projectors and used fades to give a "cross dissolve" transition between the two. The music was synchronized with the transitions on a single screen. The resolution of the images was fantastic. It looked as good as anything today to the audience, but it was a ton of work and it could not really be shared unless I lugged around a bunch of equipment with my teacher's help.

Making slideshows in iPhoto
We've been able to make pretty decent slideshows on a computer for a very long time. It's nothing new. But a few years ago Apple kicked it up a notch with iPhoto. I do not mean to be a commercial for Apple, but this little piece of simple software is amazing to me, if for no other reason than its slideshow feature, a feature that Apple does not even really promote. As easy as it is to use (which allows you to focus on the content and your story rather than mucking around trying to make it work), I do not know why more people, including students, do not make more and better us of the tool. It is not a pro-level tool, yet for slideshows, many pros use it.

Iphoto iPhoto is not deep with a laundry-list of features, yet it has what you need to tell a digital story with images and do it well. Still, one needs the talent and skill, not in using the tool (that's easy), but in knowing how to present the relevant information best, and how to tell a "digital story." People like Dana Atchley (1941-2000) were pioneers in digital story telling. We need more Dana Atchleys today. The tools are there, what we need now is more design education, more understanding about how to present information, and how to tell compelling, relevant stories that matter. Short, relevant, and good slideshows embedded in the presentation can be used by serious scientists or artsy-fartsy grad students working on their MFA.

iPhoto slideshow example
Photographer All of this is a long-winded way of me sharing with you that, in a very short amount of time today, I put together in iPhoto a slideshow of an evening we had in Hawaii to share with my friends and family around the world. The hardest part was deciding quickly which shots to include out of the hundreds our photographer, Susanne Pridoehl, snapped for us. The original exported video is of stunning quality and it looks great embedded in Powerpoint/Keynote; YouTube of course compresses the file a great deal. There are a few serious projects that I am working on where a short slideshow in the middle of the presentation will work very well. I had forgotten how useful the iLife suite is. Pretty amazing for such a low-cost piece of software.

Above: A low-rez rendering of an iPhoto slideshow in YouTube. Building, editing, and exporting was as easy as falling off a log.

At the very least we can make better vacation slideshows that won't bore our friends. But far more importantly, we can actually make short, serious slideshows that make our message or our case stronger. Slideshows can not substitute for our presentation and they must never be superfluous, but used well they can amplify our message.

• If you ever need a Photographer in Hawaii, I can highly recommend Susanne Pridoehl. Susanne is a young woman from Germany who has been doing very well as a Honolulu-based photographer for several years. We first met her at the shoot and we were pleased with her style and talent. The little slideshow here has a 4:3 aspect ratio which does not do justice to her originals. She's excellent.

• The song is "White Sandy Beach" by the late, great Israel Kamakawawiwo'ole.

PowerPointification of military briefings

QuestiommarkAs a follow-up to the post below, I would like to point you to an interview between host Leonard Lopate of New York Public Radio and the author of Fiasco, Thomas Ricks.

At the very end of the interview (go to the 30:00 min mark), Ricks talks about the problem of communicating with bulleted briefing slides. As he says, the typical PPT slide-as-document used in briefings is something that is confusing because, as a document, " [slide] tends to lack verbs and connecting thought." Says Ricks:

"One of the things I admired most about Col. H.R. McMaster  — [one of the] smaller things, but it pleased me as a writer —  he banned PowerPoint in his command. If you wanted to talk [about] something, if you wanted to make a briefing, you were to write it out in plain, understandable English that had verbs and connective tissue inside it."

Imagine: a document with clear, well-written, understandable English with verbs, and a cohesive logical flow. Anything is possible...

Download the MP3 here, or go to the site here for more listening options.

Watch the Jon Stewart interview with Thomas Ricks (3 parts) on the Comedy Central site.

Unrelated to PPT and military briefings per se — but related to visual communication and presentations in general — many of you will find the interview with computer scientist, Jaron Lanier, on "Why Videocommunication Didn't Catch On" quite interesting. Scroll down this page to see the links to this interview on the same Leonard Lopate show.

PowerPoint printouts used for communicating battle plans?

Fiascoslide_1 Thomas Ricks' Fiasco went on sale at the end of last month. The book is a "...hard-hitting indictment of the Iraq war...with compelling specificity" according to the publisher. Ricks, a senior Washington Post Pentagon correspondent and award-winning journalist, says in the book that "...under Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith, the Pentagon concocted 'the worst war plan in American history.'" You can watch an interview with the author here on the Amazon website. You can also see an interview with Ricks here on C-Span2. In this MSNBC piece, the interviewer says the book "...will likely become the definitive account of our [US] war there."

But why am I talking about this book here? Because several Presentation Zen readers this weekend sent me links to the Arms and Influence blog which, referencing "Fiasco," talks about the ineffective use of PowerPoint as briefing slides in the Iraq conflict. The blog points us to a passage in "Fiasco" which highlights communication problems, including really bad PowerPoint. In the book, Ricks quotes an Army Lt. General who was frustrated over getting vague PowerPoint slides sent to him instead of clear orders or plans. Said Ricks:

"That reliance on slides rather than formal written orders seemed to some military professionals to capture the essence of Rumsfeld's amateurish approach to war planning."                                                                                                                                                    — Thomas Ricks, author of Fiasco

Reliance on slides rather than formal written documents — sound familiar? It should. Remember the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003?

"The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic technical communication at NASA."

                      — Columbia Accident Investigation Board

Déjà vu. (See Edward Tufte's site for a thorough discussion on the better techniques for writing technical papers.)

This image below is apparently of an actual slide that Joint Task Force IV used to show how the occupation would work. Could this work as a stand-alone document?


Really bad documents
Bad presentations are one thing. They are certainly a waste of time (that's perhaps the least harm they do). But even in the worst of presentations, if we really need to know the answer to something we could interrupt or ask the question during the Q&A. With documents and handouts, of course, we have no such luxury. If a document is poorly designed and poorly written, where do we go to get a clarification? And if the document is crucial — even a matter of life and death — is it not paramount that the document be easily searchable with the appropriate depth of data and information? At no time should the reader be saying to themselves: "WTF!— what does this %#@*! mean?!!!"

It is just plain stupid to use projected slides (i.e., visuals) used in a live presentation as a document to be read later by people who did not see the talk. Surely the military knows the difference between on-screen visuals used in a live presentation and important documents and reports to be read and referenced in the field.

The Arms and Influence article points out the very same thing we have been saying for so long. Here are two major points I agree with from the post:

"PowerPoint slides are...not the conversation itself."
"PowerPoint slides are not self-evident."

I have talked about this here many times before. For example: "Slideuments," "Handouts can set you free," "Presentation documents and writing for non-writers," "The sound of one room napping," "Are we asking the right questions?"

Says the Arms and Influence author: "In a PowerPoint presentation, the speaker can pick up the slack during the presentation itself, or during the Q&A section at the end. In combat, no such opportunity to ask basic questions like, What did you mean by that?, presents itself."

Out of curiosity, I went to the US Department of State website to see if I could find any evidence of poorly made documents there. Sure enough, if you download the weekly Iraq Status Reports you will find that they are not written papers with appropriate graphic support and detail but PDFs of "briefing [PPT] slides." The Department of State says that these reports (series of slides) give comprehensive "updates in the eight key areas identified as pillars of U.S. Government policy." Why are these status reports made in PowerPoint? These would make ineffective visuals and they make for an even worse document. Apparently the allure of PPT is too hard to resist. Why on earth would they not use a word processor or page layout app to produce their documents? Why allow the "cognitive style" of slideware to influence the flow, organization, and depth of a status report? Surely the status reports on the War in the Pacific during World War II were of better quality?

Above: a sample slide from the August 9, 2006 Iraq Weekly Status Report (Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, US Department of State).

The legendary Alan Kay, the father of the graphical user interface, has said in the past that much technology is a kind of "inverse vandalism" — that is, the making of machinery or tools just because we can. Does this not apply to *using* technology as well? Do we print out PowerPoint slides because "we can" or because "it improves things"? In the end, I don't think PPT is the cause but rather the symptom of a very large and very complex communication problem here.

What's Your Point, Lieutenant? Please, Just Cut To The Pie Charts (
Wall Street Journal, 4-26-2000):
Good discussion on Edward Tufte's site on PPT and the military
Edward Tufte points us to a good example of a technical document
Edward Tufte on the Columbia evidence
The Importance of PowerPoint Slides in Iraq (FoxNews)
See the comments section in this Crooked Timber post
Death by PowerPoint on Arms and Influence site

Steve Jobs and the summer keynote

Jobs_wwdc As you know, Steve Jobs gave his WWDC '06 keynote presentation Monday at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Many people have written about it, so I won't go in to any depth here as I have talked about Steve's authentic approach many, many, many times before. He's the best. Interestingly, many in the media were disappointed in the keynote, both the content and the delivery of the presentation. I find this odd, but I guess I should not be surprised. Sure, the WWDC '06 keynote may have paled a bit when compared to other Jobs keynotes, but that's just because they (and he) are always so friggin' good. All 'n all, I'd say it was still another great example of how to run short demos and present material to a very large room. Compared to the majority of corporate keynote addresses, which are dreadful, Jobs and his staff did a good job Monday. Here's the most intelligent piece on Jobs' keynote Monday by Macworld's Chris Breen. (Also interesting comments by Les Posen).


Above, Jobs introduces his assistants in the order of their appearance from left to right.

Back to the future
Jobs_97 Instead of talking about this summer's keynote, I'd like to point you to a Steve Jobs Macworld keynote you probably have never seen, though you may have heard about it (you know, the one where a certain blond showed up via satellite, and I'm not talking about Madonna -- wait, is she still blond?). In the summer of 1997, Steve Jobs was back in the saddle again at the "beleaguered" Apple, though not yet as CEO. In fact, no CEO or Chair had been named yet since Gil Amelio was asked to step down (guess who would eventually take these titles). At the time of Macworld Boston in 1997, Apple's future was not at all certain. The press thought they were dead, and even Mac loyalist who knew the technology and what the brand meant were beginning to worry. Perhaps this Wired magazine cover sums it up best. In this context, then, Steve Jobs delivered a 35-minute Macworld keynote address. No sexy product launches, but one of the best talks by Steve Jobs at a Macworld ever.

I remember listening to this live on an old 6100 at 2:00am in my Osaka apartment. I was captivated by Jobs' words; there was certainly no video then. I was an evangelist and I wanted to believe. (I had no idea I would be leaving Japan to work in Cupertino just a few years later.) This presentation is historic, for more reasons than one, as you will see. But I like it most because it's short, logical and reasonable (satisfying my left brain), and yet filled with hope, empathy, and optimism (satisfying my whole mind). The use of a well-made video in the middle of the keynote was well placed and added strength and credibility to his message. I wish other presenters would make better use of strategically placed relevant videos within their presentations.

Above: Jobs reviews what matters most: The Mac and the Apple brand.

Colin Crawford (see his blog), the President of Mac Publishing at the time, gave a short overview of where the Mac stood at that time and did his best to introduce Steve Jobs. I say "did his best" because if there was ever a man who needed no introduction at a Macworld, it is Steve Jobs. Today, I like the fact that Jobs starts his presentations with a simple "good morning," rather than the usual "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome...." over the PA and the "It's an honor to be here..." from the presenter. I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with this, but I like the simple and humble beginnings of the Jobs keynote; he just walks on stage (often to thunderous applause) and gets started. Contrast this to the more unzen-like introductions of some other famous CEOs.


The crowd reacts instantly with a knowing laugh. Said Jobs, "...we've been walking all over it!"

Mt favorite part of the 1997 keynote is at the end. Go to the 36:00 min mark to hear Jobs conclude his talk. The essence of what he says here will play out over the next year in the award-winning Think Different campaign. (Read Behind "Think Different" — excellent stuff for those interested in branding or marcom). Here's an excerpt from Jobs' closing comments:

"...You still have to think differently to buy an Apple computer. The people who do buy them do think differently...they are the creative spirits of this world. They're the people who are not just out to get a job done, they are out to change the world...A lot of times people think they're crazy. But in that craziness, we see genius. And those are the people we're making tools for."
                                           — Steve Jobs, Macworld 1997

If you think this sounds like hubris or just plain old marketing crappola, then you don't really understand Apple and its loyal base. Perhaps Jobs planned these words out, but he was in no way reading them or repeating a memorized script, at least it did not appear that way (which is the point). It came across as coming straight from his gut, from his heart. He spoke on that stage in Boston at a time when Apple was at one of its lowest points. And yet Jobs' presentation gave the loyal base exactly what they needed then: a hard dose of reality coupled with a plan, and an injection of inspiration and confidence that said the loyal users' commitment to "the cause" was not in vain. Nine years later, I'd say Apple has done even better than anyone had dreamed or predicted, except, of course, for Jobs and the Mac faithful. They knew it all along (right?).

Related links (videos)
Old documentary on Steve Jobs, Next, and entrepreneurism
Part II of documentary
Steve Jobs at the podium introducing "1984" commercial (1983)
Flash back to 1981
Macworld 1997 keynote by Steve Jobs (in case you missed it).

Podiums, drum kits, and removing barriers to communication

I'm not a fan of the podium. Yes, it has its place, and sometimes its use is unavoidable. But in almost every speaking situation, standing behind a podium is like standing behind a wall.

Genesis81 While we were flying back on United Airlines from Honolulu to Osaka a few weeks ago, I caught an interview with Phil Collins on EM's Performance Theater on one of the in-flight audio channels. Phil was discussing his career and life in the musical trenches in between songs performed in front of a small, intimate audience. You may know Phil Collins as a singer, of course, but he originally started out playing the drums. As his musical career progressed he eventually would sing from behind the drums, and in time he would have to come out from behind the drums completely and take center stage. Phil is a fantastic drummer, so the interviewer asked Phil about the idea of singing lead vocal and playing drums at the same time:

"Most songs are vocally driven. Yes, it is physically possible to sing from behind the drums... But they [audience] want to see you. When you're behind a drum kit, it is very difficult to connect to people. That is why I am out in front."    

— Phil Collins

Collins said that while with Genesis early on, singing from behind the drums was his "security blanket." Sitting behind the drums is indeed a pretty secure place to be. Karen Carpenter (remember The Carpenters?) was very hesitant to come out from behind the drums back in the '70s. It's scary to stand front and center, naked.

Presenting from a podium is like singing lead vocal behind the drums
Physically, it's possible to sing lead from behind the drums and you can sound just as great, but what of the connection with the audience? Likewise, if you present from behind a podium, you may, more or less, sound the same and the media may look the same, but it's not ideal. Far from it. The connection is lost. Imagine if your favorite singer performed from behind a podium. Ridiculous, of course. Imagine, too, if Steve Jobs gave keynotes with the same slides and same video clips, same jeans and black turtleneck, but did all the talking from behind a podium/lectern. He may sound the same. The visuals may look the same. But the connection is not there. A connection with the audience is not a sufficient condition, but in the "Presentation Zen" approach, it is a necessary one. A podium is fine for a fifteen-minute speech at a university graduation ceremony, but it's a barrier in almost every other setting. (Of course, there are exceptions.)

What if Steve did his world-famous keynotes behind the podium? Would they be just as good? (Podium is a vector image from, $1.00 US)


If we make the podium a little more Apple-like, does it fit the Steve Jobs keynote style now?

Podiums, however, can make a speaker look authoritative and in command. This is why politicians love speaking from behind a podium in most cases. If you are aiming to look "large and in charge" then perhaps a podium is appropriate for you. But for most of us — conference presenters, lecturers, sales reps, etc. — the last place we want to be is behind a wall.

Also, podiums are often placed to the side and back from the edge of the stage. In this case, then, you are not only behind a barrier, your slides (if you use any) are the main focus, your physical presence is now very much playing second fiddle. It's possible for both you and the screen to be front and center, which is where people are naturally going to focus their attention. Next time you have a choice and decide to speak from behind the podium, ask yourself if you are doing so for your benefit (security blanket, etc.) or because it is indeed the most appropriate way to deliver your particular message to the particular audience in front of you.

Recently I attended a Toastmasters' speech contest in Japan (I was the keynoter the day before). Toastmasters is rather traditional, you may be thinking. However, I found it very interesting that not one of the contestants spoke from the podium, not a single person. All speakers placed themselves front and center (inches from the edge of the stage) and gave excellent talks, many of them moving slowly to different sides of the stage as they spoke, connecting with the whole audience.

Removing the podium: Going from good to great?
Crichton_podium If you have the time, take a look at this presentation by Michael Crichton entitled "Fear, Complexity, & Environmental Management in the 21st Century." I am biased because I am keenly interested in the content of his talk, so I enjoyed the talk very much in spite of the imperfections. However, I am not pointing out this presentation because
Michael Crichton makes good use of visuals (he does a better-than-most job of it) or because it is a superbly delivered talk; I think the delivery is merely adequate under the circumstances. I point to this presentation because it's a good example of a very good presentation that could have been insanely great if the speaker moved away from the podium and stood in front. Even sitting on a stool up front would be preferable. Michael Crichton instead sat at the podium. Now, Michael Crichton can get away with it because he is, well...Michael Crichton. The audience seemed very pleased indeed and the content was provocative and a bit (some would say a lot) controversial. However, for the rest of us without the fame and celebrity of Michael Crichton, burying ourselves behind a podium and reading notes, is usually not going to fly with our audience, even if the content is more or less solid. (Note: Michael Crichton is an extremely tall man, he may indeed have a physical need for sitting for such a long presentation. Again, my point is not to critique Michael Crichton's talk here so much as to give you a very visual example of "podium-as-a-barrier." Thanks to Stephanie Allen for the tip.)

And the walls came tumbling down
Generally the podium, if I may put it in the vernacular, "is so last millennium." Yet, there are times when the use of a podium is perfectly acceptable, such as when you are one of many speakers taking their turn at the center stage at a formal ceremony. But in cases where the people have walked in that room specifically to hear you, to learn from you, to be convinced or inspired by you, then you've got to do whatever you can to remove all walls —literally and figuratively — between you and the audience. It's scary. It takes practice. But it's worth it.

Below are some visuals I'm preparing for a talk which touches on similar themes. As usual, all photos are from iStockphoto (the image of the man climbing the podium is a composite of three photos).


Less walls, more connections. Nature provides us with plenty of walls...we need not build more.


Let people see you. All of you. Let them see you naked.


Walls are for climbing, not for speaking behind.

Top five singing drummers
Present naked

Balls, cheekiness, cogs, independence, travel, & high boots

Here are a few videos readers have kindly pointed out to me over the past few weeks. These videos are making a pitch or telling a story, much of it done sans the spoken word. You may have seen these before, but they are worth another look. They are not videos of speeches or presenters, but the "presentation" in these bits are strong.

Sony (tv/web ad)
BallsColor like no other. Sony's pitch is not an appeal to the rational. They are not trying to persuade you via lists of features, facts, or argument. Instead, their appeal is more emotional. Because at the end of the day, for most of us, what is the bloody difference between a 42" flat screen from Panasonic, or Sony, or the rest of them? But what if Sony could own a word? And what if that word was "color"? Color after all is an emotional thing and can be supported best visually and by example. This ad is a very simple and effective idea. Difficult to pull off, but they do it. It's beautiful, fun, and even inspiring. It's just a commercial, but to the team who produced it, it's art. (Watch in high-rez).

Honda "Cog" (on-line ad)
Like the Sony ad, you'd swear they did this tv commercial with the help of computer graphics.  And while it took about a zillion takes, the final result is all a single shot. Also on Google.

Virgin_cm_1 Virgin Atlantic (tv ad)
This TV commercial has surely offended some viewers, but I suspect the offended ones would never fly Virgin anyway. This method of pitching business class seats on an airplane is utterly unforgettable and completely fits the Richard Branson and the Virgin brand. Of course, Sir Richard loved it so much at the screening that he gave the chief creative officer a big fat kiss ("Choose your sleeping partners on Virgin").

My Declaration of Independence (by Pamela Slim)
Here's a little flash video that Pamela Slim of Ganas Consulting put together for her target audience. I like it. (The music may die out halfway through; they're working on it). You could imagine her doing a standup presentation in front of these slides. Pam introduces the video here.

Where the hell is Matt?
Matt_1One of the simplest and oddly compelling amateur videos I've ever seen. And one of the best. No message really — it just is. And yet, it is inspirational (and I'm not really sure why). No doubt teachers would do well to show this video and then explore in class all the places Matt went. Secretly, I think we all wish we could travel the globe. But it's a lot easier to watch Matt do it... The music undoubtedly helps (a lot). In fact, it may be the music that really makes the audio and low-rez video together so strangely compelling. More on Matt's homepage.

High Boots
High_boots_1What does this have to do with presentations or simplicity? Alright, it's a stretch. But for some reason I am strangely attracted to this '60s-era video which I found via a Boing Boing link weeks ago (Download options). I like it. It's camp.The visual (stage design) is extremely simple, mostly warm colors against a black background. Simple early '60s genre rock with few chords, silly lyrics, but a very strong backbeat and a booming bass drum. Primitive and primal, and oh so '60s. I was just a small kid back then, but it personifies that musical era for me. A lot of pop music today is completely over produced. Back then groups like The Dave Clark Five, The Ventures, The Beatles, The Supremes et al., had no choice but to keep it rather simple. If you hate the high boots video, then you're really going to hate this one by Nancy Sinatra. Groovy (baby).