Previous month:
August 2007
Next month:
October 2007

September 2007

Learning from Bill Gates & Steve Jobs

Bill_steve It's been almost two years since I wrote this post comparing the approaches to presentation by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Since PowerPoint 2007 has been out quite a while now I wondered if Bill Gates' visuals and delivery have improved along with the software. So I watched this entire Bill Gates presentation recently (twice). Now, I like Bill Gates a lot. He's a nice guy and he's certainly a great philanthropist. My friends at Microsoft tell me he's a pleasure to talk to one-on-one. I'm sure that's true, but mastering the large keynote presentation on stage still eludes him. His keynotes are not terrible, they are just very average and unremarkable. His style is "normal" and "typical" and his presentations are largely unmemorable as a result. Bill Gates is a remarkable man, why can't his presentations be remarkable too? Every time Bill does one of these "PowerPoint presentations" he legitimizes and validates this tedious style of presenting with slides.

I am not suggesting that Bill Gates change his presentation style (though I'd pay my own way to Redmond and work for free to help Bill with his next presentation). He's been doing it "the Microsoft way" for a long time and the world keeps on spinning. The point rather is that you and I cannot present like Bill under any circumstance. I don't care if you are pitching to investors or presenting a paper at a conference filled with stuffy, pedantic anthropologists, there is no excuse for tedium. We can still learn a lot by examining the different approaches taken by Bill and Steve.

Bill needs to be stickier
Lookingahead Remember that the Heath brothers found that sticky messages have six key attributes in common: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories. Bill has more credibility than you or I will ever have; he's one of the most famous people on the planet. But his presentations are usually weak in the other five areas. They are rarely simple (though the topics are not overly complex), his visuals are cluttered, he speaks in abstractions with few if any surprises and little emotion (Steve Ballmer, on the other hand, gets high marks for emotion VIDEO).

Bill & Steve redux
You may say that comparing Bill's presentations and Steve's keynotes is apples & oranges, that it's not fair to compare Bill's talk about technology trends to Steve's product introductions. If Bill were talking about the intricacies of insurance premiums and actuary tables, you may have a point. But in this May 16th presentation by Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman is talking about "technology megatrends that will shape the future of business and society." The audience included CEOs from top technology-related companies and the thousands watching on the webcast. There is no reason that this talk about "the future" and "business" and "society" had to be a bullet-point filled snoozer. (See more presentations by Bill Gates.)

Bill's "voice" vs. Steve's "voice"
Bill1 Steve's tone, pace, and the words he chooses all come together to make his "voice" conversational and natural. Steve appears comfortable, smiles, and uses humor just the right amount. He's relaxed so the audience is relaxed. Bill appears less comfortable and his speech is more vague and filled with abstractions. Bill also uses more jargon and terms like " capabilities," "rich fonts," "...working together in a rich way," "...use these tools in a rich way," and "...watching something rich like learning about an election." (See the rich transcripts of Bill's May 16th CEO Summit 2007. Watch the webcast of Bill's presentation.)

Bill's slides vs. Steve's slides
SteveBoth Steve and Bill use slides to complement their talks. Steve's visuals are a big part of his talk. The visuals are necessary not decorative. The visuals do not overpower him but they are an important component of the talk not just icing on the cake. Steve uses the slides to help him tell a story and he interacts with them in a natural way, rarely turning his back on the audience (monitors in front show the same onscreen image). Steve uses the huge backlit screen behind him in the same spirit at least that George Lucas uses his screen: to help tell a story. Lucas uses actors, visuals, and effects to convey his message, Steve uses visuals and his own words and natural presence to tell his story. In Bill's case the slides are not only of low aesthetic quality (though this may be a matter of taste) they simply do not really help Bill's narrative very much.

It's not the slides, it's the way they are used
Steve_slide But the biggest difference is not the fact that Steve's slides are simpler with fewer elements and fewer bullet points, the biggest difference is in the way they are used. If you want to appreciate the difference you have to watch both presentations (Steve, Bill). The difference is that Steve's slides flow smoothly with his talk. Bill's slides aren't really necessary; they are more of an ornament or a decoration off to the side. Bill would have been better off just pulling up a stool and sharing his ideas and then answering questions that audience members could have submitted before the talk so that Bill could select which ones he'd answer.

Bill's slides
Below are most of the slides Bill used in his CEO Summit presentation.

Picture_1_3 Picture_2_3 Picture_3_2
Picture_4 Picture_5 Picture_6
Picture_7 Picture_8 Picture_12_3
Picture_10 Picture_11 Picture15

Steve's slides
Below are just a few (Steve uses far more slides) of the slides Steve used in his August Special Event keynote on the Apple campus (watch video).

Picture_16 Picture_15 Picture_2_4
Picture_23 Picture_26 Picture_27
Picture_17 Picture_18 Picture_19_2
Picture_6_2 Picture_9_3 Picture_12_2

If your ideas matter
Bill's topic/subtopic bullet point style is very common, very bland, and rarely effective. He can get away with it, but you and I can't. I am not saying that solid presentation skills will make you successful, but do not dismiss remarkable presentation skills as something soft, fluffy, and superfluous. Why aim to be successful in spite of your presentation skills? Why not allow your presentation skills to be an advantage that helps you make a difference and spread the word about your cause? If your ideas matter, then the presentation matters, right? You don't have to use slideware for every presentation, but if you do the visuals should seem part of "the show" not something "over there" off to the side.

Looking for a photo of Bill

Speaking of Bill Gates, if anyone owns the rights to a high-rez image of Bill Gates presenting at Live or CES, etc. I am still looking to get a Bill Gates image for the book. (There are some good CC ones on Flickr, but my email inquiries seeking permissions have been met with silence--I suspect people rarely check their Flickr email?) If you have an image that you took and would like to share please send me a note here with your terms and conditions. Much appreciated!

Pecha Kucha and the art of liberating constraints

Pechakucha_slide Pecha Kucha is a global presentation phenomenon started in 2003 in Tokyo by two expatriates. What is Pecha Kucha? Our friend Daniel Pink sums up the essence of Pecha Kucha in the title of his Wired article on the subject: "Pecha Kucha: Get to the PowerPoint in 20 Slides Then Sit the Hell Down." The Pecha Kucha method of presentation design and delivery is very simple. You must use 20 slides, each shown for 20 seconds, as you tell your story. That's 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Slides advance automatically and when you're done you're done. That's it. Sit down. The objective of these simple but tight restraints is to keep the presentations brief and focused and to give more people a chance to present in a single night. I attended my first Pecha Kucha Night in Tokyo last May and the place was  packed so tight with such a buzz in the crowd that it was difficult to hear some of the presenters.

Pecha Kucha in Tokyo

Pecha Kucha Nights are held in cities from Amsterdam and Auckland to Venice and Vienna. Checkout the main Pecha Kucha Web site to find info on the Pecha Kucha night near you. If you search on YouTube you can find some example presentations, but none that I can find really do the method justice (if you know of a good quality video please let me know). This clip from Tokyo below pretty much shows how it went on the night I attended as well (in Japanese with some English on the slides).

Practical applications?
If nothing else, I think Pecha Kucha is good training and good practice. Everyone should try Pecha Kucha; it's a good exercise for getting your story down even if you do not use the method exactly for your live talk in your work. It does not matter whether or not you can implement the Pecha Kucha "20x20 6:40" method exactly in your own company or school, but the spirit behind it and the concept of "restrictions as liberators" can be applied to most any presentation situation.

The method makes going deep difficult. But if there is a good discussion after a Pecha Kucha type of presentation then it may work well even inside an organization. I can imagine having college students give this kind of presentation about their research followed by deeper questioning and probing by the instructor and class. Which would be more difficult for a student and a better indication of their knowledge: a 45 minute recycled and typical PowerPoint presentation, or a tight 6:40 presentation followed by 30 minutes of probing questions and discussion?

An example by Daniel Pink
If you want to see a good example of the Pecha Kucha method (sans speaker, just slides and narration) watch this nice piece below put together by Dan Pink on signs.

Dan's topic is very interesting to me as I too am a big fan of signs and notice them all the time. I snapped this pic below in Manzanita on the Oregon Coast this summer. Another great example of "emotional intelligence" that produces "a smile in the mind" for all those who pass by (and it may lead to greater compliance as well).

Bow wow wow...roof.

Too much clutter on the screen?

Tv_clutter Last week a reporter writing for the New York Times, Wendy Lee, contacted me to get my opinion on the issue of graphical clutter displayed in TV shows. Earlier in the week comedian Lewis Black put the issue on the front burner again by lashing out at TV executives during his three-minute rant at the Emmys. The reporter asked me if there was going to be a backlash against on-screen clutter from viewers (my comments did not make it into the online version at least of the article). I don't know about a backlash I said, but if you want to irritate or confuse people, or hide and obfuscate, then a good approach is to just keep putting all that clutter on the screen. Here's part of what Lewis Black said at the Emmys:

"Your job is to tell stories, it's not to tell us in the middle of the story what show is coming on next or which one is premiering two weeks from now! What do you want me to do, stop and get a pencil and write it down? Do you want me to stop watching and prepare myself for the next show?"

Watch Lewis Black's entire rant at the Emmys below.

What cable news can teach us?

It's the same deal for presentations in business or at conferences. Audiences need to hear someone's story not read it or try to decipher it from on-screen clutter that gets in the way of listening. We come to hear someone speak. And if they use great visuals (like Steve Jobs, etc.) then so much the better. The key is simplicity, harmony, and restraint in design, and naturalness in delivery--something cable news channels have little of.

Tv_news The cable news networks proclivity for displaying daily on-screen clutter extravaganzas do more than just make viewers irritated, the practice--which everyone is surely used to by now--has influenced a generation to believe that visual displays should necessarily have more not less elements crammed in to a small screen. This surely has influenced how people view their own PowerPoint slides (and other multimedia). When possible, put more "stuff" in there--more glitter, more boxes of info, more colors, more, more, more. Is this where "bad PowerPoint" comes from? Do we say to ourselves "Well, if CNN (FOX, MSNBC, etc.) does it I guess more text and lines and boxes, more logos and 3-D graphics in assorted colors must be how it's done. That's how serious presenters with serious tools do it," we say.

The cluttered TV displays make sense in airports and waiting rooms when the sound is off. But when we are listening to someone speak, visuals make sense only when they augment and enhance the message or illustrate the particular point the speaker is making. Graphics and effects completely unrelated to the topic are simply a distraction.

I've all but given up on cable news and instead get my information from newspapers and myriad online sources. The only "TV news" I can watch is The Daily Show. At least they are being ridiculous on purpose.


Lewis Black tells CNN to get the clutter off the screen live (video).

Hans Rosling: Don't just show the notes, play the music!

Data and information are not boring. The key is to select the appropriate (and accurate) data to support your message.  But it also matters how you bring the data alive, giving it context and meaning. One of the masters of displaying data in live talks is Swedish doctor and researcher, Hans Rosling. (You may remember Hans Rosling's 2006 TED talk which I posted here last year with some others.)

Hans wows the 2007 TED crowd
In this video below from TED 2007, the Zen master of statistics makes a simple point in a very visual and memorable way: "The seemingly impossible is possible. We can have a good world." Hans showed with stats what is possible in the world, then he closes with a big, unexpected, and memorable finish (I actually had a hard time watching the ending, but it was effective).

A visual approach


(Above) Besides his charts and graphs, Hans' slides were very visual and his delivery was engaging. Slides above are a couple of examples.

Hans pokes fun at the "typical PowerPoint" slide

(Above) Near the end he pauses and says: "But I have to get serious. And how do you get serious? You make a PowerPoint — you make bullets!" (audience laughs) The summary slide (which worked because he built it as he talked) was his "Homage to the Office package" he said.

The shape of things to come

This presentation below is amazing and is a look into the future of how we will be making and watching presentations online. Actually, it is not in the future, it is now. It is pretty easy to do this with current tools. In the very near future it will become even easier to use a "blue screen" effect like this. I do not want to see just slides, and I do not want to see just a talking head. I want the online video to be almost as good as being there. This gets close (and you can do this without expensive equipment or a production team like Steve Jobs or the TED producers use).

Hans developed the software behind his visualizations through his nonprofit Gapminder, founded with his son and daughter-in-law. The free software — which can be loaded with any data — was purchased by Google in March 2007.

Hans Rosling's important message (required viewing for all)

Below Hans Roslings speaks at the OECD World Forum in Istanbul earlier this summer. This video has fantastic content. Absolutely is brilliant. Stick with it and listen to Hans' message (video is not great, but the content is).

Here are a few quotes I found compelling from this talk:

    "...few people will appreciate the music if I just show them the notes. Most of us need to listen to the music to understand how beautiful it is. But often that's how we present statistics; we just show the notes we don't play the music."    

"It's an enormous force when we animate our statistics and we put it free on the net."  

"The database hugging in public institutions is hampering innovation."

Progress report on Presentation Zen (the book)

Run I have run four full marathons in my life, and I have found that producing a book feels pretty similar in at least one regard: no matter how much progress you make, the finish line seems a million miles away. You know you'll get there on schedule, but the closer you get the more you realize that there is still so far to go. Right now I am at about the 20 mile mark in the book writing/designing marathon process. If you have ever run a marathon you know that this last bit—"only a 10K"—is the toughest part. The text is about 90% ready (still in Word) and I have put a lot of work in on the design of the pages (in InDesign). You can see some of the pages from Chapter 1 on the desk below (pic snapped tonight). On screen is the first page of Chapter 3 on "preparing analog."


A good editor is worth her weight in gold
Delete I wrote the ten chapters (may go to eleven or twelve) in Word and then sent them to my editor at Peachpit in the USA. She sent them back with all the typos and errors fixed and with red lines through the parts she recommended to cut. All her recommendations to cut were excellent. Sometimes I repeated myself, saying the same thing but in a different way. Other times the point was made, but I still went on and on giving more examples, etc. I thought I was being brief and cut loads myself, but she really took the knife to the copy I sent in. I know my writing is not that tight, so I greatly appreciated her advice. A lot of text was cut from each chapter, but more may still be cut after I put it into InDesign. The book can be no more than 240 pages and it features hundreds of sample slides (in full color) and photos and other images that support the narrative and the presentation of the book. A healthy amount of white space is necessary too so the balancing of text, images,and white space is a real challenge.

Good writing, like good design, is about elimination
Good writing, like good designing, is more about subtraction than addition. And that's where a good editor—or another set of skilled eyes—comes in. I just could not see the nonessentials in the same way an objective editor could. I have accepted all of her suggestions on what to cut and what to keep; her recommendations have been all spot on.  Below are three quotes related to the art of tight writing (the first in a Keynote slide).


"Inside every fat book is a thin book trying to get out."

                                                             — Unknown

"Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination."

                                                                — Louise Brooks

With a little help from my friends
In order to get a better feel for the flow of the pages, I sometimes print a chapter from InDesign and then spread it out on the floor to see the big picture. The photos below demonstrate what happens if I forget to shut my office door when I go to the kitchen for another cup of coffee. Here you can see Luke and Kona enjoying Chapter 1 in a way I had not thought of (good thing the pages were numbered).


Above: A couple of cool cats have fun with draft copies of Presentation Zen.