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August 2010

A long time ago, before death by PowerPoint

A long time ago — before PowerPoint was invented — in a galaxy far, far away, leaders gave presentations backed by large electronic wall displays. Below, for example, is a photo of General Dodonna (from Star Wars IV) briefing a packed room full of starpilots, navigators, and droids. Notice how he uses the entire wide screen to display only visual information, a digital vector animation of the inner workings of the death star. Notice too how he has gathered the troops close to the front, how he himself stands close to the back-lit screen (even slightly in front of it at times), and maintains eye-contact with the audience, occasionally pointing to key areas of the animation on screen.

Above: General Jan Dodonna stands and delivers with confidence and brevity.

Above: What the same presentation would look like while following conventional slideware templates found on present day planet Earth. "You can't see this well on this Micro Galactic ProjectionPoint, but an analysis of the plans provided by Princess Leia has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station. Follow this link at the bottom of the screen for more info if needed."

Above: Nothing inspires like a "thank you slide."

A New Hope for clear communication
Let's embrace the spirit of the Rebel Alliance and push back against Imperial template propaganda and the scourge of habit and conventional wisdom. If you have a large screen, use it to show visuals, not lines of text that remind you what to say.
You do not have to use a screen, but if you do, use it to display visual information that illustrates or amplifies your message in the clearest way possible. Stand with your visuals, becoming a clear part of the visual experience from your audience's point of view. Do not stand meekly in the corner or behind a lectern, removed from both the audience and the bright screen. May the Force be with you in your next presentation and beyond.

Contrasts in presentation style: Yoda vs. Darth Vader

Lessons from the Japanese bath

Onsen Looking back twenty years, I had only been living in Japan a couple of months when I found myself sitting in a large Japanese bath surrounded by my naked coworkers. I was at an onsen (温泉), or Japanese hot springs, along with everyone else from my office, as part of our company weekend retreat. The purpose of the trip was not work, but simply relaxation, dining, drinking, and a little fun with colleagues. By getting away from the formality of the office setting, my boss told me, staff and managers can experience more natural communication and build better relationships which will be good for business in the long term. Eating and drinking are part of the onsen experience, and so is communal nude bathing which is thought to strengthen bonds among team members. This is when I first learned of the phrase Hadaka no Tsukiai (裸の付き合い) which means naked relationship or naked communication. My boss informed me that the Japanese bath is an important part of the Japanese way of life, and the ritual itself is also a kind of metaphor for healthy communication and good relationships. Through mutual nakedness we are all the same, he said. When you remove the formalities and the barriers through communal relaxation in the bath, you create a sort of skinship which leads to more honest, clearer communication. At least in theory, then, the hierarchical nature of Japanese relationships begin to ease as one soaks with others.

Connection with nature
Onsen2 The ofuro (お風呂), or Japanese bath, is an integral part of Japanese life. Just as the meaning of Japanese cuisine goes far beyond sustenance, the significance of the bath goes far beyond merely washing. For generations the sentō (銭湯) or "bath house" was a focal point in residential areas and a gathering place not just for bathing but for chatting, meeting friends, and generally feeling connected to others in the neighborhood. Today there are fewer sentō as all modern homes have a private bath, but the significance of the bathing ritual — whether at home, visiting an onsen, or at the local sentō — runs deep in the Japanese approach to life, which traditionally is closely tied to nature.

It may not seem like it sometimes in the ultra modern, fast-paced urban centers like Tokyo or Osaka, but nature, or shizen (自然), also plays a central role in Japanese culture. For many, the bath is a time for relaxation and contemplation and connecting with the natural surroundings outside the ofuro. The famous Zen scholar Daisetz Suzuki (1870-1966) often discussed the deep affection Japanese have for nature and how the yearning for that connection was something deep in all of us. "However 'civilized,' however much brought up in an artificially contrived environment," Suzuki-sensei said, "we all seem to have an innate longing for primitive simplicity, close to the natural state of living." The bathing ritual is a chance, then, to take some time off the grid of daily life and reconnect to that simple, natural state of living.

ABOVE: An older style of sentō. Although the public bath in the cities usually lacked the beautiful natural surroundings of an onsen, attempts were made to help visitors at least feel a bit of nature through large wall paintings. Fuji-san is a popular subject. (Photo source.)

ABOVE: The water in an onsen is extremely hot. Notice the washing area in the background. You sit on the wooden stools and use a bucket or shower with soap and a washcloth to thoroughly wash before entering the the large bath. The changing area is separate from the shower and bathing area.

ABOVE: The outdoor bath —
— is a particularly popular style of onsen bath. Here one feels the closest connection with nature.

Private_onsen Ofuro_balcony
These are examples of private baths that came with our room at two onsens we visited in recently. The washing areas are just outside the photos. These type of onsen resorts also have large communal baths inside and outside for guests to use.

Home_ofuro Panasonic_bath
It is not uncommon for brand new houses in Japan to have such a beautiful ofuro. Although most home bathrooms are not yet so beautifully designed, the basics of a shower/washing area and a deep bath which are both separate from the changing area is typical. It's not uncommon for new houses and remodeled homes, however, to included such aesthetically pleasing bathrooms. The showrooms at interior design centers such as Panasonic are packed on weekends.
Checkout samples here. (Bathrooms, remember, are just that: bath rooms. The toilet has its own room unattached to the bathing area, except in the case of very small apartments and hotels.)

(Keynote slide.)

Seven Lessons from the bath
Onsen_water So what can we learn from the Japanese bath as it relates to communication and presentation? How is a Japanese bath like a presentation. Here are just seven ways:

(1) You must first prepare.
One must take time to thoroughly wash *before* taking a bath. And one must fully prepare *before* taking the podium.

(2) You must go fully naked.
Shorts and swimming suits are not allowed. You must enter the washing area of an onsen or sentō fully nude (save for a small washcloth). Presenting naked is about removing the unnecessary to expose what is most important. Naked presenters do not try to hide but instead stand front and center and share their ideas in a way that connects with and engages the audience.

(3) Barriers and masks are removed.

Removing our clothes is symbolically removing the facade and the walls that separate us. In today's presentations, visuals are sometimes used as a crutch rather than an amplifier of our message, thus becoming a distraction and a barrier themselves. Visuals in a naked presentation never obfuscate but instead illuminate and clarify. The naked presenter designs visuals that are simple with clear design priorities that contain elements which guide the viewer’s eye.

(4) You are now fully exposed.
Onsen_womenThe best type of bathing is in the roten-buro, or the outside onsen, especially in Fall or Winter. The water is hot and the air may be cold, yet you feel alive. Presenting naked is about being free from worry and self-doubt. Gimmicks and tricks and deception are inconsistent with the naked style. You are now transparent, a bit vulnerable, but confident and in the moment.

(5) You are on the same level as others.
Hierarchy and status are not apparent or important naked.The best presentations are less like a lecture and at least feel more like an engaging conversation in a language that is clear, honest, and open. Don’t try to impress. Instead try to, share, help, inspire, teach, inform, guide, persuade, motivate, or make your audience a little bit better. No matter your rank, a presentation is a chance to make a contribution with fellow humans.

(6) You must be careful of the time. Moderation is key.

Nothing is better than soaking in the hot water, but do not over do it. Too much of a good thing can turn unhealthy. A good presenter also is mindful of time and aware that it is not his time but *their* time. Remember the concept of hara hachi bu. Give the audience greater quality than expected, but be respectful of their time. Never go over your allotted time. Leave the audience satisfied but not satiated (i.e., overwhelmed).

(7) Feels great after you're done.
TEDx_Tokyo_onsen The bath will recharge you as it warms your body and it will energize your soul. After an important talk, if it goes well, you also feel invigorated and inspired. If we connect with an audience in a meaningful and passionate way that leaves them with something of value — knowledge, insight, inspiration, even a bit of ourselves — then we feel a sense of joy that comes from making an honest contribution. (Photo: with friends at TEDxTokyo after the bath at the Odaiba Onsen, their website is wild.)

Going naked and going natural are the key takeaways from the Japanese bath that, with a little creativity, we can apply to many aspects of our work and daily lives. In this time of ubiquitous digital presentation and other media tools, the tenets of nakedness and naturalness are more important than ever. At the end of the day, it still remains people connecting and forming relationships with other people. And that's best done naked.

Photo essay of Japanese sentō by my buddy Markuz Wernli Saito
Photos from one of our onsen trips in Japan.


The visual transformation of Bill Gates the presenter

Bill_stage Many years ago I began pointing to the presentation style of Steve Jobs as a good example of how to present with visuals on a large stage. Often I would contrast Jobs' presentation techniques with those of Bill Gates. Bill Gates is a man with a big heart and a big brain. I'm a fan. Yet, in spite of all his talents and contributions, delivering effective presentations — especially if slides were involved — was not one of his strong points. Things, however, started to change in early 2009. When I attended TED in Long Beach that year, I witnessed an engaging presentation by Bill Gates. Even his visuals were better than the usual cluttered and bullet-point filled slides, though they still had a ways to go. Bill's TED talk in 2009 got a lot of attention

Bill_pointing   Bill_small_linechart
ABOVE: Bill's TED 2009 talk saw the introduction of better visuals sans bullet points (top photo), but the charts and graphs were way too small (bottom photos), curiously using only half the screen available and using colors with no clear reason. Still, it was a pretty good presentation.

Improvement continued
Bill and Melinda Gates (October, 2009)
Malaria In October of 2009, we began to see much more improvement in Bill's delivery, and especially in his visuals.
In this presentation in Washington, D.C., Bill and Melinda Gates explained why they are "impatient optimists." They clearly illustrated in this formal keynote that they are optimistic because they have seen first hand that the investments are working, yet they are impatient because more needs to be done soon. They used a good mix of data and real examples to make the case that the world is getting better, but (1) not fast enough, and (2) not for everyone. And that's what they mean by "impatient optimists." With the help of high-impact visuals and video clips, Bill and Melinda did an effective job of showing the good news about how real people have been transformed. Telling the stories of how investments are indeed paying off and making big differences, though you rarely see this in the media, is a way to generate even more aid. The visuals in this presentation were the best I have ever seen in a Bill Gates presentation by far. (Yes, Bill is still a bit stiff and looks at the monitors too much, but it's not a bad keynote.) Watch a 6-minute clip from the presentation below (or directly on YouTube).


Sample slides from October, 2009
Here are some sample slides from the "Impatient Optimists" presentation.
Bednets2  Bill_chart1
Malaria_cambodia  Malaria_rawanda
Bubbles1  Bubbles2
Review_investment  Review
Reduced  Melinda_hansgraph3

Bill Gates at TED 2010

Bill improved even further this year. I love this talk by Bill Gates at TED 2010. He uses logic, reason, and structure and a bit of humor. He states the problem, the challenges, some possible solutions, and goes into just a little detail on one example, which is a storytelling example of zooming in on the particular to illuminate the general. Bill's visuals are much better than those used in his 2009 TED talk. Watch the presentation below or here on TED in one of twenty languages including Japanese.

Bill's slides where good (see below) — and his charts were simple and clearly visible — but I thought his delivery was much better than I have seen. He did a good job of only glancing at the confidence monitors (as they are called) and keeping his eyes on the audience.

ABOVE: The two monitors on the floor mirror the screen behind, there are no extra speaker notes. Bill had this talk completely internalized and was much more speaking from the heart this time. Note the time remaining (6:02) which is also visible at the back of the room for those presenters who are looking more directly at the audience.

Bill's slides at TED

The slides below represent over half of the slides used in Bill's talk.

Kids Price_electric Co2
Innovate_zero 26billion Carbongraph
Co2_equation Co2people Co2_s
1energy_mic 5miracles Onewish

A look back at the old bullet point days
Just to give you something to compare Bill's TED and "Impatient Optimists" slides with, here are some slides from the past. Below are most of the slides Bill used in his CEO Summit 2007 presentation.
This was a talk about "technology megatrends that will shape the future of business and society," but it was not a technical talk. The bullets may have kept the speaker on track, but they were not good visuals for amplifying the speaker's message.

Picture_1_3 Picture_2_3 Picture_3_2
Picture_4 Picture_5 Picture_6

Picture_12_3 Picture_8 Picture15

Here are some of the visuals used in his 2005 "Live" presentation.
Live1  Live2  Complexity_bill

We can all get better
Every presentation situation is different. If you are doing a presentation for a much smaller audience, presenting without any slides at all may be more effective. For more technical talks, using the whiteboard to explain your ideas and answer question may work better. Detailed tables and charts would be better understood as handouts. You have to decide based on what your desired goals of your talk are. But what is certain is this: doing ballroom style or keynote-style presentations with bullet-point filled slides with small graphics and tiny charts is an antiquated and ineffective way to make a meaningful presentation. We can all get better. It looks we'll have to change the foreword from the PZ book in the next edition.

Tips for creative success from Pixar

Randy Randy Nelson is Dean of Pixar University and gives a really nice 9-min talk below with important content for all professionals and students. The talk is called Learning and Working in the Collaborative Age. Pixar is the kind of company that focuses hard on the development of its people, and Nelson is someone who has a lot of experience helping very creative people communicate and collaborate better. I like the way Nelson expresses his ideas on stage and connects with his audience at this Apple Education Leadership Summit, but it's his ideas that are really the takeaway here. Below the video, I summarize some of his key points for your review.

Improv and collaboration
Randy2Pixar uses improv as a mechanism of collaboration. Here are two valuable lessons from improv.
(1) Accept every offer. Don't judge it, you'll stop it. It becomes a dead end if you judge it, but unlimited possibilities if you go with it.
(2) Make your partner look good. When you know others will try to make your idea better, not just shoot it down, you become free. And you too have the opportunity "to plus" any idea that is put forth. The idea of "plus-ing" means not to say that the idea (or thing) is bad or wishing it was something else, but to accept it as the starting point and make it even better. This is sort of zen in a way: accept it for what it is — right here, right now — and then try to make it better (to make your partner look good).

What should we be looking for?
Then Randy Nelson goes on to touch on the kind of person they are looking for at Pixar.
• Depth of knowledge/skill in a particular area is important, obviously. But then how do you hire someone for something that has never been done before? So past success alone is not enough as this may also include the absence of failures as much as anything else.
Failure and recovery. Depth is important, but not the differentiator; lots of people can point to a successful, deep resume. It's not about simply avoiding failure but the experience of seeing failure first hand and then rising above it. "The core skill of innovators is error recovery not failure avoidance," says Nelson. Resilience and adaptability in solving real problems is key.

Aptitudes for success in a creative world
Designers (1) Mastery of subject (depth). "Mastery in anything is a really good predictor of mastery in the thing you want done," says Nelson. A true master at something is going to be the kind of person with characteristics that you can use in your organization. "That sense of 'I am going to get to the top of the mountain' separates them from all the other candidates almost instantly."
(2) Breadth of knowledge, experience, and interests. You do not want narrowness which sometimes comes with depth. "We want people who are more interested than interesting," says Nelson. A curious, interested person can be a good collaborator because they are not merely consumed with themselves but are deeply interested in the world outside of themselves. "They want to know what you know. They want to know what is bothering you." An "interested" person amplifies others.
(3) Communication. An interested person with breadth has good empathy, an aptitude critical for good communication. A good communicator leans in to listen because they are interested. Communication, says Nelson, also involves translation. That is, having the ability to "translate" your idea into messages that others outside your field (or perspective and experiences, etc.) can understand. A breadth of knowledge and experience should make it easier for someone to translate their own ideas at the sending end so that the message does not have to be translated at the receiving end. Communication actually happens only when the receiver understands; it's not enough for the sender to think he is communicating. "Nobody can declare themselves as being articulate, but a listener can say, 'yes, I think got that, I understand what you mean.'"
(4) Collaboration. Cooperation is not the same thing as collaboration. Cooperation is just that thing "which allows you not to get in the other's way," says Nelson. Collaboration means amplification. In Collaboration you have people with depth and breadth and a drive and ability "to communicate on multiple different levels: verbally, in writing, in feeling, in acting, in pictures...and finding the most articulate way to get a high fidelity notion across to a broad range of people...." so that all on the team can contribute. I think of collaboration as being like 2+2=5 (or 137, etc.). 

Collaboration and education
School There are lessons to be learned from Pixar. Depth is necessary but insufficient. The importance of breadth and communication and collaboration skills cannot be overstated. And yet, when you look at formal education it seems like we discourage breadth. "Don't study art," they say. "You'll never get a job in that!" Communication skills are under appreciated "soft-skill" areas, and collaboration is rarely mentioned at all. I am certain that I never heard the word "collaborate" in high school. "Cooperate" was our instruction always, and we were rewarded for it, rewarded for getting along and not "causing trouble." Perhaps today the notion of collaboration is being taught more in schools. Collaboration is hard because it requires mastery, breadth, empathy, and solid communication skills. But collaboration is more critical now than ever before. Are our education systems prepared for it?

H/T @SirKenRobinson

Lawrence Lessig on remix (redux)

Lessig I've been a fan of Lawrence Lessig and his unique style of presenting for a very long time. His own method is not for everyone. Yet, he is engaging and for the most part he is able to make his case in a logical fashion and make a connection with the audience even though he does not move from behind his lectern. His rapid pace and quick slide transitions include a mix of short bursts of text, images, and video clips. In this clip below he is using a different font, which at least on a small computer screen, is tough to read. Of course, there is not much reading to do onscreen so perhaps this was less of a distraction at the live event. Now, while it is always interesting to watch a Lawrence Lessig presentation, I also point to this TEDx talk because of its content. Please do not be turned off by the Left vs. Right thing early on; if you watch the whole presentation below you'll see that it's really not about that. It's about something much more important than that.

I like this talk. However, I would change the typeface to one still a bit funky and grungy (if that is how Lawrence wants it) but also a little easier to read in an instant. The video clips in the slides could also be trimmed a little tighter so that the ends do not include unwanted material. Again, I do not recommend that you present exactly like Lessig does, but there is a lot to like about his own style and approach as well as his enthusiasm and content. (Here is a post where I include Lessig's original remix presentation at TED three years ago.)

Above: Although Lessig does not move from the lectern, he is at least positioned right next to the screen. Also, he is engaged with the audience. He does not read off a script, but his slides in a sense become a kind of script for him while also helping the audience to follow his message.

EDUCAUSE 09 keynote: Getting Our Values Around Copyright
The presentation below goes a little deeper and is longer. In this video you see only the slides and hear Lessig's voice. Still, for online viewing, it works. (You will note that Lessig uses a different typeface that is easier to read while still being "different.")

The passionate scientist: Doing Q&A like Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson Communication experts such as Jerry Weissman and Granville Toogood suggest that presentations should be delivered less like performances or speeches and much more like conversations. "Stop thinking that every time you stand up to say something you are making a speech—because you're not," says Toogood in The Articulate Executive. "What you are really doing is having an enlarged conversation." One of the keys to a natural, conversational approach includes removing all barriers to natural communication with the audience, barriers such as reading off notes, standing behind a lectern, using jargon, failing to make good eye contact, and speaking too softly or in a language that is formal, stiff, or fails to appeal to the audience's emotion and natural curiosity.

Now, there is this belief among some that scientists are necessarily dry, boring speakers, unable to communicate the relevance of their work to the greater public. But this is not necessarily so. Richard Feynman, for example, was a brilliant Nobel Prize winning scientist who was a passionate teacher and communicator, able to engage students and general audiences with great enthusiasm and clarity. Carl Sagan, of course, was known for his ability to talk clearly and passionately about the cosmos. Today, one of my favorite communicators —Neil deGrasse Tyson— is also a scientist. Tyson is an astrophysicist with a great mind, infectious curiosity, and an amazing ability to inspire and inform audiences through his natural, conversational delivery style. Below are three short clips featuring Tyson answering questions from the audience. Notice how he uses his body, and voice, and eye contact, etc. to speak with each questioner and the audience at large in his own, natural, compelling style

Thoughts on what NASA means for America's future. (link)

On God and science. (link)

On personal bias and science. (link)


Think naturalness not perfection
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Astrophysicist & communicator extraordinaire