From the April 2008 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Seeking Simplicity

Do you remember when Microsoft first introduced PowerPoint in the early 1990s? We all thought it was so great. Now our presentations could easily include pie charts, graphs and bulleted points to support our words.

Fast forward some 18 years and we have what some refer to as "PowerPoint backlash." Indeed, many of us subjected to brain-numbing presentations refer to it as "death by PowerPoint." "Millions of presentations are given every day with the aid of PowerPoint or other slideware," writes Garr Reynolds in his new book, Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. "Yet most presentations remain mind-numbingly dull, something to be endured by both presenter and audience alike." He notes that the typical presentation consists of slides with general titles, clip art and bulleted list after bulleted list in the "all-too familiar topic/subtopic hierarchical format." In fact, most people can hardly imagine giving a presentation without the familiar PowerPoint crutch, according to Reynolds.

Reynolds writes that Presentation Zen is more an approach versus an inflexible list of rules. It includes content that is simple and balanced. Reynolds suggests that as one prepares a presentation, "exercise restraint and keep these three words in mind always: simplicity, clarity, brevity."

In terms of planning, Reynolds says that one of the most important things you can do in the initial stage of preparing for your presentation is to get away from the computer. Sketching out rough ideas with pen and paper "leads to more clarity and better, more creative results." In this initial period, he suggests jotting down answers to questions including, "How much time do I have?" "Who is the audience?" "What is the fundamental purpose of my talk?" and, most importantly, "What is the absolute central point?"

The next step is to write the presentation. Reynolds reminds readers that there are three components to your presentation -- the slides, your notes and the handout. Because of this, it's unnecessary to place so much information (text, data, etc) in your slides. Instead of jamming so much information on each slide, provide the information orally or in a handout to be taken out. "Preparing a detailed handout keeps you from feeling compelled to cram everything into your visuals," writes Reynolds.

Visuals are a key component to a presentation, and Reynolds adopts the "less is more" approach. Some examples include reducing the amount of text and having a lot of white space on the slide.

Reynolds highlights many key principles and techniques to improve presentation design, including:

Signal vs. Noise Ratio. Borrowed from technical fields, SNR is the ratio of "relevant to irrelevant elements or information in a slide or display." Reynolds suggests eliminating unnecessary charts, labels, shapes and symbols.

Stay away from 3-D effects. Aim instead for simple, clean and 2-D, he advises.

Who says a logo has to be on every slide? It adds clutter. Try putting it on the first and final slide only.

When it comes to bullet points, consider Reynolds' 1-7-7 rule: Have only one main idea per slide. Insert only seven lines of text maximum. Use only seven words per line maximum.

Overall, Reynolds writes that bullet points are usually not effective in a live talk.

Use images whenever possible, Reynolds suggests, advising readers to ask themselves whether information they are representing with the written word on a slide could be replaced with a photograph. He also notes that displaying quotations can be a very powerful technique.

Reynolds provides tips on how to bring energy and passion to a presentation. But the true strength of the book is in its showcasing of visuals that work over those that don't. If you are doing presentations -- and who isn't? -- Presentation Zen will be both insightful and invaluable.

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Mary Scott is the co-author of Companies with a Conscience and can be reached at maryscott303@comcast.net.

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