I picked up Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds earlier this year, and finally managed to finish it. It comes highly recommended by many excellent presenters, and there are quite a number of positive reviews of it on Amazon. Naturally some of them refer to the PresentationZen blog, which if you haven’t read you may wish to check out (there’s a great Hans Rosling post and recent TED-India video at the moment – I’m a huge Hans Rosling fan and so is Garr). I wonder if I can integrate Gapminder’s presentation of statistics along with some interesting data in some kind of developer talk. I’m not sure where I’d find the data, but that would be pretty cool, I think. But I digress.
There are of course both good and bad reviews on Amazon, and I agree with much in each of them. Some laud the book as “Simply awesome” and “Indispensable.” Others found it to be “Useful but disappointing.” I think many people would love to be able to get, from a book, the skill, passion, and charisma of Steve Jobs or other great presenters, and the disappointment comes when the book concludes with true but trite advice that “it’s up to you.”
I think one of the best things this book does is to provide a way for many presenters to escape the death-by-powerpoint routine that is an expectation in many organizations and settings. Simply by existing as a reference, and all the better that it’s so highly regarded a reference, Presentation Zen will grant many presenters the courage to go outside of what’s expected, knowing they can point to Garr’s book if anyone questions the sanity of their visual and text-lacking presentations.
I found the book’s layout and use of color, and especially examples of excellent slides by well-respected presenters to all be excellent. There is a lot of white space, and I do have to agree with some others that the book does feel like it’s a bit short on content. That said, it’s $23.09 on Amazon right now, so I don’t feel like I overpaid for the book, and as the book itself notes, a key part of communicating is knowing when to stop. I’m very busy, and much longer, denser, more verbose version of this book probably would not have been any more useful to me, but I might never have finished it (or bothered to open it). The benefit of the book’s layout and design is that one can easily read and enjoy a few pages or a chapter at a time.
I present fairly frequently, and I do hope to be able to incorporate some of the lessons of Presentation Zen in my upcoming talks. I do suffer from similar constraints to many of my peers, in that conference talks do come with pre-configured templates, and the slides are expected to serve double-duty as handouts for attendees and so are expected to be full of bullet lists and sample code. All of which go complete against the sage advice of Reynolds. However, I think I can take an incremental approach, such that small improvements over time can eventually have a significant impact, and in time perhaps what’s expected will change (certainly you don’t see keynote presentations following the standard slide templates, so why should the regular sessions?).
So, if you’re a presenter and you would like to get better, this book is almost certainly worth picking up. The examples of others’ slides, the advice on what not to do, and recommendations for finding additional resources are all excellent and well worth the price.
(Oh, and apparently there’s a new edition of Presentation Zen as of 3 days ago. To be clear, I read and reviewed the edition with the rocks, not the umbrellas, on the cover, but I’m sure the new printing is also great.)