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September 2008

Going analog with Flight of the Conchords

Fotc_letterman Although I live in Japan, the ubiquity of media including the internet(s) and 200-channel cable TV etc. means that I'm able to be fully immersed in Japanese culture but still stay in tune to what's happening back in North America and around the world. Yet, some things still get past me. Flight of the Conchords is one of those things. I never heard of them until my friend Deryn, an expatriate from Christchurch, said he thought I'd like this talented duo from Wellington (New Zealand) since I often talk about how ordinary professionals can learn much about presentation from great comedians, musicians, and other stage performers. He was right — I get a huge kick out of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the young pair who make up Flight of the Conchords. I'm not sure how to describe what they do: Their act is sort of like a Kiwi mix of Seinfeld meets the Smothers Brothers if they were folk/hip-hop musicians... Actually, they defy description, but they are simply brilliant without fancifulness, pretense or gimmickery. In their own words, Flight of the Conchords bill themselves as "Formerly New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a-capella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo." They have had great success over the past few years especially; their TV show in the States has been picked up for a 2nd year on HBO. But it is their simple, live, analog performances that I find so compelling and fresh. These two guys have stumbled on to something special; it's raw and real and quite odd (but odd in a good way—we need more "odd" and more "weird"). They are a delight.

Going analog and the art of storytelling
Humor is an odd duck, so you may not find them funny or remakable at all, but millions of people around the world do, including me. In the clips below what stands out is their naturalness, their self-deprecating nature, their body language, and their ability to simply and without complication make a connection with their audience as they paint pictures with their lyrics and subtle humor and use their guitars and wit to make visceral connections.

A story about a simple conversation
People are attracted to story. Watch Jemaine and Bret below keep an audience engaged and following their words even when it's a story "about nothing" at all really.

Biz time

Business Time below was made into a slicker music video, but this simple analog version is better. The facial expressions are priceless and go along way toward amplifying the message. It's also a good example of why sometimes visuals are not needed — going completely naked sans slides forces you to use just your words, your nonverbal language, and in this case the music. In a sense, then, *they* are the visuals. To me at least, this duo live is one of the best things I've seen on stage in a long time. It's no wonder they are having such success; it's well deserved.

Talkin' about the issues
OK, this one below is a bit weird and perhaps not "politically correct" for some folks, but if you liked the first two clips (and were not offended) you may find this song enjoyable as well. The absurdity of the lyrics are an evocative juxtaposition to the light, upbeat pop riff underlying their words. I just love the simplicity and subtlety of their off-beat and slightly awkward humor and I envy their ability to connect with a live audience.

Flight of the Conchords - A Texan Odyssey Part 1

If you are now a fan of Flight of the Conchords then you may be interested in this 10-minute clip from a New Zealand TV show that chronicled the duo's trip to the SXSW Music Festival in Austin a couple of years ago.

You can sample songs off their new album on Amazon here, but personally it is their slightly awkward stage presence and chemistry that I find most appealing. The DVD of the first year of their HBO TV series is out now out as well (I've heard nothing but goods things about this show — can't wait to get my DVD).

Paul Newman (1925 - 2008)

Paul-newman Paul Newman, one of the greatest American actors of all time, died yesterday at the age of 83. Newman was not only an absolute legend as an actor, but a great humanitarian and philanthropist as well (his Newman's Own food label, for example, donated all profits and royalties to charity, about $250 million so far). Newman always seemed like a truly nice guy who was unspoiled by his Hollywood-superstar status. I can't help but feel a sense of loss; certainly America has lost an icon today, but an icon and a symbol that shall long be remembered. I've seen most of Newman's films, but to me there are two that stick out: The Verdict (1982) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Here are a couple of clips below.

This is the case: a lesson in focus
In The Verdict Newman plays a struggling, down-on-his-luck lawyer who, facing impossible odds, repeats to himself the mantra "This is the case, there is no other case" as a way of getting himself to focus on the urgency of now — not his past successes and not his recent and numerous failures — as he fights to persevere and prepare his case. Even 25 years ago when I first saw the film this line stuck with me. Even if you are not a trial lawyer, there is an important lesson here for professionals of all kinds, and it is simply this: There is no future, there is no past — there is only this moment, there is only this case (or project or mission, etc.). The scene below is not about this mantra, but it's a great bit of acting and a reminder that pacing and the silent pause (eye contact, etc.) are a powerful part of your message no matter what kind of presentation or speech you are making. Sometimes silence is far more powerful than verbosity. (Note: turn up the volume on your computer to hear this scene.)

A dynamic duo
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a film I first saw as a nine-year-old (with my mother). This clip below features one of the most memorable scenes with a nice piece of subtle humor. Newman and Redford had great chemistry in this film (in 2002 I got to say hello to Robert Redford as we shared the elevator in building one of 1 Infinite Loop up to the 4th floor; Redford was on his way to meet with Steve Jobs).

10 things to know before you pitch a VC for money

Davidrose_pic This week the good people at TED put up a good presentation on things to keep in mind when pitching your ideas to a VC (what's that?) for funding. The presenter is David S. Rose, a business-savvy, fast-talking New Yorker who has been called a "world conquering entrepreneur" by NewsWeek Magazine and has been dubbed The Pitch Coach for his many years of helping entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to to potential investors. (Here's a longer post I wrote back in February on David S. Rose). Checkout the TED University talk below. Some of the material may seem obvious to you, but coming from a business leader who has successfully pitched for millions of dollars and helped others pitch for millions more, David is a very credible source. In this TED University talk, David is talking specifically about "the pitch" to a VC, which is different from a 45-minute talk at a technical conference, but there is much in there that can be applied to other types of presentations as well. More than anything else, David is stressing that the presentation to investors is all about you. The top ten characteristics you're conveying, says David, are personal. You are asking people to invest in you, not just the idea.

A David S. Rose remix
The slides below are a remix of tips and advice from David S. Rose's presentations on how to pitch to a VC for money. These slides are not designed to be a stand-alone presentation. The design of the slides is experimental and are not the actual slides used by David S. Rose in his presentations to entrepreneurs (though content is essentially the same). Do not adjust your computer — the display type (Carbontype) is suppose to look that way (whether that is good or bad — effective or lame — is another issue all together). I used this deck to review key points with a business class after we watched the TED video. In that context, the visuals worked well (there was also a handout...of course). See the slides below or on Slideshare.

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: vc zen)
Explaining what your company is all about in under three minutes
Among many other things (when does this guy sleep?), David is the founder and CEO of Angelsoft. This short slide-like presentation below does a very good job of answering the question: What the heck is Angelsoft and why should I care? The video appears at the top of the Angelsoft website.

Angelsoft 3.0 Introduction Video from Angelsoft on Vimeo.

Where-the-hell-is-Matt presentation (Ignite style)

Matt's website Below is a nice little Ignite presentation by Matthew Harding, the "Matt" behind the Where the Hell is Matt video presentations that have been an internet phenomenon. This Ignite-style presentation took place last month in Seattle at Gnomedex 08. The Ignite method limits presentations to five minutes: 20 slides, 15 seconds for each slide which are advanced automatically (yeah, a method kind of like Pecha Kucha, except easier to pronounce). Matt does a good job for his first time, and I love the final seconds of the clip (after the abrupt ending). What is it about that song and groups of people dancing. I am so there for next year's Gnomedex — looks like a blast (hope someone invites me...).

How the Hell Did Matt Get People to Dance With Him?

In case you have not seen Matt's "Where the Hell is Matt" simple and evocative videos, you can check them out below. And even if you have seen them before, they're worth a look again.

Where the Hell is Matt (2008)
Below is the third version of the WTHIM video presentation. The difference — and what makes it another notch better — is that he does not dance alone. (Even better in HD.)

Where the Hell is Matt (2006)
Below is the second WTHIM video. This time he got sponsorship. This went up in 2006.

Where the Hell is Matt (2005)

Below is the original which was made in 2003-2004 and posted, without any expectation of fame, in 2005.

Download these videos free
on the Stride Gum website. The HD video looks fantastic! Download it to your hard disk and put on some headphones. No matter what kind of day you are having, this 4:28 video presentation will make you smile. Very well done.

Is education killing creativity?

British reporter Riz Khan put together a nice 20 minute interview last week with Sir Ken Robinson, our favorite creativity and education expert (and famous TED presenter). Even if you've seen Sir Ken's 2006 TED presentation, you'll find this interview an entertaining and thought-provoking refresher. Rizwan Khan is a veteran of the BBC and CNN; he currently hosts the Riz Khan Show on Al Jazeera English.

Part 1
In part one Riz shows a clip from Dr. Robinson's 2006 TED talk. Sir Ken starts out his conversation with the host by suggesting that our education systems (around the world) are outdated and mainly designed to meet the needs of industrialization. Sir Ken makes many good points — some you may not agree with — but he certainly is not saying that math and science should be taught or studied less, rather that music and the arts and creativity in general should be pursued more.

Part 2

In part two Sir Ken tells a couple of interesting stories and makes the point that talent is often buried quite deep within a student and it does not surface until the conditions are right. His new book The Element deals with exploring the conditions that help students find their own "element."

I hope you can take 20 minutes today and watch this interview above. If nothing else, it'll make you think about your own education or the education of your children, etc. When I look back at my own K-12 education, it's really all a blur. How about you? If I could do it all over again, I would study the arts far more deeply and from an earlier age. But I also would take far more science and math classes too. I do not know what an ideal education is, but I think Sir Ken is right when he says we need to transform formal education not just reform it.

I really admire the K-12 teachers of the world, they have the toughest and most important jobs in the world. I never had the talent or courage to be a teacher, but I appreciate the work they do and the challenges they face. Does anyone even have a clue what formal education will look like in the future?

Sir Ken Robinson's website.
Sir Ken's 2006 TED talk.

Presentation Zen in 13 languages (other than English)

Vienna_bookstore When you are trying to spread an idea virus across the world, it's difficult to do if your ideas are confined to a single language. Obviously, most people in the world do not speak English. Unfortunately, my native language of English is the only one in which I feel comfortable enough to write a book (or blog). But all hail the translators of the world! At this writing I'm happy to report that the original English version of the Presentation Zen book will be translated into at least thirteen other languages. Many are already on the shelves or will be later in the year or early in 2009. Here's the list so far: Czech, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Below are covers from four of the translations (Korean, Italian, Chinese, and German).

Korean   Italian

Chinese   German

Reaching a wider audience
on amazon.frCulture, context, and perspectives matter, so sometimes I wonder how well the simple ideas in the book can be translated into another language. I wonder if some ideas will be taken too seriously and others not seriously enough. Translation is not an easy task, in fact it's very hard, but the translators and designers have done a fantastic job with the original book. Last week the book was published in French (cover shown right). I am very happy that the book will have a much wider audience now in places like France, Belgium, Quebec, etc. You can download the foreword and chapter one on the Pearson France website. Here's a link to the French version on (and a comment to readers in France here).

The approach

Every week I get several emails from PZ readers from around the world who share their success stories about making presentations in the "Presentation Zen style." Today I heard from a graduate student in Beijing, a student in Holland, and from author Roger C. Parker who talked about the experience on his blog. Some people send me pictures of themselves with the PZ book from around the world. I love these photos. I have not updated the flickr page in a while, but if you have a photo of yourself with the book please send it in an email or send the link and I'll put it up on this page. Love to hear from you.

Photography and the connection

Many of you will enjoy this short TED presentation by David Griffin, the photo director for National Geographic. The delivery is not remarkable (he's better when he's not reading the script), but he makes many good points and a few of the photos will blow your mind (especially the section on the seals and penguins). I like his point too about the power of telling the general by focusing on the particular. The power of the image to make a connection and tell a story is indeed unlimited. We many not aspire to become a professional photographer, but we can all benefit by acquiring a deeper knowledge of the art and utility of great photography and by carefully observing the masters. Perhaps this little presentation below will inspire you in some small measure.

John McCain's background visuals

Mccain_green I like John McCain, and although he's not known for his oratory skills (he's better in a town hall setting), I was looking forward to a good performance in what surely was the most important speech of his life last week. It was not a disaster for Senator McCain, at least not for the supportive live audience in the hall, but I was really surprised by the lack of energy, emotion, and clear structure in his address to the Republican National Convention. I'm not talking about the content — that's outside the focus of this blog. By comparison, Barack Obama's speech last week had better structure and flow and higher levels of emotion and energy. John McCain's speech paled in comparison to Obama's and also to Sarah Palin's speech the previous night. (What people remember are the emotions, and people will remember that they liked the way Palin connected with the live audience.)

CNN's Jeffery Toobin called McCain's speech "shockingly bad." Fox News analyst Karl Rove said "it was the best speech he's given on a teleprompter...but it still wasn't all that great...." CNN Political Analyst Roland Martin gave Sarah Palin an 'A' for both style and structure; he gave McCain a grade of 'D' for his speech. Watch this clip of Martin's analysts below.

When visuals go bad

I listened to McCain's speech live on radio. But when I saw the speech later on TV that night I was puzzled by the odd use of visuals that were projected onto the 52x30-foot screen behind the presidential candidate. It turns out I was not the only one. The media has been talking all weekend about the strange image (most call it a photo, but it's clearly video) of what appears to be a large mansion (or sorority house?) with a huge green lawn out front. What, people were asking, did it have to do with anything? Even Chris Wallace from Fox News commented immediately after the speech: "It was a green backdrop behind him, it was a big lawn in front of a big house. You thought what the heck was that? It looked like it could have been one of the McCain mansions."

Above: A video image of Walter Reed Middle School appears behind
John McCain.

When I saw the image of all that beautiful lawn, I couldn't stop thinking of the 1980 classic comedy, Caddyshack.

Stagecraft snafu?
As it turns out, the first image appearing on screen behind McCain was not of a mansion, but of Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood California. (The school is not happy about its image being used for a political campaign without permission.) Even if you recognized the image as a school, you'd still be confused as to why a school is behind John McCain during the early parts of his speech. Indeed, he doesn't talk about education until halfway through his speech (with a blue screen behind him at that time). So many in the media are assuming that the campaign staff meant to show Walter Reed Army Medical Center (photo) not Walter Reed Middle School. But that makes little sense as well since few people would be able to identify the hospital or make the connection to the speech even if they did.

West_wing But if the video is not a slip-up, then why the use of this particular middle school? What was the emotional connection they were going for, and what was so special about this school? Well, it seems this particular middle school featured prominently in a scene from a fictional TV series called The West Wing. (Look at the clip below and you'll see the same school behind the Democratic candidate for president, Matt Santos, announcing his bid for the presidency.) Is it possible someone thought that this image might be recognized, at least at some subconscious level, and that a subtle connection with the presidency might be made? MSNBC reported that when asked about the middle school image, McCain's campaign replied that "it's simply a generic photo, like others used and it had no specific meaning." But here's the rub: images always have meaning, though it may be different from what you intended. The term "generic photo" is just one step away from "clip art," both of which should be avoided by serious presenters.

Above: Walter Reed Middle School used in a scene from The West Wing.

Above: The Walter Reed video backdrop, complete with a flag waving gently in the breeze, branches bending in the wind, and someone walking across the screen from left to right and into the building. As McCain pauses for applause after he thanks President Bush for "...leading us in these dark days," we see that someone begins to go up the front steps of the middle school behind the senator. So now we may be having three thoughts: whose mansion is that? who is that person with the backpack? and what does any of this have to do with the content of the speech?

When visuals become distraction

You must always have a clear reason for using a visual. Usually, visuals underscore a message or illustrate a point, but visuals are often used to make the audience feel something emotionally, or even just to set the mood for the speaker's message. That's OK, but much thought must be put into this. Whatever the intended effect of your visuals, you do not want the audience's attention to drift as they try to figure out what the visual is or what it has to do with your words.

Above: The video projection of a field of corn appeared after the Walter Reed Middle School image.

The New York Times online reported that a campaign spokesman said the background scenes were intended to showcase images of America. “The changing image-screen was linked to the American thematics of the speech and the public school was simply part of it.” However, the screen did not change very often at all. After the middle school picture and the corn field, a video of blue sky and a waving flag remained the backdrop for almost the entire speech. The idea of subtly changing images linked to the changing themes of the speech is an interesting idea, but if this is what they tried, it didn't work. In an old Wired article, Edward Tufte said that at the very least "a presentation format should do no harm." I'm not sure how harmful the screen was for Senator McCain, but it didn't help. It's a shame because that screen had a lot of potential, if used right, to augment the speech.

Above: This video projection of a waving flag was on screen for most of the presentation, giving the impression (at least on TV) that McCain was speaking from inside an aquarium.

The tight shot
While the live audience saw the full backdrop image, the great majority of people saw only the dreaded green screen behind John McCain...again (the blue screen wasn't much better). Didn't someone check to see how the close-ups would look on TV? The wide shots looked fine, but the green and blue on the tight shots not only look bad but are inviting people to chroma-key John McCain's image into who-knows-what in the coming days (here's an example already). Below I took advantage of the green and blue screens (makes creating a mask in Photoshop very quick work) and placed alternative background images to change the visual mood of the shot.

Green_screen   Bluescreen 
The tight shots featuring the original green and blue screens.

Mccain_westwing  Mccain_patriot

Mccainlincoln2   Mccain_flag2  
A few sample alternatives to enhance the speaker's on-screen image.

It could have been worse
So the use of visuals were a bit off for John McCain's speech, but at least he didn't commit death-by-PowerPoint. (Below is an image of what that might look a few more alternative approaches).

Above: If an MBA prepared John McCain's visuals.

Above: If Lawrence Lessig prepared John McCain's visuals.

Above: If Takahashi prepared John McCain's visuals.

Above: If Apple prepared
John McCain's visuals.

Google goes visual & simple to explain Chrome

Chrome I got a lot of emails the last few days from readers (thank you!) who loved Google's comic book introducing their new open source browser called Chrome. The Google Chrome team supplied the words and the famous Scott McCloudwho I've talked about many times before — created the comics adaptation. It's very well done; it's very creative. I love it. But you may notice that when you go through the comic online that it's a bit clunky, this is because the pages are actually designed to be printed. It is not a webcomic, says Scott. "It was designed as a printed comic for journalists and bloggers....We'll put something even better together soon." Scott did a great job with this. Perhaps it will give you some ideas for visualizing one of your future presentation projects, in addition to teaching you about Chrome. You can download the comic here on Techmech and print it out.

download the book

Explaining your story in (comic) book form
interesting, but not sure you want to spend money on this The Google comic reminds me just a bit of a interesting piece of marketing collateral by Microsoft that they put out in the form of an illustrated children's book called "Mommy, Why is There a Server in the House?" I received a copy of the "children's book" (it's not really for children) several weeks ago after I held a seminar for one of the groups at Microsoft in Redmond. During the seminar one of the breakout groups reported that the process of developing a compelling presentation has much in common with, say, writing a children's book. That is, you must know your audience and tell the story — and teach the lesson — in a creative way that connects with them in their world while still being true and honest to the content. The emphasis, then, is on the audience (or reader). You choose carefully what is important to include and what to leave out — this is your job. Creating a children's book or crafting a presentation to explain your research are of course different things, but the essence of the creative approach may not be so different.  In either case, we're still asking the fundamental questions right from the start: Who are they? And why is this important for them?

Obama delivers speech like a symphony

Obama_190 I spent much of last week working in my office with one eye on the Democratic National Convention in the US as it played out on cable news here in Japan (and yes, I'm watching the RNC this week as well in search of some good speeches). Convention speeches can sometimes be real snoozers, and this year's DNC in Denver had a couple of those, but I thought most of the speeches were good, and some were excellent, including those by Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Michelle Obama. But the one everyone is talking about is the acceptance speech by Barack Obama Thursday night in a packed outdoor stadium. Many are calling Obama's speech — including many conservatives — one of the greatest political speeches in recent memory. Pat Buchanan, a conservative commentator and former speech writer for Richard Nixon, had this to say of the speech: "It was a genuinely outstanding speech. It was magnificent...this is the greatest convention speech and probably the most important." This coming from a conservative and a man who's been there in person to see the best political speeches in American modern history — JFK, MLK, Ronald Reagan, etc.  But I think the independent David Gergen (who has served with the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton administrations) put it best when he described Obama's speech on CNN this way:  "As a speech, I was deeply impressed. In many ways it was less a speech than a symphony.”

Watch Obama's speech in HD.
Watch Obama's acceptance speech on the DNC website in HD.

A speech like a symphony
How is a great speech like a great symphony? There are different kinds of symphonies just as there are different kinds of speeches, but a symphony — like a good speech — takes you some place. It has a shape, it has forms. Fast/slow, loud/quite, all of which may be separated by a short pause or silence. A symphony has different movements and forms, and yet it has a harmonious whole. Symphony has much in common with story as well. A powerful symphony and a well crafted and delivered speech, in their own ways, move the listener.

What makes a good story?
Visual_story In a great story — and in a great speech — there is ebb and flow, there is silence and there may be thunder. There is the abstract and the concrete. A great storyteller zooms in to the particular to underscore the general theme, and at other times pulls back to illuminate the big picture and the general, giving even greater strength to the particular. We know that there are three very basic parts of story: The beginning, the middle, the end. In a wonderful book about the power of the visual in storytelling by Bruce Block (The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV, and Digital Media), the author uses these three basics of story — Exposition, Climax, Resolution — to show the link between visual structure and story structure. To illustrate this link in terms of intensity he shows a story-structure graph; the story intensity refers to the amount of conflict that builds in the middle. Generally, a good story grows in intensity as it progresses. Block draws a line that is jagged because a story's intensity will rise and fall even though the overall direction of the intensity is building up and toward a climax. The resolution, says Block, " a place for the story to finish...the audience needs time to recover from the intensity of the climax and reflect on the story's conflict."

Above: After I watched Obama's speech for the second time (this time in a coffee shop on my MacBook) I quickly jotted down this intensity graph on the back of a napkin. This is similar to the graph in The Visual Story and is very loosely based on how I visualized the general intensity of his speech. There were many high points in terms of intensity in the middle. I didn't feel his final words were the climax; perhaps the climax was a bit earlier. His final minute or two seemed like it was meant to be more a part of the resolution. I'm not certain about this; I'd love to hear your opinion. Regardless of the designed structure, it worked. When Pat Buchanan can't stop praising the speech of a Democrat, either pigs are flying, or it was indeed a remarkable speech.

In your own words
Perhaps one reason why Obama is so good at these big events, when expectations are so high, is that he writes his own speeches. "This man is a professional orator and a writer of his own speeches," said Pat Buchanan. Yes, he is reading off three teleprompters, but because these are his words that he wrote after much preparation, it seems natural, almost conversational. Forceful without being forced. It's believed that President Ronald Reagan wrote many of his own speeches as well (a fact that his son Michael Reagan alluded to today in an interview on Air America), which is perhaps why he too seemed so natural and compelling as a orator so many years ago.

See clip of Pat Buchanan commenting on Obama's speech.
Text of Obama's speech in Denver.