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February 7, 2008
Zen and the Art of Slide Design

Effective communications and slide presentations may seem like mutually exclusive ideas, but slides are an inescapable part of agency and corporate life. It’s great fun to beat up on PowerPoint, and much has been written on how bad so many presentations are. Often people approach this problem by becoming better at PowerPoint, but that’s not the answer.

The antidote comes instead in a new book from one of the masters of presentation design, Garr Reynolds. Garr’s Presentation Zen, published by New Riders, should become an industry bible on the topic of simplifying presentations for better communications. Garr’s blog of the same name is the world’s most popular presentation design blog, and is a great resource for communicators.

When I was at Hewlett-Packard, I hired Garr to present to a group of about 40 executive and internal communications professionals. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Garr inspired the group to fundamentally change the way slides were done in our organization, leading to much more effective and engaging executive presentations.

And that’s really the crux of good slide design. Inspiration. Zen is as much a philosophy as it is a religion, and the same is true for good slide design. Presentation Zen is not a how-to in the traditional sense. Garr is quick to point out that simplistic rules like the “1-7-7 Rule,” which suggests “one main idea per slide... seven lines of text maximum...(and) seven words per line maximum,” still produce awful slides.

Garr once told me that simplicity involved “removal of everything but the essential.” So Presentation Zen is a how-to, but it is about how to adopt a philosophy that will help you simplify to create better communications. Which is HARD.

I usually don’t bother looking at the foreword when I read a book, but Presentation Zen is an exception, featuring some words, and slides, from Guy Kawasaki, and what I think is one of the most important messages of all: “Good slides should enhance a live talk; slides are not meant to tell the whole story without you there.”

Too often the whole story is in the slides, either because of the idea that the slides have to stand alone to become a “leave-behind” (NO, don’t do it!) or because of a weak presenter or a presenter who does not know the material.

Garr writes about another problem, the “slideument.” A slideument is a slide into which is pasted a large amount of information, such as an Excel spreadsheet. These are not slides, but documents in slide form. I worked at one company that overcame admonitions to “limit your presentation to 12 slides” by pasting four miniature slides into each full-sized slide. This is the slide that the presenter always introduces with the caveat, “I’m sorry for the eye chart...” So why would a presenter use a slide he/she already knows is ineffective?

Garr offers all kinds of practical tips throughout the book, like:


  • You don’t need your logo on every slide
  • 3D graphs detract from the simplified display of information
  • Empty space on a slide is OK


The book is beautifully illustrated and printed (as a design book ought to be.) You’ll be pleased that there are no instructions for how to better use PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote. The problem with previous books on presentation is that they are about how to use the tools, not about how to make better slides. In this regard, Presentation Zen is groundbreaking, and I think it belongs on the bookshelf of every PR professional and corporate communicator.

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Joel Postman is the principal of Socialized, a consultancy that helps companies make effective use of social media in corporate communications, marketing and public relations. He's the author of SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate, a handbook designed to help corporate communicators and executives understand how to successfully adopt social business strategies in large companies. Prior to founding Socialized, he was EVP of Emerging Media at Eastwick Communications a Silicon Valley public relations firm, and before that, he has a decade of Fortune 500 corporate communications experience, including leadership roles in executive and internal communications at Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

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