Book Review: Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds

I recommend Garr Reynolds’ new book Presentation Zen if you want to give more creative and compelling presentations.

Last year, I gave about 30 speeches, did 25 live radio interviews, and 6 or 7 live TV interviews. From 2001 – 2005, I did at least 150 in-person sales presentations, and many hundred telephone cold calls. What makes these experiences unique is they required me to make a core point in a limited amount of time (5 min to 60 min) with relatively high stakes ($$ or reputation in the eyes of lots and lots of people). When a one-time moment is “live,” either you perform or you don’t, either all your preparation and focus allow you to deliver when it matters, or you choke.

As an athlete I loved the opportunity to shoot the last free throw of the game that was the pinnacle of hundreds of hours of effort all season long. The professional world proved no different in the sense that I spent hundreds of hours studying the art of sales, taping myself doing presentations, analyzing other people demo software….all so I could execute when it counted.

The main thing I’ve learned in my seven years studying and doing presentations is that the standard for presentations / public speaking in the professional world is low, and as such it’s easy to be seen as great. When most people suck at something, all you have to do is suck less. And when I discovered I had a natural knack for communication, I identified speaking / communicating / presenting as one of my natural strengths that, if built upon, could become an unstoppable strength thanks not only to my own capabilities but because of how I would be perceived relative to the masses.

I read the blog Presentation Zen as part of my on-going self-improvement process on this front. It’s been a reliably helpful resource on how to give better presentations. The blogger, Garr Reynolds, just released a book under the same name. It should be in the library of anyone who wants to be a better presenter. What makes Reynolds different than other presentation gurus is he spends a good deal of time talking about mindset and philosophy and the Japanese aesthetic (he lives in Osaka), instead of micro-analyzing PowerPoint slides. Yes, it’s stunning how bad people’s PowerPoints are, and Cliff Atikson and Seth Godin among others have done a good job breaking this down. Yet Reynolds’ book — which takes an hour max to read — discusses larger issues like creativity, empty space, solitude, etc. and their relationship to strong presentations.

The Japanese / Zen aesthetic has long intrigued me. The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is one of my favorite places – any Japanese style garden is gorgeously tranquil. I’ve tried Zazen meditation at a meditation center. I’ve wandered through shrines in Kyoto. Stillness / solitude / peacefulness are all concepts which (hopefully) are part of my life.

I think it’s awesome that Reynolds applies these things to presentations.

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Should you end your talk / presentation with “thank you”? In my earlier post on The Best Speaking Advice Ever, I excerpt Harry Winston’s advice:

Don’t thank the audience. It makes it seem like they did you a favor by listening to your boring babble.

End with a salute. Compliment without thanking. (i.e., “You’ve been a great audience, I hope you learned a lot about how to give a great talk.”)

I’ve given two speeches since that post and I followed this advice. I’ve decided this bit of advice is not worth following. The fact is that “thank you” remains the expected indicator for applause and when you don’t say it, there’s some hesitation / awkwardness on the part of the audience. Next week, when I give the Baldwin Free Enterprise Lecture at the University of Nebraska, I will try this ending: “You’ve been a great audience, and it will now be my pleasure to take your questions at this time. Thank you.”

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Does the utterance of a couple words (like “thank you” at the end) really make a difference? I think so. In my post on giving advice, Ian Graham offers this useful tip on substituting “and” for “but”:

“And” provides a warming, smoother transition than “but” which can often be perceived as abrupt. This works better for constructive criticism and could also apply to advice.

Example:

You did a great job on that assignment, but if you work harder you will do even better.

You did a great job on that assignment and if you continue to work hard you will do even better on the next one.

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