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August 2008

Kermit learns visual thinking

Jim_Henson While reading Dan Roam's blog today I stumbled on this great little clip of a 1966 Kermit the Frog skit on visualization from the Ed Sullivan show. And then I found an earlier version of the skit from the 1950s below. Jim Henson truly was a creative genius and a pioneer (and either he — or Kermit — was ahead of his time). In this skit from the old Sam & Friends show — which is even before my time — Kermit and Harry the Hipster do a riff on visual thinking (I love the visualization of jazz...).

Dan Roam's @ Google talk

Backofnapkin And speaking of the power of visualization, there are a lot of good books out there on the topic, and one of my recent favorites is Dan Roam's Back of the Napkin (which I mentioned before). I recommend his book, but if you've got too much to read already then at least set some time aside to watch Dan's Google talk below. Dan makes many good points in the book (and this presentation). One of his points straight off is that the ability to visualize and even to draw is already within us. The problem is, after the age of six or so we're shunned away from visual thinking as we go through formal education. Obviously reading and writing, etc. are very important. No one is saying we need less of that. The problem is the visualization capabilities that are naturally within us never get fully developed in most of us. I wonder if this is part of the reason why most presenters fall into the old and excruciating bullet-point trap. 

(Don't have time for the @Google Talk? Then watch this five-minute presentation from BNET which summarizes Dan's book.)

Learning Slide Design From an IKEA Billboard

Can you learn how to make better slides by looking at a few signs around your local IKEA store? This may sound absurd, yet the lessons are all around you, and you can indeed learn a lot from a well-designed billboard, including those created by IKEA. On page 140 of Nancy Duarte's Slide:ology, Nancy says that good slides in many ways are most similar to billboards. That is, the audience should be able to get the meaning in a very short amount of time.

"Presentations are a 'glance media' — more closely related to billboards than other media.... Ask yourself whether your message can be processed effectively within three seconds. The audience should be able to quickly ascertain the meaning before turning their attention back to the presenter."
                                                                        — Nancy Duarte

Billboards & slides: "glance media"
BillboardGood billboards and other signage, must (1) get noticed, (2) be read/understood, (3) be remembered, and (4) we hope an action is taken or one's thinking is influenced. The first three in particular apply to presentation slides as well. I am not suggesting that you literally copy the style of the signs outside an IKEA. But you can incorporate the same principles for your displays used in your live talks that designers use for billboards and other 'glance media.'  Most people could not care less about a billboard or the signs outside an IKEA store, of course. But you're different. So you slow down and you pay attention to "the design of it." You notice the elements such as color, size, shape, line, pattern, texture, emptiness, alignment, proximity, contrast, and so on.

Samples from the local IKEA in Osaka
Yesterday I took these snaps of the signs outside our local IKEA store in Osaka. With the exception of the subject matter/content, how are these signs similar or dissimilar to the visuals you use now for your live talks?

Boxes  Table

Lamp  Hedda

Malm  Bevara 

Notice how the images are large and "bleed" off the edges of the frame. Lots of empty space and a clear design priority.
Text can be easily and quickly read from a distance and at a glance.

Cups  Ikea_ppt_cups
Above: The billboard on the left is the actual one at IKEA in Osaka. Then I asked myself the question: What would happen if everyone had the power to create billboards? On the right is the answer, a "death-by-billboard" version of the IKEA sign featuring the same content on the left (with more detail added). So what's wrong with the version on the right? If it were a sign or billboard the passerby would miss all of it (if they noticed it at all). If it were a slide used in a live talk, all that information and clutter in the frame would not only be distracting and hard to read, it would raise the question: Why are you there?  (a question my buddy David S. Rose — "The Pitch Coach" — always asks.)

8 lessons from standing outside an IKEA store
Below are eight things you can takeaway from the billboards shown above and apply to your next presentation project. (The sample slides are from my slide library; click for a larger size.)

Design_section.017(1) Make it visual.
Slides are visual aids, not "text aids," right? Again, it must be noticed (we notice compelling visuals), understood, and remembered (we remember images). We are visual beings. You do not have to use slides, but *if* you do, make them highly visual. And remember brain rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses. (See the book Brain Rules.)

(2) One slide, one point.
Introduction_section.329 IKEA does not try to cram many products into a sign or give a lot of information about that product in a sign, though there is plenty of space to do that if they wanted to. Instead they feature a single item at a large size — it gets noticed, read, and remembered. For presentations, "one slide, one point" is a good general principle to follow. Don't be afraid to tell your visual story over many frames.

(3) Make type big.
Wimp As designer Robin Williams says, "Don't be a wimp!" People are indeed too wimpy when it comes to text on a slide. Have some grapes! The type on the IKEA building, for example, is enormous and the billboards too feature bold type that sticks out. Display type should get attention and get the point across. Big gets noticed and read, and big makes for easy contrast with small, aiding in guiding the viewers eye. Kerning becomes an issue with text at larger sizes because the spacing that worked automatically at 12 point may be unbalanced at a much larger point size, but since you are not using so many words at the larger size, adjusting a few letter pairs here and there (such as WA, etc.) will not be such a big deal. Also, the size of symbols can be adjusted at larger sizes (e.g., $, ¥, &, #, %, etc.). Notice how the "¥" mark on the IKEA signs is reduced in size to fit more harmoniously with the numbers. The monetary symbol can still be seen perfectly fine, but it would be overpowering if the yen mark and numbers were of the same point size; the "¥" would be unnecessarily large. A minor thing, yes, but it all adds up. Display type and body type are different.

(4) Contrast rules!
Egg_contrast Contrast is perhaps the most important principle of all. You can achieve contrast in many ways, size (big/small) space (near/far), and color (light/dark, warm/cool), etc. IKEA achieves great contrast with color by using a vivid warm color which comes at you (yellow) and a cool color for background (dark blue) on the side of their gigantic building. White and black (the greatest color contrast) is also often used in the IKEA billboards. Although I do not recommend the IKEA brand color scheme (unless you work for IKEA or one of the Swedish Olympic teams), IKEA graphics make good use of contrast.

(5) Don't be afraid to bleed.
Chart The product images displayed on IKEA signs bleed off the edge. That is, part of the image does not appear or "fit" in the frame. The frame (billboard or slide, etc.) seems bigger and more engaging when an image is bled over the edge such as those pictured above, as if the entire image is too big to fit. This is a common effect but ignored by many presenters who are careful to keep every element within the slide frame. Bleeding off the edge can make the images seem larger while at the same time leaving more empty space on the canvas, giving more clarity to the overall visual and plenty of breathing room for another element.

(6) Rule of Thirds.
Quote The rule of thirds is a good general principle to follow for arranging elements on your canvas (slide). The IKEA samples above do not follow it rigidly — it is only a general principle — but each billboard has plenty of empty space and clear design priorities. Usually the eye is drawn to the large image first and then the large display text (although personally I think my eye goes to the type first, but I'm oddly attracted to fat and clean sans-serif typefaces). There are many more examples of the rule of thirds applied to slides in the 3rd edition of Presentation Zen (pp.151-152) and in Slide:ology (p.161)

(7) Empty space.
Onepoint The rule of thirds is useful for achieving a more balanced look that utilizes empty space. Others will tell you to fill that empty space for myriad reasons including that "it looks more serious" if every bit of the slide is filled with text, data, and images. Resist the urge to add more. There are no prizes given for making your slides as dense as possible (besides, the competition for that dubious honor is fierce anyway). See this recent Dilbert comic on this issue.

(8) Have a visual theme.

Theme The IKEA signs are all different but they are clearly from the same "brand" and follow a theme, yet there is no decorative template. For slides you do not need to follow a pre-packaged template found in the software, but there does need to be a visual theme. This can be achieved by using the same typeface, the same genre of photography, same background color, and so on. You do not have to use your company logo on every slide, however. If you don't have a visual theme across a slide deck, putting your logo on every slide to "tie 'em together" will not help much and it may just imply that your visual brand is one big mess tied together with the ubiquitous logo. Keep it simple.

Learning from the streets
Yes, slides and billboards are different, but presentation visuals have much more in common with billboards and other signage than they do with documents. As you walk the city streets, begin to pay attention to the ubiquitous signage with a critical eye, asking yourself what works and what doesn't, and why. 

(Note about the Video: The short presentation at top was made in Apple's Keynote and saved as a QT movie at 720p (higher than the resolution on YouTube at the time). The video inside the slides was shot at 480p with in-camera audio, which was the best my Flip camera could do back then. 

Ken Burns: going inside the photograph

Ken_burns In yesterday's jazz post I mentioned Ken Burns, one of my favorite documentary film makers and storytellers of our time. He is perhaps most famous to many people for the "Ken Burns effect," a technique for adding motion to still photography. In this technique life is given to a photo by slowly panning or zooming in or out to give emphasis or create drama, etc. Burns learned the technique from his mentor in the '70s and applied it in the making of the documentary Brooklyn Bridge in 1981 (nominated for an Academy Award). The effect first appeared in software (as the "Ken Burns effect" at least) in Apple's iMovie several years ago. Below you can see a good example of the Ken Burns style in this powerful introduction to the documentary Jazz. The first five minutes is mostly old film clips, but after that you begin to see the usage of old photos set to subtle motion. The beauty of it is you really never notice. The modern interviews, the voice over, and the mixing of still images with motion picture footage is smooth and seamless. Like any good art, the viewer doesn't notice the technique. What they notice, and are taken in by, is the whole of the visual experience and the narration, that is, the story.

Ken Burns on the "Ken Burns effect"
Below is a great piece featuring Ken Burns explaining the power of the technique and a funny story of how Ken met Steve Jobs, etc. Really good stuff.

When you think about it, often the photo really is more powerful than video at telling the story. The photo captures a moment in time allowing the viewer to slow down and think and wonder and reflect. Photos allow for greater emphasis and may have less distracting elements, giving the presenter or narrator/film maker more freedom to augment the photo (or the other way around). We can learn a lot from documentary film, especially the kind like those created by Burns which rely so heavily on still images. One tip is to avoid the usage of imagery as ornamentation. What you see in Burns' films is a simple and powerful use of photos and other imagery that support the narrative and illuminate the story on a visceral level, thereby making the experience richer and stickier.

Checkout this cool app — Fotomagico by Boinx. This is one of the coolest apps out there and can certainly be used for many kinds of presentations. It has many features including Ken Burns effects and text, etc. Really powerful application for the price.

A couple of years ago I put this slideshow together in about 45 minutes with just some minor tweaking of the Ken Burns effects in iPhoto. It's just your typical wedding album, but with the effect added the set of photos are a bit more engaging.(Youtube version, higher rez version on bliptv).

More lessons from jazz

Album on the Amazon page A few days ago Mental Floss (the blog) ran a nice post that was an extension of an article they ran in their Mental Floss magazine on Miles Davis and his 1959 album Kind of Blue. Young jazz students learn early that Kind of Blue is one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded and is required knowledge for all aspiring jazz players. I said many times before that the parallels with jazz and presentation run deep and wide. The Kind of Blue album is a great example of what's called modal jazz. It's difficult to explain what modal jazz is: according to " a modal jazz song, improvisations are based on individual scales or modes rather than on the overall key of a piece. The result is a song that contains fewer chord changes and allows more time and freedom for melodic improvisation. In essence, it's about a return to melody." Modal jazz has a simpler presence and a more organic feel to it, and it allows the players more freedom for expression. We can relate presentations at least in spirit to what Miles was going for with music and expression in the early '60s.

Miles knew it took a very special kind of musician to deal with this lack of structure — it's harder and scarier. Likewise, in our world of presentation, it takes the kind of person who is willing to get in front of slides that are minimalistic and let the words come from both his mind and his gut, from both his reservoir of knowledge of the material and the compelling energy of his imagination which together follow a theme and are in sync with the visual. You need some structure and you need a theme, but often storytelling (and that's what jazz is at its core) is enhanced with minimal structure, allowing for greater amplification of meaning.

Ken Burns' Jazz on Kind of Blue
Interesting discussion below on Kind of Blue from Ken Burns' documentary called Jazz. (Note also how Burns mixes in still photography, voice over, and interviews; presentation lessons here too.)

The power of economy
A lot of the big keynotes at tech conferences seem so unnatural — lots and lots of stuff, but the most basic question — "so what?" — is never answered. It's interesting that one of Miles' most famous songs is So What. So what indeed. If you can not answer this, all is lost. It's not about more "stuff" — often there is more meaning, and even more beauty, in doing more with less. There is beauty in economy. This is true in art, music, design, ...and in presentation. The legendary jazz players, it is said, were great economist — they understood the concept of economy and could do amazing things with just a single note, and they certainly knew the power of silence or "the empty space." Young musicians too often feel that the music is about the dazzle and bedazzle and making an impression. The great, wise jazz musician knows, though, that it's about the story — this story right here and right now — a story that is never expressed exactly the same way twice. (Hear a live version of So What from 1959 below.)

So what?
Sure, public speaking and presenting with visuals may seem very far removed from the diverse and complex world of jazz, let alone modal jazz. But that's just it: the lessons found in jazz are life lessons. They are the lessons — as in all great art — about self-expression and of meaning and of truth, the naked truth. Nothing is more real and more naked than the kind of messaging Miles Davis and his fellow musicians laid down on the Kind of Blue album. Here on the Amazon page you can sample the tracks from Kind of Blue. This is some good stuff that will make your brain happy.

PZ Jazz posts
11 Jazz quotes (and an old video of me playing in a club in Japan).
Jazz & simplifying complication.
Steve Jobs & all that jazz.

Slide:ology: My favorite presentation book of all time

Nancy_cover Finally! Nancy Duarte, the Principle of Duarte Design (the firm behind the creation of Al Gore's Oscar-winning presentations), has published a presentation book for the rest of us. It's called Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations. Slide:ology is practical, it's highly visual, and it's beautiful. I love this book. Slide:ology should come bundled with every copy of PowerPoint or Keynote ever sold from now on. I received a draft copy about three months ago that blew me away — the final product is even better than I expected. I just got my copy over the weekend. At 274 pages, the book is meaty without being bloated. This book is not the last word on presentation, but it's the best book on the art (and science) of creating and delivering presentations with the help of multimedia written to date. Period. A really cool feature in the book is that many of the presentations Nancy shows in her book are available for download or can be seen via video on a specially created Slide:ology website for free. There are no longer any excuses for really bad presentations.

Slide:ology contents
The book has twelve chapters: (1) Creating a new slide ideology. (2) Creating ideas, not slides. (3) Creating Diagrams. (4) Displaying Data. (5) Thinking like a designer. (6) Arranging elements. (7) Using visual elements: background, color, and text. (8) Using visual images. (9) Creating movement. (10) Governing with templates. (11) Interacting with slides. (12) Manifesto: The five theses of the power of a presentation.

I hope to put a Slideshare together in future which covers some of the more salient points in the book. But that takes time. So today I put together a short video embedded in a few Keynote slides as a way of (1) saying how much I love the book and (2) demonstrating how easy it is to place elements in Keynote and save the file as a self-contained video. It took about an hour (mostly editing images). All that was needed was Keynote and basic photo-editing software. Yeah, it's rough, but it was down-n-dirty (i.e., quick and simple). Even the video camera was just a cheap but useful Nikon point-n-shoot. 

(Be sure to click the "Fullscreen Toggle" in the player above or go here to see a larger version on 

Lessons from the documentary "Comedian"

Mic As I and many others stated earlier, tremendous lessons for presenters can be found in the 2002 documentary Comedian. The biggest takeaway from the film for me is that no matter how good you get — no matter how big you become — the art of getting in front of a crowd and taking them someplace will never be easy (even if it looks easy to others). Crafting a solid 60 minutes of material takes a very long time, and getting comfortable with the material takes seemingly forever. In the documentary we watch the master Jerry Seinfeld start stand-up all over again from zero. We see Jerry deal with self-doubt and insecurities as he struggles to build his new act over the course of several months. After erasing all his material and starting fresh, it takes Jerry about three months of hard work before he even starts to feel somewhat comfortable again. This little-known documentary, which my buddy and professional speaker Mitch Joel so highly recommended, has changed the way I look at the art of presentation and my own future as a professional speaker.

A few quotes from the documentary
On the flight back to Japan last week I watched the DVD again, this time while jotting down notes and quotes from the film. I put the quotes in a Slideshare below. This Slideshare is not meant to be a presentation — I'm simply sharing with you some of the new slides I'm working on as I prepare for new talks. Perhaps a quote or two from this deck will be useful for you.

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: comedy reynolds)

Below is Jerry Seinfeld's first appearance on Late Night with David Letterman since his comeback to stand-up (this is on the DVD in the extras section). Normally a comedian of Jerry's fame would not do stand-up on a talk show, but as we see in the documentary, this was another step in Jerry getting his stand-up chops back. Watch it below.

The Ignite presentation method

Ignite While I was in Portland Oregon last month I kept meeting people who raved about Ignite. "What's Ignite?" I'd ask. "Kind of like Pecha Kucha, but different," they'd say. Ignite asks the questions: What if you only had five minutes on stage to make your point? And what if you could use only 20 slides that automatically advanced every 15 seconds? The Ignite communities are interesting indeed and have developed quite a buzz. I was reminded of Ignite today back here in Japan from this post on Boing Boing (thanks Oliver!) that links to a very nice short talk by Rob Gruhl presenting "How to Buy a New Car" at Ignite in Seattle last year. Except for the recap bit at the end,* this was a fantastic talk. And as one who has purchased a new car in the States many years ago, I completely agree with his ideas (and wish I had this knowledge years ago - d'oh!). Watch the video below -- good stuff.

* In a real-world business or educational setting, I would not try to rush through a summary slide of bullet points at the end. Instead, finish strong and with a single powerful image and give a handout of the key points covered in the 5-minute talk for discussion and elaboration in a follow-up Q&A. If it took you 4:45 to tell your story, how can you review it in 15 seconds and with bullets? In this case, perhaps a high-quality image of a sexy new car or a salesman handing the keys to a proud new owner would've been a better visual with a verbal restatement of the most salient point of the talk. But all-n-all, a great little presentation.

(And speaking of Oregon, here are a few snaps from the beach last week — best beach running I've ever experienced.)

Learn more about Ignite
Ignite info on O’reilly's site
Ignite Portland
Ignite Seattle

A visual message for peace

I_met_the_walrus Here's a creative example of adding the visual to the verbal to amplify the narrative. I Met The Walrus is an amazing six-minute film which earned an Academy Award nomination for best animated short early this year. This is the story: In 1969 14-year-old Jerry Levitan "armed with a reel-to-reel tape deck, snuck into John Lennon's hotel room in Toronto and convinced John to do an interview about peace. 38 years later, Jerry has produced a film about it. Using the original interview recording as the soundtrack, director Josh Raskin has woven a visual narrative which tenderly romances Lennon's every word in a cascading flood of multipronged animation." Read the story on the film's website and watch the film below. You'll want to view it several times to catch all the simple yet very creative visual effects. Jerry Levitan captured a wonderful and real moment with John Lennon on that day in Toronto almost 40 years ago; the message seems just as fresh today.

You can have it if you want it
Just in case some of the younger readers are not as familiar with the Beatles and especially Lennon's message of peace, here are a few vintage music videos from Lennon and The Beatles. Seems like the message of peace is needed now more than ever.
 • Revolution
Hey Jude
All You Need is Love
Don't Let Me Down

Here's a CBC story about the film.

Presentation Zen in India

I announced in June (and again last week) that I would be presenting in Bangalore, Mumbai, and New Delhi beginning on August 18. The interest and response from people in India was tremendous. Unfortunately, I have to report today that it has been decided that the presentations in India will be moved to January 09 instead of later this month. The Presentation Zen tour is not canceled, it is postponed. I am very sorry for this sudden change. The organizers involved felt that due to two issues beyond our control — a possible delay in obtaining necessary travel documents coupled with an increased threat perception in some of the cities —  it was wise to postpone the tour to ensure the best possible experience for everyone concerned. The month of January 09 is the soonest my schedule opens up; the tentative dates are January 12-17. As soon as dates are firmed up Crucial Moments and I will make an announcement. Again, I am very, very sorry for the sudden change in dates, but I also very much look forward to my first trip to the incredible nation of India at the beginning of the new year. I hope to see you then. Thanks so much to my friends in India who have given me much encouragement and support. Much appreciated.

Abhinav_Bindra_Gold Side note: Congratulations must go out to India's Abhinav Bindra today. Wow! I loved his interview with the press (watch the video). He showed great humility and perspective while still exhibiting a natural confidence. Great story and a true and humble champion.