Presenting concisely with Zen

Presenting has become so much easier in the age of PowerPoint and the like. All you have to do is hope that there are no technical problems with the connection between your laptop and the projector at the venue and you can deliver a professional presentation with all the trimmings. The preparation is done on the computer and you hardly need to bring anything to the presentation other than your laptop and maybe a power cable. But don't you know that presentations can seem so overloaded with information and technical gimmicks that it's hard to concentrate on the content? A programme like PowerPoint quickly tempts you to use its hundreds of features. Smooth transitions, slowly building images, colourful glowing and flashing fonts. There are no limits to your imagination when it comes to grabbing your audience's attention. But does it really work?
A stone stack on a rock by the water.


The art of simplicity in presentations

Recently, the trend has been back to simplicity, to Zen, to 'less is more'. This applies to both presentation and content. In general, it could be summed up as follows: Don't present to someone who only sees the presentation, but actually present to someone who is actually present for the presentation. What does this mean? You often see slides that contain all the information you want to convey. Such a presentation may be good as a document to read, but not really to present. If you do not want to distract from yourself and your presentation, you should use your presentation "only" as a background. Remember that hardly anyone will be able to read the slides and listen to you at the same time. Therefore, the slides should contain only the key words and possibly graphics that support what you are saying. Typically, your audience will retain less than 10 % of what you say. The human brain cannot usually retain more than that. If you distract the audience with colourful, flashing slides and long text on them, that 10 % is quickly cut in half.

The power of Zen presentation: reduction and visual simplification.

In the search for a technique to best address this problem or phenomenon, many come across the work of Garr Reynolds, an American living in Japan. He calls his presentation technique "Zen Presentation", probably because of his experiences in Japan. Reynolds preaches the reduction of slide content in the sense that there should be only one important statement on each slide. Ideally, this is a sentence, a juxtaposition of two elements, or a graphic that can be grasped quickly - in any case, something that the audience can absorb in a few seconds. After those few seconds, the audience can focus on the presentation again and will not be distracted by the slide. Reynolds believes that visual simplification increases the impact of what is being said.

How to design a Zen presentation?

Reynolds has four rules for simplifying slides. The first is literally simple: simplify. Leave out everything superfluous. That means logos, pictures, colourful headlines, repetition of what has already been said. White space, or free space, is a very good thing in Reynolds' eyes. It emphasises the importance of what little is actually shown. If you show tables or graphs, keep them to a minimum too, so that they remain understandable but unnecessary information is omitted.

The second rule is limit. According to Reynolds, it is also better to avoid bulleted lists with indents. Reynolds is not against bullet points in general, but he believes they should be used in a very limited way. He says this in general about text in a presentation when its function is really to accompany and support the talk. A Zen presentation will not be useful to someone who only sees the presentation and has not experienced the talk, because it simply does not contain the essential messages of the talk, but only accompanies it. Reynolds emphasises that reading bullet points off a slide, or even worse, doing so with your back to the audience, is absolutely detrimental to the impact of a presentation. That's why he combines his slides with handouts, but doesn't hand them out until after the talk so as not to distract anyone. He likes to use them to summarise the most important points. Then everyone can remember them.

Reynolds is in favour of simple design (rule number 3), but not without design. Even a very subtle design can be very creative. Create a subtle and unique design, a template. Do not use the clip art or templates provided by PowerPoint. Everyone has seen them and they look unprofessional or at least unimaginative. A template of your own also has the advantage that you create recognition value. Always use high-resolution graphics.

The fourth rule concerns colours and fonts. Reynolds believes that backgrounds in cool colours such as grey, green and blue are ideal, while graphics and text should be in warm colours (pink, orange and red). Reynolds prefers fonts such as Arial, Geneva or Calibri, simply because they are the most legible. In any case, he advocates using only one font in a presentation. If you need to emphasise something, just use the same font in bold.

Final words

Simplicity in presentations is crucial to capture the audience's attention. Garr Reynolds' Zen presentation technique focuses on one key message per slide, clear graphics and minimal text. Through reduction, limitation and purposeful design, we can create engaging and effective presentations. It's about emphasising the connection between presenter and audience and making important messages last. Less is more when it comes to presenting in an information-overloaded world.

Presenting with Zen - The IAPM logo.
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Tip, Zen

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