Japanese cuisine and the art of presentation

SushiThis year we were in California for the New Year holidays. But last year, we celebrated the new year in Nara, Japan. New Year's is called Oshogatsu and is an important holiday in Japan and a time to be with family. A centerpiece of Oshogatsu in Japan is food, particularly Osechi Ryori. Checkout the photos of the Osechi Ryori bentos on the Bento Blog. The items of the bento taste great, but what is amazing to me is the thought given to how the items in the bento should look. Whether it's an expensive New Year's bento or a simple "ekiben" bento purchased at the train station, presentation matters.

Sushi is good for you.
The best sushi I have had in the US has been in New York, San Francisco, LA, and Honolulu. But even the best "American sushi" — and some of it is very good — just does not stack up to the experience of sushi in Japan. In general, food in Japan is incredibly good, incredibly fresh, and always well presented. At least once in your life, you owe it to yourself to travel to Japan and have a true "sushi experience."

Geoffroy, a Presentation Zen reader, sent me a link over the Christmas break of a video which takes a tongue-in-cheek look at dining in a Japanese sushiya. (Try here if the link does not work — thanks, Barry.) I share this with you because I think it's a good example of how narration and images can work well together to tell a story. In this case, the images are in the form of video, but the same thing could be done with many still images along with the narration from a live speaker. With the help of images in a PowerPoint/Keynote deck, you can imagine a presenter — an intercultural trainer, perhaps — teaching and discussing the "how" and the "why" of dining out with business colleagues in Japan. (Below are two samples of what slides might look like if you put this content into a standup presentation.)

Pouringbeer1  Pouringbeer2

Now, this particular video is in fact quite weird because it aims at being ironic — even sardonic — by mixing a blend of truth and accuracy with parody, exaggeration, and intentional falsehoods. What is true and what is false in this video presentation is obvious to Japanese and to others familiar with the culture, but perhaps not to others. The Japanese are concerned with doing things "the right way." Japan is a "high uncertainty avoidance" culture where much care is often given to ritual, manners, and procedure. The creators of this video, then, are poking a little fun at themselves. But please do not take the contents of the video seriously. I reference this video (with tongue in cheek) only to show how images/video can be used effectively to present a point, to teach, or to demo. (Note: video appears to no longer be available...)

Learn more about sushi at the Sushi-Master and from the Sushi FAQ.

Japanese ryori: the visual matters
And speaking of food, let me say again that one can learn a lot about visual presentation by dining out in Japan. The Japanese are very concerned with the outer, with how things appear, with how they look. You can see this in everything from fashion, to architecture, to the Zen arts, such as the art of tea ceremony (Sado). Food is no exception. The way food looks and how it is presented is as important as how it tastes.

Over the weekend we went for a long walk amid light snow flurries along Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosophy Road) in Kyoto. While on our walk, we stopped for a coffee/tea along the path of Tetsugaku no Michi. Even in this small café serving simple cakes, presentation mattered. You can find attention to visual details in Japan even in a small out-of-the-way cafe.

   Tetsugakunomichi Walking


Later, we took the opportunity to have Kyo-ryori for dinner in downtown Kyoto. The Kyoto restaurant where we dined was nothing special. Just a typical Japanese restaurant really, except that they specialized in Kyo-ryori. Even in this humble restaurant, however, you can see (below) how wonderfully the dishes are prepared and displayed. The presentation of the dishes adds tremendously to the taste of the cuisine and enjoyment of the overall experience. Nothing is superfluous or mere decoration.


You can see even better pictures of Kyo-ryori here.

Can you be an objective advocate of ideas?

Brent Edwards posted his impressions of a recent Edward Tufte seminar he attended. (I can't wait to attend one myself.) I found this comment by Mr. Edwards on the seminar worth noting:

"In his seminar, he (Tufte) advocates that you view a presenter skeptically, making sure that they are a "detective" without bias rather than an "advocate" of their ideas. Tufte certainly sounds like an advocate in much of what he preaches."

Interesting. If we are an advocate of our ideas, does this mean that we necessarily lack objectivity? Is advocacy of an idea and rational objectivity impossible? Is "objective advocate" an oxymoron?

Tufte_1I was not at Tufte's seminar, but if in fact Prof. Tufte expressed something similar to what Mr. Edwards reports, then perhaps what Tufte is saying is that we should not let the advocacy of our ideas overwhelm our reasoning or skew the evidence we are presenting. That is, we must not let our belief about the idea obfuscate the evidence in support of that idea. Obviously Tufte recognizes that we carry around biases with us and that true objectivity is difficult to achieve. And if I remember correctly from my undergraduate days studying philosophy, Aristotle also knew that objectivity can be difficult. Aristotle, of course, put great emphasis on the importance of objective reasoning and appealing to logical argument. Maybe this is why today we are also concerned with sound logical argument, at least in most Western cultures. But Aristotle knew, too, that people are emotional creatures and that we can not ignore that fact.

Logic, emotions, ethics
Aristotle said that good rhetoric (arguments, presentations) can be broken into three separate artistic proofs: appeals to reason (logos or logic); appeals to emotions (pathos); and appeals based on the character of the speaker (ethos or ethics). The logical construction of the argument and supporting evidence, the emotional reaction of the audience, and the character of the presenter are all important elements of a successful presentation. Aristotle says, for example, that ethos and pathos are so important that if ignored the greatest logical appeal in the world could still be for naught. And while emotional appeal is necessary, Aristotle deplored the idea of using only emotional appeal to sway audiences at the exclusion of reason (and often truth, I might add).

AristotlePerhaps Tufte's concern today is that too many presentations ride on the speaker's personality or on the speaker's enthusiasm and conviction about the idea rather than on solid, logical reasoning and evidence concerning the idea. Because people are emotional, as well as logical beings, do we not need to take great care to avoid taking advantage of people's emotions? Certainly marketers — and governments too —  appeal to our fears to "persuade" us to take action, usually with a great obfuscation of "the facts."

Open mindedness and objectivity are paramount. However, I think being an "advocate of an idea" does not necessarily make me incapable of objectivity. And I believe a demonstrable passion for the presentation topic is indeed something good for a presenter to possess. However, it is also true today — especially in the political arena — that emotion, conviction, and strong beliefs have replaced an open-minded exploration of the truth. And this is not a good trend at all.

Books by Edward Tufte
I highly recommend Tufte's books. Tufte's books will teach you a lot, and they will also make you question conventional wisdom about how "evidence" is displayed. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is my favorite.

Visual_dis       Visual_ex

Envision       Dog

Tufte's seminar
Tufte has a limited seminar schedule, and charges $320 per person (including his books). $160 for students. This sounds like a pretty good deal. Wish he'd come to Japan.

If any of you have attended one of Edward Tufte's seminars, please share your thoughts. Love to hear from you.

    The Tufte photo is a public image from typeweight at Flickr.

The size of your deck is not important

Konishiki_sizeA lot of people ask me how many slides they should use in their "PowerPoint deck." That is, how many slides should be used for a single live presentation? My answer these days is "between zero and a thousand."

When I gave my "Art of Presentations" presentation last week at P&G in Kobe (for ACCJ), someone asked me at the end how many slides I had used. So I asked people what they thought. How may slides did I use, I asked (I spoke for 55 minutes). Guesses ranged from 40 to 60. The answer was 285. The audience was at once surprised and amused. Then I asked them, imagine if I had said something like this at the start of my presentation: "Hello, everyone. Thanks for coming. I have 285 slides to go through tonight, so let's get started...." The audience burst out laughing. One man said, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that he would have ran for the exit doors had I opened that way. And with that, the audience got it: In my presentation, the number of slides was obviously not important. The slides simply supported the talk. People were not conscious of how many slides they had seen or "where I was in the deck."

It's not the slides, it's "the moment"
Once people start counting slides, all is lost. The focus should be on the message and the moment. And "the moment" is a kind of synchronicity among presenter, audience, and supporting visuals that allows the audience and presenter to have a connection that is more like conversation and sharing and less like a didactic stream of bullets, "chart junk," and a ceaseless, incessant "blah, blah, blah" that an audience must endure. A presentation approach which resembles a speaker "getting through a deck of slides" treats the audience like a room full of video recorders. Mutli-media learning theory and cognitive science suggest, however, that this approach is not inline with how people most effectively handle new information. (See this older article, and works by professor Richard Mayer, such as this book).

It's the wrong question
Loori_book_3If your audience is conscious of the number of slides you are using — "too many" or "too few" — then that usually means you have inappropriately designed your visuals or are using them in a way that is not helping much. It's not the number that is the problem. I have seen both good and bad presentations that used no more than 10 slides, and I have seen both good and bad presentations that used more than 250 slides. I talked about this idea in my post on the Lessig Method a couple of months ago.
OK, but seriously, how many slides do I suggest? Honestly, it is not something I worry about. There are a million things to worry about, but the size of my "PowerPoint deck" is not one of them. So, maybe the best answer I can give you is to use the "appropriate amount" of visual support. And only you (and your coach if you have one) will know what that is. As John Loori says in The Zen of Creativity, "...make a choice about what's important, and let go of the rest." And the number of slides is not important.

Related Presentation Zen links
Are we asking the right questions?
Should lectures be conversational?

Presentations and "meta-spaces"

JasperEarlier this week, Jasper von Meerheimb, Sr. Art Director for Universal Studios Japan, gave a wonderful presentation (see photos) for Design Matters on "Meta-spaces," defined as "multi-dimensional visitor destinations designed to facilitate personal transformation in public settings." The presentation was very good and had just the right amount of content. 55 minutes. The content was provocative and with discussion could easily have been a 2-hour presentation. Lot's of things that make you go "hmmmmm...." Of course, visually, the presentation (he used Keynote) was simple, beautiful, and made use of a lot of photography as he explained key concepts.

Two things Jasper talked about stood out to me and are represented on two of his slides below. In Jasper's case as a designer, he is talking about "looking at the whole individual (user)" and "integration" in the context of designing spaces such as parks or shopping malls, etc. But if you think about it, the ten items listed on the slides below can also get us thinking about how to better design presentation visuals, and in fact the entire presentation, including content selection, approach, and delivery. Software designers/programmers and others too might want to take a moment to ponder these ten elements.

The Whole Individual.
Presentations are usually about great content, of course. Otherwise, why waste people's valuable time. But people (audiences) are not just sponges there to absorb information. Even the brightest among the brightest in the room will tune out if you "present" only data (and more data, and more data...). We have to appeal (not dumb down) to the whole person, do we not? Often to people who are "not like me" who have different assumptions and experiences. We need to target people's imaginations, emotions, and senses too. And often, we desire that people change their behavior as a result of our efforts. Too often, presenters focus only on the intellectual. The intellectual side is necessary, but it is one aspect of many. The best presentations take the "whole person" into account.


An Integrated meta-space. OK, I know I am stretching this, but in a sense you and your computer/projector and a room full of people are a kind of "meta-space" experience. Certainly the best visuals need to be (at the minimum) relevant as well as easy to grasp without too much explanation. The visuals support your talk, often in subtle ways. Some of the best presentations are multi-faceted in that they leverage many kinds of tools such as video, audio, photography, physical objects, whiteboards, and so on.

Get out!
I always suggest to people, especially to college students, that they "get out" and make connections and stretch themselves. Get out of your office. Get out of your house. Get out of your routine. You just never know where that next source of inspiration or that next cool person will come from. But that next inspiring bit of information or that new contact is not coming from your living room or your dorm room. You will have to sit on the riverbank a very long time before the birds of knowledge or inspiration fly into your mouth. Instead, "get out there" and see what happens. I started Design Matters more than anything else because I wanted to see what happens when you bring a diverse group of creatives and business people together in the spirit of sharing and growing professionally (and in other ways too). I always learn something new.

Photo of Jasper Courtesy of T.K. Photok13

Spreading the word

Seth_slide2Seth Godin says, "The more you give away, the more it's worth" (see original slide). I agree. If you want your ideas to spread big, then you've got to evangelize and get others to want to evangelize your idea or cause. You can't pay evangelists though. You can't pay your friends to love you and you can't pay strangers (or customers) to love your ideas. Apple User Groups,* for example, are incredible communities full of unpaid "Mavens" (a la the Tipping Point) that help spread knowledge about Apple products and technology, provide invaluable tech support (that Apple can't provide), and have "converted" a great many people "to the Macintosh way." What I'm talking about goes beyond just "selling" your idea, though. So what's the difference between a sales approach and an evangelism approach? According to the "father of evangelism marketing," Guy Kawasaki, "Sales is rooted in what's good for me. Evangelism is rooted in what's good for you." (See Father of Evangelism Marketing).

I'm trying to spread an idea. I'm trying to do my very small part to rid the world of awful, ineffective, time-wasting "PowerPoint presentations" that leave both presenter and audience feeling uninspired (at best). The idea that I'm trying to spread is that conventional wisdom about presenting is completely off kilter. Borrowing from the works and examples from such people as Lessig, Kawasaki, Jobs, Atkinson, Tufte, Sierra, Takahashi, and many others, and drawing on influences from the worlds of visual communication and design, Zen, cognitive science, multimedia, etc., I am attempting to shake things up a bit. The aim is to expose people to other ways of presenting and to get them thinking differently about their presentations. The more people hear me (and others like me) speak the more valuable this idea becomes. So, in the spirit of Guy Kawasaki's call that we revolutionaries "poop like elephants" (give of our time and spread our ideas generously), I gladly "give it away" when I can. And so do many, many others. It just makes sense to do so.

Evidence of my "pooping"
A few people have asked how the "free presentations" went last week, so here are some pictures from two of my presentations where I "gave it away."

Above: Speaking here in Osaka for the Osaka Sister City Association. Really nice people. Had a chance to mingle for an hour after the presentation over some tea and delicious desserts.

Above: Presenting for ACCJ at the Far East Headquarters of Proctor & Gamble in Kobe. A crowd of about 115 in attendance on a Friday night. (They had to bring in extra chairs). I spoke in English and had a simultaneous interpreter in the booth above. Some in the audience listened to the interpretation through headphones. The auditorium feels kind of like a mini United Nations. Wonderful place.

I was happy a few of my Gaidai students attended the event. From left to right, Rafael (Philippines), Julie (Kenya), me (USA), Jesse (Canada), and Jose (Ecuador). (The image on screen is available at istockphoto.com).

Above: Since the last time I presented at P&G, they added a monitor in front of the stage which mirrors what's on the large, bright screen behind the speaker. This is a wonderful thing. No excuse now for anyone presenting there to hide behind the podium. Great facility. I even made a PDF of my Keynote slides and loaded those on the house PC. That way if my Mac froze (there's always a first time) I could just press a button and switch to the PC already connected and ready to go.

*(Although you can not pay evangelist groups, such as Apple user groups, I would like to see Apple engage these user groups more and make them feel a little more "part of the team.")

More on giving it away

Here are a few links to some good "free stuff."

Jo_twist_1LEWIS PR presentations
If you're interested in the phenomenon of blogging — especially the "impact of blogging on corporate reputations and on the way the media operates" — checkout the three presentations available on the LEWIS PR site. LEWIS recently held a breakfast seminar on blogging in London and have put the three presentations up for everyone to see. The content is of interest. But what I'm impressed with is how they are sharing this info. Slides on the left are in synch with the video on the right, a video of good quality. The way they put this together in Flash is really quick and easy to use. I would love to see a Lawrence Lessig or a Tom Peters presentation in this format online. I need to make some of my own presentations available in this format.

The three presenters are Morgan McLintic, Loïc le Meur, and Dr. Jo Twist. What about the quality of the visuals and delivery in the presentations? These are three bright and articulate people, but yes, I would loved to have worked with the three of them before the presentations and reworked their visuals so that they would better support their key messages, making the experience even better for the audience. Hats off, however, to LEWIS for making these presentations available.

Nancy_duarte_1Duarte on presentation design
Duarte Design, located in Silicon Valley, works with the top companies in the area, from Adobe and Apple, to Sun and Symantec, and Google, HP and others in between. And there's a reason: They absolutely kick-ass when it comes to presentation design. Checkout the presentation visuals they did for Adobe, Cisco, HP, and others here. And they have a couple of case studies here. And here are five great, free "before/after" articles (pdf) by Duarte Design Principle, Nancy Duarte which originally appeared in Presentations Magazine. Great stuff! (I wish Microsft would use these talented folks...).

Speaking of free tips. Guy Kawasaki recommended this site to me for shortening my long urls before pasting them into emails. (Permalinks tend to go to the second line). For example, this permalink to a post from April looks like this:

After I run it through snipurl, it looks like this:

The "Microsoft Method" of presentations

Ballmer_1Microsoft did not invent PowerPoint. That honor goes to a small company called Forethought, which released PowerPoint for the Mac in 1987. The company was then purchased by Microsoft and the Windows version of PowerPoint eventually hit the market in 1990...and the world hasn't been the same since.

But did Microsoft invent the wordy, bulletpoint-ridden PowerPoint slide approach, the approach ridiculed by Edward Tufte and so many others? I don't have the answer to that, but judging from the presentation visuals (slides) used by high-profile Microsoft executives, the company is certainly perpetuating this approach, an approach we'll call the "Microsoft Method."

Examples of the "Microsoft Method" of presentations
You can find a plethora of the actual PowerPoint files used in many Microsoft presentations, including those by CEO, Steve Ballmer and Chairman, Bill Gates. The company also provides many video streams to past presentations, often including written transcripts.

On November 7, Steve Ballmer kicked off the "Ready Launch Tour." The audience for this presentation and others on the tour consist mainly of developers and database administrators. The keynote presentation was at a high-level and not overly technical. The presentation was more of an opportunity for the CEO to show his leadership, vision, and what it all means. I don't have any problems with the content of Steve Ballmer's keynote (that's not the focus of this blog anyway). My focus here is only on the slides he chose to use to support his messages. Below I show a few slides from Steve Ballmer's keynote (you can download his PPT file here). But first, allow me to introduce another concept from the Zen aesthetic we can refer to when examining these visuals and our own visuals.

Shibumi is a principle that can be applied to many aspects of life.  Concerning visual communication and graphic design, shibumi represents elegant simplicity and articulate brevity, an understated elegance. In Wabi-Sabi Style, authors James and Sandra Crowley comment on the Japanese deep appreciation of beauty:

Their (Japanese) conceptualization relegates elaborate ornamentation and vivid color usage to the bottom of the taste levels...excess requires no real thought or creativity. The highest level of taste moves beyond the usage of brilliant colors and heavy ornamentation to a simple and subdued refinement that is the beauty of shibumi, which represents the ultimate in good taste through conscious reserve. This is the original "less is more" concept. Less color — subdued and elegant usage of color, less clutter...

                                        — Wabi Sabi Style

I do not suggest you judge a presentation visual the same way you do a work of art, of course. But understanding the essence of shibumi can have practical applications in your creative work. And I believe presentations are best viewed as creative endeavors — all of it — preparation, design, and delivery.

Examples from Steve Ballmer's Nov 7 Keynote

  Thank_you    People_1
Above left: Saying thank you is a wonderful, gracious thing to do, especially at the beginning. If you use a visual for this, a simple "Thank You" without the noise of a busy template, catch phrase (Ready), and three different logos would be better. I like the background color for this visual, but it doesn't fit with the bulk of the slides which have a familiar blue background. Above right: Suddenly a blue background. A lot of images to convey a simple point. The images of people in the bubbles are labeled "People"... in case we weren't sure those were images of people?

  New_platform    Platform
Above left: It would be better if Steve had broken this up into three slides with declarative titles for each, less colors and fewer bullets. Above right: I get it, but a simpler, more elegant visual was surely possible.

  Trusted              Lucky_charms
Above left: Many colors. Gradients. 3-D effects. Small text. When you are one of the most powerful business figures in the world, it's better if your presentation visuals do not resemble a cereal box.

  Platform_mo   Summary
Above left: More 3-D graphics, gradients, colors. Above right: Nothing closes big quite like a bulleted list on a "Summary" slide.

It all matters
You might say, "So the PowerPoints aren't great? So what? Content is what matters." Content does matter a very great deal. Great content is essential. But my point is: It all matters.

Microsoft says the sky's the limit for us consumers. Work can be creative. We can help. I want to believe them. Really I do. Yet, when given the opportunity to show how one of their most visible products can actually be used practically and harmoniously to help their own speakers present important ideas, they revert back to PowerPoint-as-usual. Uninspiring...and typical.

A Flash pitch on the Microsoft "your potential" website says "we stand in awe of your potential." Their whole campaign evolves around this one message: “Your potential. Our passion.” And templates, auto-content wizards and "paper-clip guy" are suppose to help people be more creative?

What must it be like inside the Redmond campus? If top management is implying that this is how best to present, then what incentive do regular workers have for being different, creative...and more effective? But surely not all the people at Microsoft, a company which attracts great minds from across the planet, agree with the typical "death-by-PPT" approach?

Microsoft has smart, creative employees who get it
I think it's very cool that Microsoft allows employees to blog on the company. That's smart. One new MS employee, Prof Elizabeth Lane Lawley, currently working in Redmond on sabbatical from RIT comments today on Microsoft's love affair with the PPT deck in her post called The Culture of The Deck:

"There are many things I’ve been delighted and impressed by during the nearly five months I’ve now spent at Microsoft. However, there have also been a few things that I’ve found extraordinarily disheartening. One of the latter has been the organizational dependence on “the deck” (that is, PowerPoint files) as the standard mechanism for conveying nearly all information."

                                         — Elizabeth Lane Lawley

The professor goes on to say that the Presentation Zen site, Beyond Bullet Points and Tufte's The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint should be required reading for employees. Right on, Elizabeth!

Here's hoping a new way of presenting will one day make it up to the top levels of Microsoft management.

Gates, Jobs, & the Zen aesthetic

As a follow up to yesterday's post on Bill Gates' presentation style, I thought it would be useful to examine briefly the two contrasting visual approaches employed by Gates and Jobs in their presentations while keeping key aesthetic concepts found in Zen in mind. I believe we can use many of the concepts in Zen and Zen aesthetics to help us compare their presentation visuals as well as help us improve our own visuals. My point in comparing Jobs and Gates is not to poke fun but to learn.

A key tenet of the Zen aesthetic is kanso or simplicity. In the kanso concept beauty, grace, and visual elegance are achieved by elimination and omission. Says artist designer and architect Dr. Koichi Kawana, "Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means." When you examine your visuals, then, can you say that you are getting the maximum impact with a minimum of graphic elements, for example? When you take a look at Jobs' slides and Gates' slides, how do they compare for kanso?

"Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means."
                                 — Dr. Koichi Kawana

The aesthetic concept of naturalness or shizen "prohibits the use of elaborate designs and over refinement" according to Kawana. Restraint, then, is a beautiful thing. Talented jazz musicians, for example, know never to overplay but instead to be forever mindful of the other musicians and find their own space within the music and within the moment they are sharing. Graphic designers show restraint by including only what is necessary to communicate the particular message for the particular audience. Restraint is hard. Complication and elaboration are easy...and are common.

The suggestive mode of expression is a key Zen aesthetic. Dr. Kawana, commenting on the design of traditional Japanese gardens says:

"The designer must adhere to the concept of miegakure since Japanese believe that in expressing the whole the interest of the viewer is lost."
                                  — Dr. Koichi Kawana

In the world of PowerPoint presentations, then, you do not always need to visually spell everything out. You do not need to (nor can you) pound every detail into the head of each member of your audience either visually or verbally. Instead, the combination of your words, along with the visual images you project, should motivate the viewer and arouse his imagination helping him to empathize with your idea and visualize your idea far beyond what is visible in the ephemeral PowerPoint slide before him. The Zen aesthetic values include (but are not limited to):

  • Simplicity
  • Subtlety
  • Elegance
  • Suggestive rather than the descriptive or obvious
  • Naturalness (i.e., nothing artificial or forced),
  • Empty space (or negative space)
  • Stillness, Tranquility
  • Eliminating the non-essential

Gates and Jobs: lessons in contrasts
Take a look at some of the typical visuals used by Steve Jobs and those used by Bill Gates. As you look at them and compare them, try doing so while being mindful of the key concepts behind the traditional Zen aesthetic.

Above. Does it get more "Zen" than this? "Visual-Zen Master," Steve Jobs, allows the screen to fade completely empty at appropriate, short moments while he tells his story. In a great jazz performance much of the real power of the music comes from the spaces in between the notes. The silence gives more substance and meaning to the notes. A blank screen from time to time also makes images stronger when they do appear.

Also, it takes a confident person to design for the placement of empty slides. This is truly "going naked" visually. For most presenters a crowded slide is a crutch, or at least a security blanket. The thought of allowing the screen to become completely empty is scary. Now all eyes are on you.


Above. Gates here explaining the Live strategy. A lot of images and a lot of text. Usually Mr. Gates' slides have titles rather than more effective short declarative statements (this slide has neither). Good graphic design guides the viewer and has a clear hierarchy or order so that she knows where to look first, second, and so on. What is the communication priority of this visual? It must be the circle of clip art, but that does not help me much.

Dr. Kawana says that "to reach the essence of things, all non-essential elements must be eliminated." So what is the essence of the point being made with the help of this visual? Are any elements in this slide non-essential? At its core, what is the real point? These are always good questions to ask ourselves, too, when critiquing our own slides.

Above. Here Jobs is talking to developers at the WWDC'05 about the transition from the Power PC RISC chips to Intel. Sounds daunting, but as he said (and shows above) Apple has made daunting major shifts successfully before. (He also said sheepishly earlier in the the presentation, that every version of OSX secretly had an Intel version too...so this is not a new thing. The crowd laughed.).

A note on having an "open style"
One thing that would help Mr. Gates is an executive presentations coach and a video camera. One unfortunate habit he has is constantly bringing his finger tips together high across his chest while speaking. Often this leads to his hands being locked together somewhere across his chest. This gesture makes him seem uncomfortable and is a gesture reminiscent of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns. By contrast, Steve Jobs has a more open style and at least seems comfortable and natural with his gestures.    

Above. Mr. Gates needs to read Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points, ironically published by Microsoft Press. Atkinson says that "...bullet points create obstacles between presenters and audiences." He correctly claims that bullets tend to make our presentations formal and stiff, serve to "dumb down" our points, and lead to audiences being confused...and bored. Rather than running through points on a slide, Atkinson recommends presenters embrace the art of storytelling, and that visuals (slides) be used smoothly and simply to enhance the speaker's points as he tells his story. This can be done even in technical presentations, and it can certainly be done in high-tech business presentations.

The "Microsoft Method" of presentation?
The approach we've seen in Microsoft's last public presentation we can label the "Microsoft Method." This method is not different than the norm, in fact it is a perfect example of what Seth Godin and others call "Really Bad PowerPoint." Here's the rub: A great many professionals see the absurdity of this approach, even a great many professionals on the campus of Microsoft in Redmond. But change will continue to be slow, especially when the executives of the company which produces the most popular slideware program in the world use the program in the most uninspiring, albeit typical way.
    Bullet_by_ozzie_2    Pocket_ozzie
Above. Chief technology Officer, Ray Ozzie follows the "Microsoft Method" too. (Left) Bullet No.3: "...interfaces through...interfaces"? (Right) Fundamental presentation rule: Do not stick your hands in your pockets. Informality is fine, but this is inappropriate even in the USA (and especially in cultures outside the U.S.). 

Refrain: It all matters!
We've talked about many presentation methods here at Presentation Zen, methods that are different than the "normal" or the "expected" but also simple, clear, and effective. Who wants to be "average," "typical," or "normal"? Ridderstrale & Nordstorm say it best in Funky Business: "Normality is the route to nowhere." I'm not suggesting you "present different" for the sake of being different. I am saying that if you move far beyond what is typical and normal in the context of presentation design, you will be more effective and different and memorable. Maybe Microsoft can afford lousy PowerPoint presentations, but you and I can't. For "the rest of us," it all matters.

Can we learn from a Japanese garden?
Looking for inspiration in different places? Find a book on Japanese gardens (like this one from my friend, designer Markuz Wernli Saito) or visit one in your area (if you are lucky enough to have one). You can learn a bit here about the Zen aesthetic and Japanese gardens in this article by Dr. Kawana. Living here in Japan I have many chances to experience the Zen aesthetic, either while visiting a garden, practicing zazen in a Kyoto temple, or even while having a traditional Japanese meal out with friends. I am convinced that a visual approach which embraces the aesthetic concepts of simplicity and the removal of the nonessential can have practical applications in our professional lives and can lead ultimately to more enlightened design.

Bill Gates and visual complexity

Cloudy_days_6"It was one of the most poorly executed events I've seen Microsoft do in years." These were the words industry analyst , Rob Enderle, used to describe Tuesday's presentation by Microsoft executives, including Bill Gates, in an interview with PC World.

According to the PC World article, and various other media reports, the presentation for unveiling Microsoft's new Live Software strategy to the media, held in San Francisco, was one filled with logistical and technical errors, seemed "hurried" to some and ran long over the scheduled time. "It was Ray Ozziea's (CTO) coming out party and it wasn't a good one," Enderle said.

One of the goals of the presentation was to share the company's vision. But early media reports coming from the few people who attended the event have been less than glowing. Now, four days after the event, many in the media (and blogosphere) are still unclear just what exactly is "revolutionary" about Microsoft's new Live strategy and what it all means. If industry pundits don't fully get it, what hope do mere customers and investors have?

But my aim is not to discuss Microsoft's strategy but to focus on this particular presentation.

Rule No. 1: Know your message inside out (and backwards)
Leaders use speaking opportunities to communicate their vision in a crystal clear fashion (otherwise, what's the point of getting on stage?). It appears this recent presentation by Bill Gates, in the end, left things quite unclear, at least in the minds of many who attended the event.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs
Jobs_gatesI am not attempting to be glib or sarcastic (really), but perhaps Bill Gates and company should look to Steve Jobs and Apple for more than just technical inspiration. Bill could learn a lot about "presenting different" from observing Jobs' artful presentations. Sure, not everyone will agree with Jobs' observations, conclusions, and projections after his presentations, but at least people are not left scratching their heads in befuddlement. Jobs' presentations generate a lot of positive buzz and always release yet another wave of viral communication about the presentation's content. This happens in part because the contents are easily grasped and remembered by both the media, and regular customers and fans. You can't "spread the word" if you don't get what the word was. With Jobs' public presentations there is both a verbal and visual clarity. This is what great leaders do. Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, authors of Creating Customer Evangelists make a good observation about Jobs:

"Jobs does just what a leader is supposed to do: Provide a vision of where the company ship is headed and make sure everyone understands it."

Bill Gates is a very smart man. He can surely do better than his last presentation.

Rule No. 2: Remove barriers to effective communication
Aside from appearing not to have a clear message (or at least being guilty of trying to cram too much into a two-hour presentation), it looks like Gates and his staff did what many millions of other PowerPoint users do daily — they used PowerPoint in a way that did not help their message. In fact, their PowerPoint visuals probably hurt their message. If the visuals did not help, then they quite possibly got in the way of Gates making a meaningful, personal connection with the ninety or so people in the room.

To be fair, I was not at the presentation, so it is possible that the presenters did an amazing, inspiring job in spite of their bulletpoints an clip art. But judging from the many previous executive presentations currently available on the Microsoft website, along with the early media reports by those in attendance, it is doubtful.

Design matters, visuals matter...it ALL matters!

Here's the deal: It all matters. If you are going to get up in front of a lot of people and say that the design of your strategy matters, that the design of your integrated software matters, then at the very least the visuals you use — right here and right now, at this moment in time with this particular audience — also need to be the result of incredible design, not hurried decoration.

Let's examine a few of the slides used by Gates in the "Live" presentation Tuesday. To see even more slides, take a look at the many photos on Niall Kennedy's flickr site (brace yourself Beyond Bullet Points fans:

Bill Gates explains the big picture (but can he explain that picture behind him?).

"...this slide really pulls it all together" Bill Gates said of the slide above. You decide. You can see Bill Gates spend 60 seconds explaining this slide on "The Microsoft Platform" as well as observe him go through each bullet point on his other wordy slides on the cnet.com website.

To get a non-biased point of view on the visuals, I asked my friend, Atsuko Ito, a graphic designer who works with some of the worlds top global brands in Japan to comment on these slides. Here's what she said.

"Wow, where to begin? Generally, and from a pure visual point of view, in both of these slides (above) there is (1) too much information in one slide. This is typical in Japan too. But people can't read and listen at the same time, so that is a problem. (2) The Clipart looks cheap. Soulless. (3) The choice of colors are not the best. I’m personally not comfortable with it. Maybe because the colors don’t represent lifestyle or work style so well. It looks very cold. It makes life and work seem so depressing...

How about the slide with the clouds?

"For the 'The Live Era' slide, (1) communication priority is weak. Not sure what he wants to communicate the most. (2) Gradation is overused. Even the text has gradation! Especially when used on text, it makes it hard to read. (3) Overall impression is "clutter." One possible reason is using an image on the background. It is OK to use an image (in this case the cloud image), as long as the images that go on top of it are kept simple. In this case, they aren’t. Actually, the whole Gestalt is bad. It is a little ugly and confusing. Sorry."

There are many more visual problems with the slides as well, problems we have discussed on the site before. Let me just touch on just one more.

Don't rain on my parade 
Concerning the "Microsoft 'Live' Platform" slide, it is important to note that not all people will view the use of clouds in a positive light. Just think of the many ways we use "cloud(y)" to convey negative images or feelings in the English vernacular. For example, "Never a cloudy day" is used in many songs to convey love, good times, a bright future and so on. The phrase "...clouds up ahead" implies danger or difficulties in future.

Angry_daffy_4Now it is true that a few fluffy cumulus clouds can represent a fine sunny day and convey other positive associations. But the slide Bill uses has enough cloud formations to make an experienced sailor give the order to batten down the hatches. Bill has some real cumulonimbus-looking clouds underneath his title, a sure sign that bad weather is ahead? There is even "digital rain" being released from one low cloud, showering "experiences" down (and up according to the double arrow) onto other software and "other devices," like an ancient iMac.

It may seem like a small thing, but you have to be careful with the implied messages sometimes hidden within images. This is especially true across cultures.

Slides matter, because it all matters. Well-designed visuals won't save a weak message, but poorly designed visuals will necessarily detract from — or even completely undermine — an otherwise strong verbal message.

Others comment on Gate's presentation
Former Apple employee, Mike Evangelist: Presentation skills 101.
CyberPsych: How to present Microsoft-style: Steve Jobs, you've got nothing to worry about.

Read comments on the "Live" photos on Niall Kennedy's Flickr site, the source for these event photos.

Watch Bill

Gates announces Windows Live, Office Live (Cnet.com).
Various Bill Gates presentations on the Microsoft website. 

Watch Steve
Various Steve Jobs presentations on the Apple site

Going Visual: Using alpha channel masks

You do not have to use slideware to make a good presentation. But if you do decide to use PowerPoint or Keynote for visual support, there is no point in doing the same old "usual PowerPoint thing." Be different. Go visual. When "going visual," typically you will use only (high-quality) JPEGs for photographic images in slideware and little or no manipulation of the images is needed. However, if your want to kick your images up a notch or two, trying using images with alpha channel masks.

What's an alpha channel mask?

The Apple site shows a good example of using an alpha channel mask on a photo of a magnifying class to obtain a transparency effect. And Indezine has a very good introduction to alpha channels and Powerpoint.

In Keynote, and now in PowerPoint too, you can include images with alpha channel masks. These images can be quite useful. If, for example, you want the background of an image to be 100% transparent, you can add a mask in Photoshop and "delete" the parts of the image you want to appear transparent, revealing the background of your slide. You can see what I am talking about in the two slides below.

    Png_sample    Jpeg_sample

The slide above (left) uses a PNG file with only the subject selected, not the whole image. The slide on the right has the JPEG version without the mask. PowerPoint has a tool that will delete the background color of an image if it is a solid color, but in my experience it does not produce professional results on all images.

I often use multilayered Photoshop files and then save them as PNG files. The downside is that PNG files are very large compared to JPEGs (which do not use masks), but today's laptops are plenty powerful to handle very large PPT/KEY presentations smoothly. Keynote 1.0 handles PNG files, but older versions of PowerPoint do not.

My simple technique
My method is to take an image into Photoshop and then duplicate it by dragging the image to the "Create a new layer" icon on the layers toolbar (see below). Now I have two layers of the image. I then change the bottom layer to a color similar to my slide background. Then on the top layer I can select and delete sections or make selected areas more or less transparent. Then I simply delete the bottom layer, leaving me with just my original image, now with selected areas transparent. You can see the Photoshop "checkered board" underneath the areas that will appear transparent when you place the image in slideware.

Layer1_1   Layer2  
Examples of a PNG file over a video in a slide
An interesting, subtle effect you can do quite easily is to have a movie appear behind a transparent part of your image. It is a good idea to use video clips within your slideware, such as an interview with a customer or an expert in the field. Usually when we do this we just have a video clip start, say in it's 320x240 window. But you could place the video within an image of a TV or even make it appear as a reflection of a camera lens. Download these two videos below (exported to QT from Keynote) to see short samples of the slides (each less than 2MB). Both examples feature a single slide with running video (the slide on the right has a bit of animation as well).

    Cm_screen_1       Camera_screen_1       
          Download this sample                     Download this sample (no audio)

Below are screenshots which describe a bit of how I made the slide with a single JPEG (purchased from istockphoto) which I edited and saved as a PNG file and placed over three versions of the same small QuickTime movie.

    No_lens_1   Lens

In the original image (above left) I selected the lens (with 1 pixel feathered for smoothness) and cut it out. I then saved the lens as a separate file. Next (above right) is the image placed in the slide. You can see the slide background were the lens used to be. I then placed the image of the lens back were it should be, but now I can control its opacity separate from the entire larger image (because it is actually a separate image). Alternatively, I could have just selected the lens area and lowered the opacity directly on the larger original image (that's what I did with the eyes of the woman), but then I could not adjust the opacity of the lens directly in the slideware separate from the larger image.

      Block     Block_back

To illustrate the lowered opacity of the lens and eyes in the image, I placed a simple orange box (PPT/KEY object) on top in the slide (above left). When I send the orange object to the back, you can easily see how the larger imaged is masked, revealing what is underneath (above right).

     Objects_front     Objects_back
(Above left) I place three copies of the short video clip (of our band in the studio, sans audio) on top of the larger image in the slide. Then I send the videos to the back (right) and the moving images appear as reflections in the lens and the eyes.

The example above is used to show the possibilities. Frankly, I do not know if you would ever want to show reflections of moving images in the iris of the human eye. This is an example of technique only.

Note: You might be saying to yourself that all this work seems to violate the idea of keeping presentations simple. However, whether or not you find this image technique useful, supremely superfluous, or just too complicated is entirely up to you and your unique situation. You do not need to know all the techniques Photoshop has to offer in order to "go visual" with your presentations. However, if you think it is appropriate for your situation, now or sometime in the future, I can promise you that knowing basic Photoshop techniques will prove to be very useful for you.

Questions about Photoshop and images? Try the forums on the istockphoto.com site. Various Photoshop tutorials also available at Adobe Evangelists and at PhtoshopContest.com.