You can learn a lot from "a child"

Severn Cullis-Suzuki, now in her late 20s, started the Environmental Children's Organization (ECO) when she was only 9-years-old. ECO was a small group of children committed to learning and teaching other kids about environmental issues. In 1992 they raised their own money and attended the UN's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. A then 12-year-old Severn closed a Plenary Session with this amazing speech that received a standing ovation. She received a lot of praise for her talk then—even Al Gore called it "the best speech at Rio." My friend Patrick Newell, the Vision Navigator and founder of the Tokyo International School sent me the link. The video quality is not great but her message and delivery are—remember she was "just a kid." Watch the video below (includes Japanese subtitles).

Severn Cullis-Suzuk at age 12 in 1992. (Click to watch video)

The people who are crazy enough
to think they can change the world...

Beginner_2 You may watch this and think she is too naive—others will think she was almost prophetic. She may be too idealistic. So what? The problem with adults is not that too many of us are idealists, it's that too many of us are not. While watching her speech I was reminded of one of the teachings in Buddhism: The beginner's mind/the child's mind. The beginner's mind, or the child's mind, is really just about seeing things as they are. The meaning of the beginner's mind does not mean to retreat to the naiveté of a child. It is not about being simplistic or ignorant, it is about approaching life and its challenges with curiosity and enthusiasm. "It is the mind that is innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgments and prejudices" (learn more). The point is that we adults should maintain our curiosity and that sense that anything can be done, that sense that anything is possible. A sense that we all had as children but eventually all but lost as people mocked our enthusiasm and optimism. Those who succeed and change things are the ones who do not let the world change their mind. I am not talking about blind faith. Quite the opposite. I am talking about having eyes wide open to the possibilities. Wide open like that of a true beginner. A child or a beginner says "why not?" An "expert" says "it can't be done." Shunryu Suzuki put it best in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:

     “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
              in the expert’s mind there are few.”                      
                                 —Shunryu Suzuki

We forget that sometimes not knowing that "it can not be done" can be a wonderful liberator. Weaning our world off fossil fuels? Who says it can't be done? Yes, not in 10 years, but 50? Who knows? Many people thought it crazy and impossible that the US could go from where it was in 1962 and put a man on the moon and bring him back before the end of the decade. It was crazy. It was impossible. But they did it. Surely that same spirit can be put to the challenge of saving the planet and finding alternative energies *and* allowing the peoples of the world to grow economically. Humans are the smartest animal on the planet, but we're also the dumbest. Perhaps if all of us smart experts, with our massive intellects, tried to approach problems with "the beginner's mind" we could get much better at solving problems.

Larry Lessig presents at TED: Nails it

Larry TED put up a new video of Larry Lessig's presentation at the TED Conference from earlier this year. The title of his fantastic talk: "How creativity is being strangled by the law." I have seen many presentations by Larry. They are always good and delivered in his unique "Lessig-Method" style. Usually his talks are on the long side, 45-60 mins or more. Question: How would Larry's talk be if he only had 18 minutes? Answer: Even better. Standing-ovation better. The 18-minute constraint forced Larry into making the best talk I have ever seen him make. He nailed it. His content was good, the argument was logical (even if you do not agree with it) and his visuals and the way he effortlessly controlled the visuals behind him is the perfect demo for the way it should be done.

Larry usually stays behind or near the podium, though he is also close the screen. Nothing wrong with this. I personally prefer to get rid of the computer stand and use the whole stage. But there is nothing wrong with standing in one place so long as you are out there in the front "naked" close to the audience. Larry's style is a bit professorial (he is after all a professor), but he is engaged, passionate, and certainly engages the audience with a combination of good logic, interesting and relevant storytelling, and simple, effective multimedia support delivered in a smooth fashion. No bullet points. No off-the-shelf template. Three stories, one argument, and a core message that is memorable and "sticky." See video below.

Lessig: "A growing copyright abolitionism...a generation that rejects the very notion of what copyright is suppose to do. Rejects copyright and believes that the law is nothing more than an ass to be ignored." 

Larry's performance proves that it can be done. You too can make compelling, smart, and logical presentations enhanced by slideware (he's using Keynote). There are no excuses. Watch, learn, and share this video. Excellent stuff. Bravo, Professor Lessig.

Larry Lessig's website

Steve Jobs and the art of the swordsman

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

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

The waters are in motion but the moon retains its serenity

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

The empty screen creates tension and anticipation…

Keynote 08...looks good.

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

When there is no quiet, there can be no loud

We are hard-wired to notice differences in what we perceive, and the range of our perception in terms of what we see and hear, for example, is indeed quite remarkable. Difference is interesting. Perhaps this is why there are few things more boring to us than listening to someone read a speech void of emotion and from behind a lectern. Part of the reason for our boredom is that the dynamic range found in passionate, thoughtful, engaging presentation (or conversation), or the imperfectness but realness of someone speaking extemporaneously with enthusiasm and heart is lost...and our interest wanes.

What got me thinking about this was this great little video below which explains why you may be unhappy with some of the music coming out of your iPod or CD player. This video, by the way, is a good example of simple visuals adding great support to the narration.

As the author says in the video above, the original version of the song with its great dynamic range makes you turn up your volume, and when you do it sounds great. A wimpy dynamic range will result in the loss of all feel in the music as it will lack punch and clarity. Great presentations too make us “turn up the volume” in the sense that we feel engaged, interested, and want to see and hear what comes next. The magic is in knowing what to leave out. There is immense power in the quiet bits and the silent spaces in music and in speech, just as the empty spaces (negative space/white space) in visual forms of expression can make or break the effectiveness of the design.

When there is no quiet, there can be no loud. And where there is no nothing, there can be no something. In what ways, then, can we apply the spirit of “dynamic range” to all aspects of our live presentations?

More on why your CDs may not sound so hot

If you're in Tokyo for a presentation

Ritz_tokyo While in Tokyo last week, I had the unusual honour (for me at least) of staying at three of the city’s finest five-star hotels. All three were incredible, just as I had expected, but it was The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo that stood out among the others. Most hotels in Tokyo — especially the four- and five-star variety — are going to give you amazing service, but the Ritz-Carlton takes it up another notch. In terms of “design” and “presentation” of the brand, and the generation of delight for the guests at all touch points, The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo hits the sweet spot.

What business are you really in?
Room_ritz If you were to ask The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo management what business they are in (and I did) they would say they were not in the hotel business but in the service business. However, I would say that the other hotels also try to be in the service business, and do a pretty good job of it. The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo, however, is not just in the service business, they are in the experience business. Tom Peters loves to use this quote from The Experience Economy (recommended): “Experiences are as distinct from services as services are from goods.” The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo, then, is in the experiences business and in the emotions business. You’ve got to have the operations right, but it’s really about emotions, delight, and warm memories. Operations alone can be copied, but “high touch” differentiation is nearly impossible to copy.

If you’re travelling to Tokyo for a presentation
Note_choco The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo clearly gets the concept of “high touch,” but I was surprised that they got the technology part right as well. If you’re travelling to Tokyo for an important presentation, I suggest you stay in the Ritz-Carlton. The rooms and the stunning lobby area on the 45th floor are all wireless and the ability to connect your laptop from the desk in your room to the huge flat panel display is a great convenience for international business travellers. Below I made a low-rez video (with a cheap camera I bought just down the street from the hotel) to show you the connectivity panel on the desk. I also recorded a short presentation in the room to give an idea of how you could use the space to rehearse your presentation.

Download File

If I had had more time I would have made the video shorter, cleaner, etc. I also would have positioned the camera closer to the screen. In the video the screen is hard to see, but from anywhere in the room, even small text could be read easily. Perhaps I’ll use my HD camera and proper microphone someday to make something much better for the blog.

Ben Zander on performance and transformation

Fascinating Every presentation is a performance, and Benjamin Zander knows a thing or two about the art of performance. As Dan Pink and I were riding the train back to central Osaka a couple of weeks ago he tipped me off to Ben Zander. There are a lot of good presenters, Dan said, but Ben Zander is one of those gifted few who is in another league. I just finished reading The Art of Possibility by Ben Zander and his wife Roz Zander and I’m inspired. The suggestion to checkout Ben Zander was the best tip I have received in a very long time. There are too many good lessons in this book to go through all of them here, but allow me to focus on just a few as they relate to presentations, leadership, and communication in general.

You have to take a risk
Book In most cultures — and certainly here in Japan — making a mistake is the worst thing you can do. Zander says that it’s dangerous for musicians, for example, to be so concerned with competition and measuring themselves against others because this makes it “difficult to take the necessary risk with themselves to be come great performers.” However, only through mistakes can we see where we’re lacking, where we need to work. But we hate mistakes so we play it safe. Yet long term nothing could be more dangerous if our goal is to be insanely great at what we do. Zander suggests that instead of getting so dejected by mistakes, we instead exclaim loudly (or to ourselves) “How fascinating!” every time we make a mistake. This little gem alone was worth the price of the book. Think about that. Another mistake? How fascinating! Another opportunity to learn something just presented itself. Another unlucky break? No worries! Move forward.

It’s not (always) about success/failure, it’s about contribution
Rather than asking questions such as “Will I be appreciated?” or “Will I win them over?” and so on, ask “How can I make a contribution?” Below is an excerpt from this video clip (3:45 mark) where Zander is coaching a student on his “presentation” (in this case a musical performance):

“We are about contribution, that’s what our job is … everyone was clear you contributed passion to the people in this room. Did you do it better than the next violinist, or did he do better than a pianist? I don’t care, because in contribution, there is no better!”

Rather than getting bogged down in a sea of measurement where you compare yourself to others and worry about whether you are worthy to be making the presentation or whether someone else could be doing it better, instead realize that at this moment in time — right here right now — you are the gift and your message is the contribution. There is no "better," there is only now.

The real power is in making others powerful
Ben_studentVanity and tyrannical management styles are not uncommon among conductors even today, Zander says, which is perhaps one reason why in at least one survey orchestral players rank only slightly above prison guards in job satisfaction. The truly great conductors, says Zander, are like any other great leader, they understand that their true power “derives from [their] ability to make others powerful.” The question to ask, then, is not “How good am I?” but “What makes [this] group lively and engaged?” It is not about gaining sway over your group (or audience or class) so that they will play it the way you envision — or see things your way — but rather the question now becomes how best to enable them to play it beautifully the way they are capable. In presenting — and certainly in teaching — we need to make certain that the audience is engaged so that they may, with our help, find for themselves what is there to be discovered, including the discovery of the possibilities that may be within them.

Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously!
Laugh “Lighten up,” Says Zander, “and you lighten up those around you.” This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t take your work seriously (you should), or even that you shouldn’t take yourself seriously (that may depend on time and place), but for absolute certainty we must all get over ourselves. There is perhaps no better way to “get over ourselves” than the use of humor. From birth we are concerned about measurement and worried about perceived scarcity of love, attention, food, etc. that seems to be the way of the world. Zander calls this the "calculating self," and in this environment of scarcity, competition, and comparison “the self needs to be taken very seriously indeed.” No matter how successful and confident we may become as adults, our “calculating self” (concerned with measurement and worried about scarcity) is weak and sees itself
at risk of losing everything. No wonder the calculating self is concerned with “looking out for number one” and takes itself so g—damn seriously.

The goal, then, is to move away from the calculating self, the self that lives in a world of scarcity, exaggerated threats, and deficiencies, and move toward a healthier attitude of sufficiency, wholeness, and possibilities. Getting over ourselves — and humor is a great vehicle for this — allows us to see the “creative nature of the world and ourselves.” When we understand what an infant can’t — that we can not control the world, that we can not impose our will on people’s hearts — we begin to get over ourselves. When we learn to lighten up we see ourselves as permeable not vulnerable, says Zander, and we stay open to the unknown and to new influences, new ideas. Rather than trying to resist and fight the river of life we move with a harmonious fluidity and grace, learning to join rather than resist the flow. Humor is a wonderful way to remind everyone around us — no matter how hard the work gets — that our true self is not obsessed with childish demands, entitlements, and calculations but is instead supportive, confident, helpful, and even inspiring. A presentation is as good a time as any to let people see that side of you. (Certainly Dan Pink showed that in his presentation, as did my friend Daniel Rodriguez in his talk last month in Osaka.)

Give way to your passion (playing on one buttock)
Heart It is not enough to know a piece of music intellectually or to play it without any mistakes, you have to convey the true language of the music emotionally, says Zander. When musicians truly get into the music and play it with such heart and emotion that audiences are moved beyond words, Zander noticed that the music was flowing through the musicians, taking control of their bodies as they swayed from side to side. Zander, then, urges musicians to become “one-buttock players,” that is to let the music flow through their bodies, causing them to lean and to move from one buttock to the other. If you’re a musician, or making a performance of virtually any kind, and you are totally in the moment and connecting with the language of the music and the audience, there is no way you can be a “two-buttock player.” You’ve got to move, you’ve got to connect, and you must not hold back your passion but instead let the audience have a taste of the commitment, energy, and passion you have for the music (or the topic, the ideas, etc.). This quote below from Martha Graham captures the essence of the idea of giving way to passion (from page 116 of The Art of Possibility). I think you can apply these words to the art of performance or presentation, and frankly to life in general including leadership, entrepreneurship, etc.

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

                                                       — Martha Graham

You decide. You can hold back, aim not to make an error and play it perfectly “on two-buttocks,” or you can say “Screw it!—I’ll take a risk” and dare to lean into the music with intensity, color, humanity, and passion and quite possibly, in your own small way (and on only one buttock), change the world. Play it with total sincerity and with your entire body — heart and soul — and you will make a connection and change things. As Ben Zander said while encouraging one of his talented students to play it in the “one-buttock” style:

“If you play that way, they won’t be able to resist you. You will be a compelling force behind which everyone will be inspired to play their best.”

                                                        — Ben Zander

Watch video of Zander on the Big Speak page (upper right column).

Dan Pink: writer, presenter, mensch

Dan_garr So there I was in the Osaka Hilton having lunch with my wife and author Dan Pink when I realize (again) that the world is indeed small, and blogging is making it even smaller. Dan Pink’s last “real job” was as chief speech writer to Vice President Al Gore in the ’90s. I have not met Al Gore but I’m buddies with Duarte Design and of course Al Gore is good pals with the folks at Duarte, the design firm that creates his famous Keynote slide presentations. I got to know both Nancy Duarte and Dan Pink initially through my blog. Talk about six degrees of separation, today it often feels more like two or three. Blogging shrinks the globe. Anyway, I had the pleasure last week of spending about eight hours with Dan Pink, author of two best-selling books: Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind. A Whole New Mind is my favorite book of 2006. It’s brilliant and absolutely spot on. Dan is over here in Japan on a Japan Society fellowship studying Manga (among other things) for a couple of months. I learned a few things about Dan Pink during his visit with me. I already knew he was a great writer, but what I learned is that he is a fantastic speaker. And…he’s a mensch.

A mensch is a Yiddish word roughly meaning “good person with admirable characteristics, etc.” A mensch to me is the kind of person who returns to the department store when he discovers he was given too much change, or the kind of person who calls a foul on himself in a pickup game of basketball. You get the idea. Dan Pink is a very busy man, and due to his impressive background and success he certainly commands high speaking fees, yet he took the time to join me in schlepping out to Kansai Gaidai University, located between Kyoto and Osaka, to speak for free to about 150 college students from around the world who are studying in Japan. Not a glamorous gig perhaps, but Dan accepted the speaking engagement with grace and enthusiasm, demonstrating to me that he’s a total mensch and that he also gets the whole “pooping like an elephant” thing (if that last part makes no sense to you then read this PZ post on “giving it away”). Also see this post by Guy Kawasaki (another mensch who has helped me in the past) called How to Be a Mensch.

Presenter extraordinaire
Not all good speakers are good writers, nor are all talented writers necessarily good public speakers, but Dan Pink has both of these skills down cold. Dan is a fantastic writer, of course, contributing to the New York Times, Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, Wired, and many others in addition to his best-selling books. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that he is an amazing speaker. He’s exceptionally good. In fact I was blown away. He’s dynamic, enthusiastic, and totally engaged with his audience, but he’s not too polished or slick. He was perfectly imperfect. He was human. He may have a good background in politics, but unlike most politicians, he gives you depth and breadth without the veneer of “a slick talker.” He is charismatic and funny, but he brings serious content and the spirit of a concerned teacher to the stage.

Dan Pink in Japan: Casual, conversational, and always in front of the podium.

Kansai Gaidai students line up to get a picture with Dan Pink.

The transfer of emotion
Seth Godin is absolutely right when he says presentations are about the transfer of emotion not just facts. Facts are a necessary condition, but they are rarely sufficient. If it were only about facts, we could just send an email and cancel most presentations. If it were only about information, we could read it in a book. But ideas — especially ideas that change things, that move things forward — usually have more impact when the originator of that idea conveys the message via the spoken word even though the same ideas may be widely published in a journal or in the author’s book, etc. The reason, in part, is emotion.

Dan_pink_dvd Live is best, but even recorded presentations can add emotion and a new dynamic to content you may already be familiar with. Dan Pink’s DVD, also called A Whole New Mind, is a good example. The content of what he says in this presentation recorded in front of a live studio audience is essentially the same as what is in the book, except that he can not go into nearly as much depth in a 50-minute talk as he can in a 250-page book. Yet hearing the author repeat his message in a recorded presentation (and then again live in Japan) made his ideas somehow more memorable, more real, and very importantly, I felt a greater sense of inspiration and urgency to take action.

Above, watch a sample from the A Whole New Mind DVD. The DVD starts with a short interview with Dan followed by a live presentation and a Q&A session with the audience. The clip above gives you a feel for the content. Well worth the money.

At Kansai Gaidai University Dan did one of the best jobs with an informal Q&A session that I’d ever seen. He gave away one of his books to every student who asked a question. The demand for free books quickly exceeded supply as the international audience of students and professors was eager to ask questions after his provocative talk. This kind of student involvement is not easy to garner in Japan, even among international students. Dan would make a great teacher. He scores very high for the six important aptitudes in the conceptual age — design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning — aptitudes that make for great teachers and great communicators in virtually any field.

• See more sample Dan Pink presentation clips

Two Questions: Why does it matter? What's your contribution?

Audience_man A lot of the presentations I attend feature a person from a specialized field giving a talk — usually with the help of PowerPoint — to an audience of business people and creatives, etc. who are not at all specialists in the presenter’s technical field. This is not an uncommon type of situation, of course. For example, an expert in the area of, say, biofuel technology may be invited to give a presentation to a local chamber of commerce about the topic and about what their company does, what the average person can do, etc. Recently I attended such an event, and after the hour talk was over I realized that the presentation was a miracle of sorts: Until that day I didn’t think it was possible to actually listen to someone make a PowerPoint presentation in my native language of English and for me to genuinely not understand a single point that was made. Not one. Nada. I understood the individual words, the pronunciation and diction were perfect, but between ubiquitous acronyms — and the darting laser pointer used to underline those acronyms — bulleted lists, and colourfully decorated charts and diagrams, after it was all said and done, I realized that I hadn’t comprehended a single idea. I wanted my hour back.

The wasted hour was not the fault of PowerPoint or even bad slides, however. While I was suffering through this, doing the best that I could to understand, it occurred to me that this presentation would have been greatly improved if the presenter would have kept two good pieces of advice in mind in preparing for the talk. These two bits of advice which I discovered recently have nothing to do with PowerPoint or the art of slide presentations per se, yet they apply well.

Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter?
I mentioned before that I think Brand Gap is one of the best little books on branding that I have ever read. Even people who loathe the very idea of marketing or branding will find something useful in this book. In Brand Gap author Marty Neumeir (read an interview with the author) tells us of a consultant who starts off every meeting with a new client the same way, by asking these three simple questions: Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? Sounds simple, and people usually do pretty well with the first one and even the second one, but the third one — why does it (or you) matter? — whoa, this is where people stumble. Yet, that is what people (including most audiences) are hoping and praying that you’ll tell them. Neumeir says that these three questions together provide the litmus test for what makes us different or what gives our company it’s raison d’etre. Neumeir may be talking about branding, but his advice here translates well to other forms of communication as well. We can, more or less, read about what you do and who you are, but why it matters? Why we should care? That’s going to take persuasion, emotion, and empathy. Empathy in the sense that the presenter understands that not everyone will see what to him is obvious or that others may understand well but not see why it should matter to them. Good presenters try to put themselves in the shoes of the audience so to speak. If you have never been in a presentation or a meeting and not asked yourself “why does this matter?” — or “why am I here?” — then you are a very lucky person indeed. Failing to answer the question “Why does it matter?” — or “What’s in it for them (the audience)?” — is often at the heart of a failed presentation.

(By the way, Marty Neumeir has done a pretty cool thing by putting the main narrative of his book into the form of a PowerPoint deck that is especially useful to someone who has already read the book and wants to talk about the ideas with the help of these visuals above. You can find the three essential questions related to focus on slide 50 of 162 in the Slideshare deck above.)

It’s about making contribution
Art_o_possible You may know Benjamin Zander as the talented conductor for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, but he is also one of the truly gifted presenters of our time. He’s so good in fact — so inspiring and so informative — that he could spend all his time just talking to companies and organizations about leadership and transformation. I just bought his book — The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life
— and I can’t wait to one day witness one of his talks live. Until then you and I can get a feel for his passion and his wisdom from a few short clips on YouTube. Half way through this clip (shown below, go to the 3:30 mark) Zander says something quite remarkable to a group of musicians. He may be talking in the context of musicianship, but his words can be applied to most of our presentation contexts too:

“This is the moment — this is the most important moment right now. Which is: We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”

                                                            — Benjamin Zander

Not every presentation situation is about contribution, perhaps, but most are. Certainly when we are asked to share our expertise with a group who are on the whole not specialists in our field, we have to think very hard about what is important (for them) and what is not (again, for them). It is easier just to do the same presentation we always do, but it is not about impressing people with the depths of our knowledge, it’s about sharing something of lasting value.

Lost_me_hello Getting back to my wasted hour. (Actually, it was a wasted hour for everyone involved.) The presenter, who was a smart, accomplished professional, failed before he even started. The slides looked like they where the same ones used in previous presentations to more technical audiences, an indication that he had not thought first and foremost about his audience on that day. And what about the fact that no one really understood what he said? He seemed not to notice that in the least (also not a good sign). His presentation would be utterly forgettable except for the fact that it was an absolute triumph of self-indulgence for the presenter and confusion for the audience. He failed to answer the important question, “Why does it matter?” But since he could not make it clear even “what he does” it would be impossible to answer why it mattered. He also would have been well advised in the preparation stage to remember that presentation opportunities like this are about contributing something, leaving something important behind for the audience. It does not necessarily matter what it is — information, knowledge, inspiration — just as long as it is for the audience

When assessing presenters, then, you may want to measure them against these four question (among others): Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter to us? What did you contribute? If these answers are clear and the contribution was beyond expectation, then chances are the hour was not a wasted one.

• Ben Zander on transformation and leadership (Google video)
• Ben Zander wisdom (very short YouTube clip).

Is it finally time to ditch PowerPoint?

Ppt_mac_can_2 Last week an article appearing in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled Researcher points finger at PowerPoint generated quite a stir. The article highlighted findings by researchers from the University of New South Wales, including John Sweller who developed the Cognitive Load Theory back in the '80s. One of the findings mentioned in the article: it is more difficult to process information if it is coming at you both verbally and in written form at the same time. Since people can not read and listen well at the same time, the reporter suggested, then this may mean "the death of the PowerPoint presentation." The assumption being (apparently) that a presentation made with the aid of slideware such as PowerPoint or Keynote necessarily includes lines of text projected on a screen that mirror the spoken word of the presenter.

The article generated so much attention due in part to this quote by Professor Sweller:

"The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched."

                                                   — John Sweller

Professor Sweller's comment makes a provocative headline and adds to the long list of professionals and researchers deriding the PowerPoint tool. I have added the professor's quote to my talks on the Presentation Zen approach. Two versions of the slide appear below.


Is PowerPoint a method?
I am assuming that what Professor Sweller means is that the way PowerPoint is used should be ditched, not the tool itself. Suggesting we abandon PowerPoint because it's often (usually?) misused and abused to produce awful presentation visuals is like saying we should dump the idea of 24-hour cable news because so much of it is vacuous rubbish. But whether we’re talking about bad TV or boring presentations, shouldn't we blame the content producers not the content medium? When people rail against PowerPoint they seem to be saying that PowerPoint is a method, and a flawed method at that. But is PowerPoint itself really a "method"? In a 2004 interview with Cliff Atkinson, Multimedia Learning author Richard Mayer said this:

"I do not think it makes sense to refer to PowerPoint as a method. Instead... PowerPoint is a medium that can be used effectively — that is, with effective design methods — or ineffectively, that is with ineffective design methods. We would not necessarily say that books are rarely a good method, because books can be designed using effective or ineffective methods."

                                                          — Richard Mayer

Cognitive load theory
Multimedia_learning I first read about the cognitive load theory as it relates to presentation in Richard Mayer’s Multimedia Learning. Sweller’s work is often cited in Multimedia Learning and many of his publications are also online. In this paper, for example, called Visualisation and Instructional Design (pdf), Sweller discusses several of the effects related to the cognitive load theory. For example, the modality effect shows that ”working memory can be increased by using dual rather than a single modality.” That is, it is more effective to target both the visual and auditory processors of working memory. Another effect in the cognitive load theory is called the redundancy effect (also outlined by Mayer in Multimedia Learning). The redundancy effect says that if one form of instruction (such as the spoken word) is intelligible and adequate then providing the same material in another form (such as lines of text on a screen that mimic the words being spoken) are redundant and can actually hurt understanding. This may seem counterintuitive and it certainly runs counter to many of the ways presentations are made in business or lesson taught in schools.

Below is another quote from Prof. Sweller from the same newspaper article. Here Sweller is surely referring to both the redundancy and modality effects:

"It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented."

                                                        — John Sweller

In the scenario describe by Sweller above the diagram uses a visual modality and the speech uses an auditory modality which should result in greater working memory capacity and better understanding, depending, of course, on what is being presented.

Words should be presented as speech
Really_bad_ppt2 The article in The Sydney Morning Herald put the ol’ bullet-filled PowerPoint slide back in the firing line. Good presentation techniques, and even classroom instruction methods, are as much art as science. Still, we can learn a lot from examining the findings from researchers such as Sweller and Mayer. Most of us know intuitively (or through experience) that presenting to an audience with text-filled slides does not work, but others — your boss perhaps — may need more convincing. This is where the research and evidence from specialists in psychology, education and other disciplines can be a great help. Research shows that visuals (animation) plus concise, simultaneous narration is better than just narration alone. When it comes to the issue of projected text on a screen and narration, Mayer draws this conclusion:

“Words should be presented as speech (i.e., narration) rather than text (i.e., on-screen text) or as speech and text.”

                                                      — Richard Mayer

What to do about PowerPoint?
Stick22 So, is it finally time to ditch PowerPoint? Hardly, but it is long past time to ditch the use of the ubiquitous bulleted-list templates found in both PowerPoint and Keynote. And it’s long past time that we realized that putting the same information on a slide that is coming out of our mouths usually does not help — in fact usually hurts our message. Next time you plan a presentation, then, start by using a pencil and pad, a whiteboard, or a stick in the sand — anything except jumping headfirst into slideware on your computer with its templates, outlines, and content wizards that may point you down a path you wish not to go. And as you examine your work from previous talks remember this rule of thumb: if your presentation visuals taken in the aggregate (e.g., your “PowerPoint deck”) can be perfectly and completely understood without your narration, then it begs the question: why are you there?

Book by John Sweller et al: Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load
Bert Decker’s take on the newspaper article

Seth Godin: Ideas that spread win

Godin_pic While going through the Greater Talent Network site I stumbled upon a great 8-minute sampling of a Seth Godin presentation. This is a classic Godin presentation that is delivered with good energy, great clarity, and augmented with simple visuals that support his point and even introduce a bit of humor. I think you’ll enjoy this clip, which you can see on YouTube as well.

Tvindustrial     Tv_2
Slides from Seth Godin’s presentation featured on The Greater Talent Network.

Ben_cohenBen & Jerry
And speaking of “ideas that spread win,” here’s a short sampling of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (of Ben & Jerry’s Icecream) talking about how they got started in the business. Jerry starts off telling the story of their beginning. Ben chimes in later with the biggest pie chart I’ve ever seen. You can watch the video on YouTube as well.

Related links
The Godin Method
Biz Gurus Present (Godin, Kawasaki, Peters)
Is it broken? (presentation by Seth Godin at GEL)