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August 2007

The creativity imperative: nurturing what is our nature

Creative "You are a naturally and supremely creative being — why do you think you are not?" This is something I tell people — especially my college students — all the time. A lot of people misunderstand what is meant by creativity and dismiss it as some sort of cognitive ornamentation that guys with black turtlenecks pick up while at art school and then use to amuse themselves while standing in the unemployment lines. There is a real feeling among many, and apparently ingrained in education systems across the globe, that exercising our (innate) creativity beyond elementary school and learning how to think creatively must necessarily come at the expense of our well-established fundamental curricula. (The fundamentals and the basics are absolutely necessary, but it is not an either/or game).

So we let creativity slip and we become less and less creative (or at least we marginalize it) as we become adults, that is, as we become "serious people." But creativity is not just for the art and literature majors of the world. All professions increasingly require more and more infusions of creative talent. And the real irony is that our true nature is to be creative — it is who we are — yet we are often quite successful at educating ourselves and others out of it (a point that Sir Ken Robinson made at his famous TED talk).

I think creativity is so important for professionals today that I included an entire short chapter on the subject of creativity as it relates to presentation and presentation design in the book. Somewhere a long the line over these past 20 years we were sold a bill of goods that the only way — indeed the best and "normal way" — to make a "serious presentation" is to do so by the typical and formulaic, linear, template-inspired, slide-driven, humorless, sleep-inducing, death-by-PowerPoint approach that everyone hates, but few are brave enough — or creative enough — to do something about. What passes for "normal" today is indeed not natural.

Tony Buzan on creativity and learning how to learn
The reason I bring this up is because of this video (below) by Tony Buzan, who you may recall is the father of Mindmapping as we know it today (or at least the first to market it by that name). Buzan's presentation is perhaps not the most exciting, but hang with it, it's good. I think you will find the content very interesting.

And just in case you have never seen it, watch this 20-minute presentation by Sir Ken Robinson at TED on creativity, a video I have pointed to a few times before. Robinson's talk is more effective to my mind because he uses a bit of humor from time to time and is more engaging. But Buzan's presentation is worth watching.

Related Links
You are creative (who the %$#@! says you're not?)
You are creative (part 2)


PowerPoint tips that are clear and to the point

Clear_2thepoint I spent the weekend on the Island of Guam (three hours south-east of Osaka) finishing up a good quick read on presenting better with slideware in a new book called Clear and to the point: 8 psychological principles for compelling powerpoint presentations by Stephen Kosslyn. I would like to add this book to the short list of books on the topic worthy of your money. There may be nothing necessarily new for the most experienced of you in this book, but because the advice comes to you from a renowned cognitive neuroscientist from Harvard, who aligns his list of presentation and PowerPoint "do's & don'ts" with sound psychological principles, this book will be of help to you as you try to change your own "PowerPoint culture" around you. It's one thing when a designer says the current methods are flawed, but it is quite another when a cognitive neuroscientist says so. The book is by no means the final word on presenting with slides, but it does offer plenty of graphic examples of what works and what doesn't, and it will give you some "hard evidence" to use while you try to persuade your own entrenched curmudgeons trying to defend the status quo.

Kosslyn says that presentation success can be virtually defined by meeting these three goals:

(1) Connect with your audience
(2) Direct and hold their attention
(3) Promote understanding & memory

In other words, you must (1) make a connection with your audience and their goals and their interests, (2) you must get and keep their attention and interest and let them know what is important and what is not, and (3) you must make it easy for them to follow, digest, and remember your material. The eight principles are grouped around these three goals in an organized fashion. You'll have to get the book to get all the details, applications, and visual examples, but basically the principles are grouped like this:

Goal 1: Connect with your audience. This goal is supported by the principle of Relevance and the principle of Appropriate Knowledge. Do not include too much nor too little information, and select information and use language appropriate for your particular audience.

Goal 2: Direct and hold attention. This goal is supported by the principles of Salience, Discriminability, and Perceptual Organization. Attention is drawn to areas that are perceptibly different, so leverage design principles such as contrast and make differences big and obvious. Or as graphic designer Robin Williams would say, " Don't be a wimp!" Also remember that people will naturally tend to group similar elements into a single unit.

Goal 3: Promote understanding and memory. This goal is supported by the principle of Compatibility, the principle of Informative Changes, and the principle of Capacity Limitations. Messages are easier to remember when they are compatible with meaning. For example, the word
Red presented in green text violates this principle as would a graph about the homeless cat population in Osaka decorated with a background image of people playing with their healthy dogs. Remember too that people expect any change in your presentations — such as a sudden interjection of a joke or a story, or a visual change in slide color or an animation, etc. — to have meaning, and when they don't have a meaning this becomes noise and hurts effectiveness. And of course, audiences can only retain a limited amount of information in a presentation (see cognitive load theory), so choose carefully and do not try to stuff people's brains with more and more information. It won't work.

Backgrounds, salience, and compatibility
Let's use two of the principles, salience and compatibility, to examine the single issue of slide backgrounds. The most important element of your design should also be the most salient, says Kosslyn. This could be done in many ways such as with larger or bold type, color choices, positioning, and myriad other ways that help guide the viewer's eyes. Generally, slide backgrounds should have low salience, says Kosslyn. That is, backgrounds should be simple without lots of perceptible differences among the background image itself since this would interfere with the foreground elements. And if you use a photo for your background image, Kosslyn reminds us to use a background image that underlines our message instead of undermining it. A good background, says, Kosslyn, can "...allow you to underline your message effectively, or it can create confusion, the background image should not conflict with the message of the display." Let's looks at some examples below.

50_off   Happy_sell
Above: These are posters I found in two store fronts at a shopping mall in Guam Sunday. The one on the left uses three colors (white, red, black), the one on the right has over twice as many colors at seven (yellow, green, blue, red, black, violet, and white). In both cases the key element is the number set in large type: 40% and 50% are what attracts the eye of the shoppers looking for a deal ("off" and "%" are made smaller because they are a step down in importance and are assumed or implied given the context). The limitations of the discount (that they are for selected items only and that you have to buy one first at full price to get the discount on the shoes, etc.) are made subordinate and may in fact be missed until the clerk informs the customer who is now all ready in the store. The power of the "40% Off" on the colorful poster for a game software shop is reduced due to weaker overall design priority of the poster, which even includes superfluous clip art, and in the end simply blends into the sea of noise.(The poster reminds me of some PowerPoint slides that have a large title competing with the more important elements in the slide). The poster for the shoe store is a good example of salience ("Attention is drawn to large perceptible difference") as it is clear which element is the most important.

Let's look below at a few different ways to treat a chart on cell phone internet connectivity rates from 2004. The theme in this case is how far ahead Japan and South Korea are compared to the rest of the world in this area. It is not necessary for every bar to be a different color. South Korea is highlighted because that is the focus of discussion.

Design_chptr_slides  Design_chptr_slides094
Above Left: Background image from this PowerPoint template has too much salience itself and competes with the chart in the foreground. Right: Here the contrast is better between the background and the foreground, but the sand and beach ball are not compatible with the message. The background image (also a PowerPoint template) may be appropriate if the chart was comparing sunburn cases or days spent at resort holidays, etc. Still, you could find a better image elsewhere rather than using a tired template.

Design_chptr_slides096_2  Design_chptr_slides098
Above Left: Besides the color being inappropriate for this chart, the template has a fixed place for the slide title that is nearly a third down the page which interferes with the legibility of the text. We could reduce the size of the chart and place our title in it's designated place, but that would mean the top third of the slide is taken up by ornamentation. Right: The photo is appropriate perhaps for a presentation on organic farming but is not compatible with mobile phones. There are also some contrast and legibility issues as some of the text is difficult to see.

Design_chptr_slides099  Design_chptr_slides100
Above: A background photo of a cell phone user in Japan or South Korea may work. This photo does not make for great contrast, however. Contrast can be helped by placing a dark transparent box behind the chart, and still further by adding a Gaussian blur to the background image.

Design2  Design_chptr_slides097  
Above: I prefer to keep slides quite simple when displaying charts, graphs, or tables. Either of these may work. A white background can make for good contrast with dark text and other elements (nothing has more contrast than black and white) and works well when your room is relatively bright. In a dark room, however, a white background may be overpowering.

Clear and to the point gives a great amount of specific advice that's rooted in well-known psychological principles. I have no issues at all with the principles outlined by the author, but any time you give specific do's & don'ts in a book like this you are bound to have people disagree with some of your example treatments. I have some minor issues with only a few of the slide examples in the book, but all-in-all I would say that this is one of the most useful books on PowerPoint to ever be printed. Why this is not getting more press and more sales is a huge mystery — it's as if Oxford Press or the author do not want this book to do well. Odd. This is not a how-to-use-PowerPoint book, nor does it prescribe a method (which are two of its attractive features to me). But this is a very good book and it deserves some buzz. This would be an excellent supplementary textbook for a college-level speech-communications class, and of course, anyone who presents often will find the book provocative and practical. You may not agree with all the examples, but that's fine. The important thing is to get the conversation going.

If you can't afford yet another book related to PowerPoint/presentations, then you can get some feel for the material here in this article by the author.

Merlin Mann on "Inbox Zero" (Google Tech Talks)

Here's a good presentation you will enjoy. Merlin Mann, a well known productivity guru and creator of the popular 43 folders website talks about getting things done, the importance of getting your inbox to zero, and strategies for dealing with high volume email. Merlin spoke at Google earlier this summer and he told me (last night in fact) that Presentation Zen was an inspiration for his slides. The simple vector images Merlin uses are available at iStockPhoto. You do not need a drawing app like Illustrator since iStock provides you with a very large jpeg for each set of line art.

I think this video is very good and I'm inspired now not to let email rule my work life (which it clearly does all too often). What would have made the video even better is if they showed more closeups of Merlin and Merlin in front of the slide. Since the slides are so simple it is not really necessary to keep them on full screen that long. Google has asked me to come in to do one of the Google Talks as well. I'l try to do it just before Christmas or when I am in California again before Macworld in mid January. The video of the presentation — like Merlin's and Seth's, etc — will be recorded and put online. I'm really looking forward to presenting at Google (hope I don't suck!).

Below are the slides from Merlin's Google talk.

If you can't get enough Merlin, then checkout The Merlin Show starring Merlin Mann

Interconnectedness and "becoming the Buddha"

Here's a wonderful little TED talk by Bob Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University. Dr. Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. In this video, you can see him in a very short amount of time — sitting front and center on stage — engage the TED audience and give a little peak at the essence of Buddhism. All the while, of course, he can't help but make the audience laugh from time to time. Indeed laughter is very much apart of Buddhism. When you really become aware you can not help but laugh. Not the laugher that comes at another's expense, but the kind of laughter that comes from silence. Naturally it comes to you. That's the best kind of all. As Buddha said, "When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky."

You may find the talk starts slowly for you, but stick with it, Bob gets very interesting. I've watched it now 4-5 times. I love his quirky, natural, casual style. And what he says is spot on, of course. I love this line:

"I think the key to saving the world, the key to compassion is that, it is more fun. It should be done by fun. Generosity is more fun, that's the key."

Keynote slide

As far as the book goes, all text (first draft) will be ready tomorrow for the editors. There is still a ton of work and a mountain of design work to do. I am doing the design myself in InDesign and have made one sample chapter galley all ready so that it can be tested for printing. According to Amazon (shocked that the book is up there all ready; cover is not exactly right) the book will be ready for sale by November 17. I probably have way too much text. There will be lots of images and sample slides and lots of white space too, so I really have to scale the text back. This is the hardest thing.

Hope you enjoy the TED presentation.

Steve Jobs and the art of the swordsman

Steve Much has been written about the approach to presentations taken by Steve Jobs. His slides, for example, are always simple, stunning and highly visual and he uses them smoothly and seamlessly, advancing all slides and effects himself without ever drawing attention to the fact that he is the one advancing slides. His style is conversational and his visuals are in perfect sync with his words. His presentations are built on a solid structure which gives them an easy feeling of flow as if he were taking us on a small journey. He is friendly, comfortable and confident (which makes others feel relaxed), and he exudes a level of passion and enthusiasm that is engaging without going over the top.

It all seems so automatic and natural. It all seems so easy, so you’d be tempted to think that it just comes naturally to Steve, that it’s a pretty easy task for him to use his natural charisma to woo a crowd. But you’d be wrong. While it is true that Steve Jobs is a charismatic figure, I’m not sure giving presentations with multimedia support, and even giving live demos (how many CEOs do that?), is something that comes naturally to anyone. No, the reason Steve Jobs’ presentations go so well and are so engaging is because he and his team prepare and practice like mad to make sure it looks “easy.”

The waters are in motion but the moon retains its serenity

When Steve is on stage he is in a sense an artist. And like any artist, through practice and experience, he has perfected his “technique” and “form.” Yet also like the trained artist, there is no thought of technique or of form, or even of failure or success while performing the art. Once we think of failure or success we are like the swordsman whose mind stops, ever so briefly, to ponder his technique or the outcome of the fight. The moment he does that he has lost. This sounds paradoxical, of course, but once we allow our mind to drift to thoughts of success and failure or of outcomes and technique while performing our art we have at that moment begun our sure descent.


Mushin no shin (The mind that is no mind)
ZenbookWhen a swordsman is in the moment and his mind is empty (or the “mind that is no mind”) there are no emotions stemming from fear, there are no thoughts of winning or of losing or even of using the sword. In this way, says Daisetz Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture, “both man and sword turn into instruments in the hands of the unconscious, and it is the unconscious that achieves wonders of creativity. It is here that swordplay becomes an art.” Beyond mastering technique, the secret to swordsmanship rests in obtaining a proper mental state of “no mind” where the mind is “abandoned and yet not abandoned.” Frankly, if you are engaged in any art or even a sporting match, you must get rid of the obtruding self-consciousness or ego-consciousness and apply yourself completely, but also, as Suzuki says, “…as if nothing particular were taking place at the moment.” When you perform in a state of “no mind” you are free from the burdens of inhibitions and doubt and can contribute fully and fluidly in the moment. Artists know this state of mind, as do musicians and highly trained athletes.

These highly anticipated presentations that Steve does come with a lot of pressure to get it right. A lot is riding on each presentation and expectations are high inside and outside Apple. Yet what makes Steve so effective in these situations is that he is able to seemingly forget the seriousness of the situation and "just perform.” In this way he is like the artful swordsman who through his “immovable mind” has no thought of life or death. The mind has been quieted and the man is free to be fully present. As Suzuki puts it:

“The waters are in motion all the time but the moon retains its serenity. The mind moves in response to ten thousand situations but remains ever the same.”

We need technique and proper form and we need to know “the rules.” We need to practice and practice some more. By putting in the hard work in the preparation phase and internalizing the material we can perform our art — the art of presentation — in a way that is more natural by obtaining the proper sate of mind, that is, “no mind.”

Keynote ’08 now available
Steve had another nice presentation today in Cupertino in Apple’s Town Hall. One of my more memorable presentations was on that same stage; it’s a very nice little theatre. The new Keynote is something that I am pretty excited about. It is the built-in voiceover capabilities that you can put in sync with the cinematic transitions that I can’t wait to try. If someone knows of some samples (already) please let us know. Below are a few stills from today’s presentation. Go watch it here in a beautiful 640x360 (26.8 FPS) QuickTime display. (Update: Here's a link to a test video I made of the recording feature, or just scroll down to see the YouTube video.)


I’m not a fan of 3-D displays for 2-D data, but I admit that this does not look bad.

Steve seldom uses bullets, but when he does they appear one at a time as he reviews what he has said about the product. Notice there are no actual bullets, they are not needed as these are clearly four separate text elements.

"Look at this!....We think there is a much better way..."


“Put everything all in one and clean up the mess.”

The empty screen creates tension and anticipation…

Keynote 08...looks good.

OK, I have Keynote 08 and have been using it for about an hour or so. Love it. Here I quickly (very quickly) recorded my voice in sync with some slides. On the Mac the export looks perfect. When it is uploaded to YouTube some transitions are degraded quite a bit. Especially for YouTube you will want to keep transitions simple (perhaps no transitions and the occasional fade). I also have to experiment and see which is the best way to compress the movie for uploading to YouTube.

Now you can sync narration with your slides on Slideshare

A couple of weeks ago Slideshare announced Slidecast, a new feature which lets you sync audio with slides you upload to Slideshare. This is a good step in the right direction. Slides alone are not something I get too excited about, but narration with visual support is something much better. There is some potential here. There are no transition effects available, but I do not see that as a huge problem since the effects are abused much of the time anyway. If you wanted to make a slide show set to music you would want to use something like iPhoto exported to QuickTime to get the emotion of fades, etc. (This is what I used last summer to create our Hawaii wedding slideshow). But for teaching something or reporting something, etc. in a straight forward manner, the simplicity of Slidecast's output works well. I think I'll be using it in future. Below you can see a sample bit I did very quickly to see if it works. It was buggy for me (beta) but I got it to work.

My sample

Below is a presentation by Slideshare's Jonathan Boutelle on how to create a Slidecast.

Guy Kawasaki and Slideshare

Speaking of Slideshare, they announced recently that Guy Kawasaki is serving as one of the Board Advisors. Slideshare is talking to investors now and looking to kick it up a notch. And speaking of Guy Kawasaki, I wanted to let you know that Guy has agreed to write the Foreword for Presentation Zen (the book). He's the perfect person since he has probably seen more bad presentations then just about anyone.

Also as you may have heard, Guy launched a new website called Truemors in June  (Truemors for Facebook). The launch of this site has been controversial (to say the least). Below you can see the slides that Guy used in a presentation to talk about this web venture. As always, Guy keeps his sense of humor.