Presentation Zen: Key Excerpts

Sup direktors,
I found out about this gem of a book a while ago while trying to improve my pitching and presentation making skills.
Funny story though, how I found out about it.
I went into this menza in Skopje (menza means a place where cheap food is being cooked for the working class. Usually situated near a factory or an industrial area, it’s churning food 24/7.
You know how they say the best espresso is found on a gas station by a busy highway? Well, the best food is found in menzas like this one (Won’t share the name now – I’m preparing a guide on the 50 best menzas in Ex Yugoslavia – you can read more then).
Anyways, long story short, I ordered a burger and what I got was this:
Just a burger and some chopped onions. Simplicity at it’s finest. My mind was trying to complicate things by wanting to ask for more stuff like salads and bread but I thought:
It’s really simple. You order a burger and you get a burger and nothing else. Looking at this plate from a different perspective, the simplicity of the dish lets you focus on the core ingredient completely – the burger. 
So I asked the owner:
This is what he said:
The people that come here are hard workers and usually have a complicated, uneasy life filled with difficult moments. They come here to solve a realy important problem – hunger. Hunger for food that will give them energy to deal with more dificult moments in life.
And they’re looking for a simple solution. So why complicate the solution? Make it as simple as it should be and do it fast. Don’t put stuff they don’t ask for. 
This guy is a freaking enterpreneur! – I thought. And he was right. Why complicate things and make it more dificult for people to devour your solution/idea?
With that in mind, and a burger in my stomach, I just googled how to make presentations simpler. What I found was Presentation Zen.
I used to think that cramming slides with as much info was a good thing but after reading Garr (and remembering the menza owners’ words) that made no sense at all.
Garr speaks about how presentations can better connect with your audience by making them simpler and infusing them with stories. The book draws alot of the Zen teaching and not surprisingly, every zen lesson actually fits perfectly with the presenting aspect of this book.
Important: This article is intended for people who have read the book. It’s a really short summary with key excerpts from the book, so If you haven’t actually read it, I suggest you do. This article should serve just as a reminder. 

The Key Principles Of Presentation Zen Are:

  1. Restraint in preparation.
  2. Simplicity in design.
  3. Naturalness in delivery.

Principle 1: Restraint In Preparation

In short, this principle is all about taking it slow, exploration, seeing the big picture and mapping the strategy to develop a killer presentation.

Start with the Childs Mind

  • Open, receptive, and more inclined to say “Why not?” or “Let’s give it a shot,”
  • Don’t be saddled with fear of failure or making mistakes
  • Interested in the new, untried and different
  • Not afraid of being wrong
  • If you are not willing to make mistakes, then it is impossible to be truly creative
  • Avoiding experimentation or risk  especially out of fear of what others may think — is something that will gnaw at your gut more than any ephemeral failure
  • Worrying about “what might be if…” or “what might have been if I had…” are pieces of baggage you carry around daily. They’re heavy, and they’ll kill your creative spirit. Take chances and stretch yourself. You’re only here on this planet once, and for a very short time at that. Why not just see how gifted you are? You may surprise someone. Most importantly, you may surprise yourself
  • Be a Pirate! Be free and explore and plunder new ways to creativity
  • Do Not Force It Idling is important
  • We’re afraid to be unproductive. And yet, the big ideas often come during your periods of “laziness,” during those episodes of “wasting time.”

The Art Of Working With Restrictions

  • In the field of design there is the belief that with more constraints, better solutions are revealed
  • Urgency and the creative spirit go hand in hand
  • Creating your own self-imposed constraints, limitations, and parameters is often fundamental to good, creative work
  • Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential. Carefully eliminate elements that distract from the essential whole, elements that obstruct and obscure…. Clutter, bulk, and erudition confuse perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear and direct attention
  • The “greatness” may just be found in what you left out, not in what you left in

Planning Analog

  • Get away from your computer
  • Before you design your presentation, you need to see the big picture and identify a single core message or messages
  • Use pen and paper, a Whiteboard, Post-it Notes, or a Stick in the Sand
  • During the planning stages of a presentation, does your computer function as a “bicycle for your mind,” amplifying your own capabilities and ideas? Or is it more like a “car for your mind” with prepackaged formulas that make your ideas soft? Your mind benefits when you use the computer like a bike, but it loses out when you rely only on your computer’s power the way you rely on your car’s power.
  • Paper, 
  • Create a horizontal narrow whiteboard funnel on a wall like a acomic book

Slowing Down To See

  • Busyness is that uncomfortable feeling you have of being rushed, distracted, and a bit unfocused and preoccupied. Although you may be accomplishing tasks, you wish you could do better. You know you can

You Also Need Time Alone To Contemplate The Problem

  • Life’s creative solutions require alone time
  • Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems
  • We cannot see our reflection in running water. It is only in still water that we can see – taoist proverb

Asking The Right Questions

  • Questions We Should Be Asking:
    • How much time do I have?
    • What’s the venue like?
    • What time of the day will I be speaking?
    • Who is the audience?
    • What is their background?
    • What do they expect of me?
    • Why was I asked to speak?
    • What do I want them to do?
    • What visual medium is most appropriate for this particular situation and
    • audience?
    • What is the fundamental purpose of my talk?
    • What’s the story here?
    • And this is the most fundamental question of all, stripped down to it’s essence:
      • What is my core point?
      • Or put it this way: If the audience will remember only one thing (and you’ll be lucky if they do), what do you want it to be?
    • What is your point?
    • Why does it matter?
    • Is your point relevant?

Handouts Can Set You Free

  1. Putting info in slides just in case is a big NO.
  2. If slides can talk for themselves why the fuck are you up there?
  3. Slides should be incapable of talking without you.
  4. Handouts need to be well written, story included and detailed.
  5. Carry
    1. Slides for presentation
    2. Notes for yourself
    3. Handouts for audience

The Benefit of Planning Well

  1. If you prepare well, the process itself should help you really know your story. With proper preparation, you should be able to still tell your story even if the projector breaks or if the client says, “To heck with the slides, just give it to me straight”
  2. Peter Drucker said it best: “The computer is a moron.” You and your ideas (and your audience) are all that matter. So try getting away from the computer in the early stages when your creativity is needed most. For me, clarity of thinking and the generation of ideas come when my computer and I are far apart”

Most Important Lessons

Slow down your busy mind to see your problem and goals more clearly.

Find time alone to see the big picture.

For greater focus, try turning off the computer and going analog.

Use paper and pens or a whiteboard to record and sketch out your ideas.

Key questions: What’s your main (core) point? Why does it matter?

If your audience remembers only one thing, what should it be?

Preparing a detailed handout keeps you from feeling compelled to cram everything into your visuals.


The point is to internalize your story, but do not memorize it line by line. You can’t fake it. You believe in your story, or you do not.

  • Crafting the Story
    • After getting the big picture and IDed the core message now you need to envelope and infuse it with the story
    • What Makes The Messages In Stories, Stick?
      • Simplicity
        • If everything is important, then nothing is important
      • Unexpectedness
        • Make the audience aware that they have a gap in their knowledge and then fill that gap with the answers to the puzzle
      • Concreteness
        • Use natural speech and give real examples with real things, not abstractions, proverbs
      • Credibility
        • Put it in terms people can visualize. “Five hours of battery life”
      • Emotions
        • put your ideas in human terms. 100 gr of fat vizualized
      • Stories

Principle 2: Simplicity In Design (zen)

This part deals mainly with the design of the slides – less is more and achieving simplicity will get your presentation to resonate better with your audience.

  • Kanso (Simplicity)
    • Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means
      • Beauty and visual elegance are achieved by elimination and omission
    • Shizen (Naturalness)
      • Restraint
    • Shibumi (Elegance)
      • ‘less is more’ concept. Less color—subdued and elegant usage of color, less clutter
    • The Zen aesthetic values include
      • Simplicity
      • Subtlety
      • Elegance
      • Suggestive rather than descriptive or obvious
      • Naturalness (i.e., nothing artificial or forced)
      • Empty space (or negative space)
      • Stillness, tranquility
      • Eliminating the nonessential
    • Wabi-Sabi Simplicity
      • Wabi means “poverty” or lacking material wealth and all it’s possessions yet, at the same time, feeling free from dependence on worldly things, including social status.There is an inward feeling of something higher.
      • Sabi means “loneliness” or “solitude,” the feeling you might have while walking alone on a deserted beach deep in contemplation
    • Amplification Through Simplification
  • In Sum
    • Simplicity is powerful and leads to greater clarity, yet it is neither simple nor easy to achieve
    • Simplicity can be obtained through the careful reduction of the nonessential
    • As you design slides, keep the following concepts in mind: subtlety, grace, and understated elegance
    • Good designs have plenty of empty space. Think “subtract” not “add.”
    • While simplicity is the goal, it is possible to be too simple. Your job is to find the balance most appropriate to your situation

Presentation Design: Principles and Techniques

Design matters. But design is not about decoration or ornamentation. Design is about making communication as easy and clear for the viewer as possible.

  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio
    • The ratio of relevant to irrelevant elements and information in a slide or other display
    • Highest possible signal-to-noise ratio means communicating (designing) clearly with as little degradation to the message as possible
    • Keep the principle of signal-to-noise ratio in mind to remove all nonessential elements. Remove visual clutter. Avoid 3D effects
  • Who Says Your Logo Should Be on Every Slide?
  • Pictures
    • What text can be substituted with a photo?
    • People remember visuals better than bullet points. Always ask yourself how you can use a strong visual—including quantitative displays—to enhance your narrative
    • Use high-quality photos that make an impact and are easily seen and understood. Consider using full-bleed images and place type elements on top in the simplest, most balanced arrangement possible
  • Empty Space
    • Empty space is not nothing; it is a powerful something. Learn to see and manipulate empty space to give your slide designs greater organization, clarity, and interest
    • Washitsu, a traditional room with tatami mats, that is simple and mostly empty. The empty space allows for the appreciation of a single item, such as a single flower or a single wall hanging
  • Balance
    • The viewer should never have to “think” about where to look. Position the pictures to look at the text
    • Assimetrical designs rule
    • Eat like a bird, poop like an elephant – Guy Kawasaki
  • Rule of Thirds
  • Contrast
    • Use the principle of contrast to create strong dynamic differences among elements that are different. If it is different, make it very different
  • Repetition. Repetition of certain design elements in a slide or among a deck of slides will bring a clear sense of unity, consistency, and cohesiveness
    • Use the principle of repetition to repeat selected elements throughout your slides. This can help give your slides unity and organization
  • Alignment
    • Use the principle of alignment to visually connect elements on a slide.
    • Invisible gridlines are very useful for achieving good alignment. Using a grid gives your slides a clean, well-organized look
  • Proximity
    • Use the principle of proximity to ensure that related items are grouped together. People tend to interpret items together or near to each other as belonging to the same group

The Art of Being Completely Present

Like a conversation, presentation requires your full presence at that time and place.

  • Zen makes no distinction between ordinary life and spiritual life. Meditation is not an escape from reality at all; in fact, even everyday routines can be methods for meditation. When you are aware that your actions and judgments are usually just automatic reactions based on a sort of running dialogue in your head, then you are free to let go of such judgments
  • The art of the swordsman   
    • Like a master swordsman, you must be completely in the moment without thoughts of the past, the future, winning, or losing.
    • The moment he stops and THINKS about what his technique is – HE LOOSES.
    • When a swordsman is in the moment and his mind is empty there are no emotions stemming from fear and no thoughts of winning, losing, or even using the sword
    • Both man and sword turn into instruments in the hands of th unconscious, and it is the unconscious that achieves wonders of creativity. It is here that swordplay becomes an art
    • 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
    • Lost in the Moment
  • Mistakes may happen, but do not dwell on past mistakes or worry about future ones. Be only in this moment, sharing and conversing with the audience in front of you.
  • You will make it look easy and natural by preparing and practicing like mad.
  • The more you rehearse, the more confident you’ll become, and the easier it will seem to the audience
  • Although you must plan well, being fully in the moment also means that you remain flexible, totally aware, and open to the possibilities as they arise
  • Judo principles
    • Carefully observe oneself and one’s situation, carefully observe others, and carefully observe one’s environment
    • Seize the initiative in whatever you undertake
    • Consider fully, act decisively
    • Know when to stop
    • Keep to the middle
    • Only by cultivating a receptive state of mind, without preconceived ideas or thoughts, can one master the secret art of reacting spontaneously and naturally without hesitation and without purposeless resistance

Principle 3: Naturalness In Delivery

  • The spirit of jazz is about honest intention. Jazz means removing the barriers and making it accessible, helping people to get your expression (your message, story, point). This does not necessarily mean you will always be direct, although this is often the clearest path. Hint and suggestion are powerful, too. The difference is that hint and suggestion with intent have a purpose and are done with the audience in mind. Hint and suggestion without intent or sincerity may result in simplistic, ineffective ramblings or even obfuscation. Jazz makes the complex simple through profound expressions of clarity and sincerity. It has structure and rules but also great freedom. Above all, jazz is natural. It is not about putting on a façade of sophistication or seriousness. In fact, humor and playfulness are also at the core of jazz
  • Start Strong
      • Personal – make it
      • Unexpected – add a surprise
      • Novel
      • Chalenging 
      • Use Humor
  • If the presentation is long – divide it in several acts and mention the acts in the begining – like Steve Jobs did – three apple products – then remind them after each that this was the first apple product
  • Project urself
    • Dress the part
    • Move with purpose
    • Face the audience
    • Eye contact
    • Put energy in your voice
  • Hara hachi bu, which means “eat until 80 percent full”
    • No matter how much time you are given, never ever go over your allotted time; in fact, finish a bit before your time is up.
    • It is better to leave your audience satisfied yet yearning for a bit more, than to leave them stuffed and feeling that they have had more than enough
  • Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind. — Cicero


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