Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery

Summary of “Presentation Zen”: Due to a general misunderstanding of what makes a good presentation, most PowerPoint or Keynote presentations are utterly sleep-inducing nowadays, with slides filled with text and bullet points repeating exactly what the speaker says, and packed with images that overlap with the page background; this book gives us all the ingredients for a simple, clear and powerful presentation for the audience.

By Garr Reynolds, 225 pages, 2008.

Chronicle and summary of “Presentation Zen”:

Garr Reynold is a designer and marketing professor living in Japan, as well as the blogger of the popular, Presentation Zen, which, since 2005, has been offering methods, ideas and thoughts on the different ways to deliver a quality presentation to an audience.

This book is both a natural extension and a deepening of his blog. Its form, spacious, filled with images, highlighting some presentations designed for the web, including articles by guest authors, is reminiscent of a blog. In fact, this is the first book I have the opportunity to read that seems to be a mix of a traditional printed book and a blog, which produces a fairly good result.

The foreword by Guy Kawasaki perfectly summarizes the interest and the reason behind Presentation Zen:

So, most presentations made using computer-assisted presentation software such as PowerPoint or Keynote are bad: long, ugly, boring and meaningless.

However, even though many people hate these tasteless and sleep-inducing presentations, today most presentations are inconceivable without slides made with presentation software. For most people, giving a presentation without slides is like giving it without clothes; they would feel the same either way. Therefore, everyone feels compelled to make slides, but unfortunately, these slides often don’t add something of value, but rather they’re a series of indigestible bullet points supplemented with images that are clearly there to fill a void.

Should we give up PowerPoint?  Not really. The ideal, on the contrary, is to learn how to make good use of it.

This includes understanding these basic principles:

  • Projecting in the form of text the same information that is communicated orally does not help convey the message, on the contrary.
  • A good oral presentation is not the same thing as a well-written document and trying to merge the two by making a PowerPoint presentation that can serve both as an oral and written medium is the surest way to make a hybrid that fails in both areas.
  • Many multimedia presentations are mediocre nowadays;it only takes a few small improvements to stand out.
  • There is no miracle recipe and each presentation is a unique case, but adopting a Zen approach helps to avoid the most common mistakes and to focus on the essence: getting the message out to the public.
  • Presentations must tell a story that is enhanced by the image and are more like watching a documentary than reading a written document.

Chapter 2: Creativity, limits and constraints

Creating a presentation is a highly creative activity. We are all, to varying degrees, creative beings. No need to hang out in the trendy arts circles. Even NASA’s engineers are creative (watch the Apollo 13 movie and understand the treasures of creativity and ingenuity that the engineers had to deploy to help save the three astronauts in distress).

Zen emphasizes the beginner’s mind, in which there are infinitely more possibilities than in the expert’s:

The practice of the Zen mind is the beginner’s mind. The innocence of the first question, what am I?, is necessary throughout Zen practice.

The beginner’s mind is empty, free from the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all possibilities. It’s the kind of mind that can see things as they are, which, step by step and in a flash, can capture the original nature of everything. It is the practice of the Zen mind.

  • ShunryuSuzuk

When approaching a task with the fresh mind of the beginner, the fear of being wrong, of making a mistake fades.

We will never be creative if we don’t take risks.

There are many ways to stimulate your creativity, such as working under stress, being idle, cultivating your enthusiasm for a subject, and many more – you can discover by reading my review of The Creative Habit.

For example, the Pecha Kucha is a concept of presentation created in 2003 in Tokyo, and then spread all over the world (the Paris club page is here and the Montreal club page here). The idea is simple: each participant must project 20 slides for 20 seconds as he/she tells a story in sync with the visuals, which scroll automatically, for a total of six minutes and forty seconds. Then it’s over. This time limit allows for concise, to the point presentations.

Note: you can see an example of a Pecha Kucha presentation here.

Creativity is therefore essential when preparing a presentation, so as not to be locked in the humdrum of a paralyzing habit. Moreover, it’s important to keep in mind three essential notions during this preparation:

  • Simplicity
  • Clarity
  • Brevity

Chapter 3: First draft on paper

It’s important in the initial stage of preparing a presentation to get away from the computer. Spending all your time thinking and preparing in front of the screen is the surest way to miss the big picture and to not identify the core message.

The main pitfall of “all-computer” design is that we allow ourselves to be misled by the wizards and templates offered by the software, taking us places where we don’t always want to go.But as Steve Jobs said 20 years ago, “the computer is like a bike for the mind”, which means it’s important to pedal and you shouldn’t rely on the power of a computer as you would on that of a train. The best software doesn’t hinder us or force us in any direction, it helps us amplify our skills and ideas.

We can use different tools to jot down our initial ideas, such as pencil and paper, white board or post-it notes. It’s important not to rush – and therefore to slow down – and not to hesitate to isolate ourselves in order to stimulate our creativity.

Once you are alone, pen in hand, relaxed and with a serene mind, visualize the presentation you will soon be doing, then write down the answers to the following questions:

  • How much time do I have?
  • At what time of the day will I be speaking?
  • Who is my audience?
  • What is their background?
  • What do they expect of me?
  • Why was I asked to give the presentation?
  • What reaction do I expect from the audience?
  • What visual medium will be most appropriate for this particular situation and audience?
  • How is the conference room arranged?
  • What is the fundamental purpose of my talk?
  • What is my story about?

And finally, the most important question of all:

What is the message that I wish to convey?

Or: if the audience should only remember one thing, what do I want it to be?

Moreover, the objective of the PowerPoint presentation means a lotto its final look: too many presenters make up a PowerPoint presentation which must both serve as a support for the oral presentation and as written support to be distributed to the public. This is a crucial mistake. You need three separate documents:

  1. The slides that the public will see
  2. The notes that only you will see
  3. The printed notes to hand out

So, you can use the best of each medium rather than trying to make a bad hybrid as a whole. This will prevent you from making slides that are overloaded with text, which you will feel compelled to read during your presentation.

Chapter 4: Creating a story

Once you have a clearer vision of the presentation’s content and its main subject, the next step is to establish the presentation’s structure, defining how the ideas will flow. When the main message and the secondary messages follow one another logically, our words come out more naturally and are easier for the audience to follow.

The ideal for this is to make sure your messages stick. But how do you do this? By using in particular the 6 principles of the book, Made to Stick, which, as a reminder, are:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotion
  6. Story

For the details of each principle, I invite you to read or reread the book review.

It’s often very important to illustrate your presentation with one or more sincere stories, with an interesting and clear beginning, engaging and provocative content in the middle, and a clear conclusion. Our brain is programmed to forget everything it doesn’t perceive as vital and necessary for our survival. So even though our conscious knows the importance of reading and understanding the physics textbook to pass the next exam, our brain tells us that it’s boring, uninteresting and unimportant for our survival. However,our brain loves stories, perhaps because the stories told by the first humans able to talk were the first vehicles for transmitting the information necessary for our survival.

One of the most important criteria for a successful story is sincerity. Don’t hesitate to talk about the mistakes that you or your company have made.

There are 4 steps when preparing the presentation:

  1. Brainstorming. Write down everything that comes to mind, without a computer, trying to take a step back and get an overview.
  2. Grouping and identifying the core message. It’s about identifying the only important and memorable idea from the point of view of the audience. Group together similar ideas while looking for a general theme.
  3. Creating the storyboard without a computer (optional step). Take the notes obtained in step 2 and put them on post-its. Another solution is to print empty slide pages – twelve per page – to be completed by hand.
  4. Storyboard creation in Slider Sorter view (PowerPoint)/Late Table view (Keynote).

Storyboard creation in Light Table view

To learn how to master story creation in Slide Sorter mode, the author recommends the book, Microsoft PowerPoint: Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson.

An important detail in creating a story and a storyboard is to be restrained and to not hesitate to cut out anything superfluous: always bring everything back to the central message.


Chapter 5: Simplicity – Why It Matters?

There is a fundamental misunderstanding about simplicity and what it means to be simple today. Simple is often confused with simplistic, which means neglecting and glossing over the difficulties, which ends up producing pure lies. Politicians are often guilty of oversimplification.

However, being simplistic and being simple have nothing in common. True simplicity is not the result of laziness or ignorance, it comes from an intelligent desire for clarity that gets to the essence of something, and it’s not easy to do. Here, simple is used as synonymous with clear, direct, subtle, essential and minimalist. It’s the Zen way of being simple.

An excellent way to understand the impact of simplicity in a presentation is to compare the presentations of Steve Jobs (Apple CEO) and Bill Gates (former CEO of Microsoft) when they present the products of their company. Often, the slides used by Steve Jobs contain, at most, one or two lines of text and especially an image that illustrates what he is saying. The slides used by Bill Gates are often modeled on PowerPoint’s default slides: filled with bullet lists, and therefore overused text. And when images are used, they are often complex and incomprehensible.

Compare for example this presentation of the iPhone by Steve Jobs:

Note in particular the simplicity of the slides used by Steve Jobs

And this presentation by Bill Gates about a new technology for Outlook:

The visuals used by Steve Jobs are an essential part of his presentation, but they don’t have a major impact to the detriment of the speaker. Jobs uses slides to tell a story and interacts with them in a natural way, rarely turning his back to the audience.

Therefore, simplicity is important, and provides more clarity, but it’s not easy or simple to get. The very notion of simplification lies in the idea of carefully eliminating the non-essential: when designing slides, keep in mind the concepts of 1) subtlety 2) grace and 3) understated elegance.

Thus, it’s important not to use garish colors, excessive gradations, tacky images, and not too many bullet points, colors and elements. Good designs start with a lot of empty space. Think subtract rather than add.

The risk is that by trying to be simple we make it too simple. It is up to us to find the right balance for our particular situation.

Chapter 6 – Slide composition: principles and techniques

When Garr Reynolds arrived in Japan in the 1990s, he was surprised to find that Japanese businessmen often used the term “case by case” when discussing future events or strategy. At first it bothered him because he thought it was a hollow phrase, used especially as a cop-out. Today, he understands that it’s an expression of wisdom.

Thus, without a good knowledge of the place, the circumstances, the content and the context of a presentation, it’s difficult to judge whether something is appropriate or inappropriate, let alone whether it’s good or bad. There is no definite method for slide design because it is as much art as science.

Nonetheless, there are some essential principles, fundamental concepts shared by many of the simplest and most effective slides:


A common misconception about design is to believe that it’s something to add at the end, like decoration on a birthday cake. However, the design is not a graphic overlay, it’s something essential that comes in right from the start, and that is used to organize the information in order to clarify things. It is also a means of persuasion.

Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR)

It’s the relationship between the relevant elements and the irrelevant elements in a slide. The more superfluous elements are in a slide (the noise), the more difficult it will be to perceive the core message (the signal).

Two slides illustrating 1) a signal-to-noise ratio in favor of the noise, on the left, and 2) a signal-to-noise ratio in favor of the signal, on the right. The left and right slides present the same information, but which one do you think the audience will more likely understand and remember?

In particular, it’s important to avoid as much as possible 3D graphics, which are often difficult to comprehend, to avoid having the logo of the company or the ubiquitous product on every page – having it on the first and last slide is enough (Do you start each sentence by stating your name?) – and again avoid overusing bullet points.

Picture superiority effect

Pictures are better remembered than the words: research shows that after a 30-second delay, their recall is much higher than it is for texts. Therefore, it’s important to use the picture superiority effect to improve the recognition and recall of important information. To achieve this, it’s necessary for the pictures to reinforce as much as possible the words and are part of the signal rather than noise.

To understand this, consider three examples of slides with the same information (72% of part-time workers in Japan are women):

Here, the clipart used, in addition to being overused, has nothing to do with the statistics presented. The background is a classic PowerPoint background – and it’s also overused – which reduces the visibility of the text.

Here it’s a little better, but the clipart used is cheap and the whole of it doesn’t provide a strong visual impact and doesn’t give it a very professional look.

Here we have a slide with a strong and professional visual impact that presents the information in a precise and powerful way.


Displaying quotations on a slide, unlike bullet points, has some effect. Quotes from a famous person or reference can help support your point.

Text within images

When using a quote, it is best to put it with an image. However, rather than putting a small picture with the quote below or above it, use an image as large as the slide in the background, and insert the quote in an empty space.

Empty space

The empty space, or negative space, is a concept of extreme simplicity but one of the most difficult to apply. When designing a document or a slide, most people succumb to the irresistible urge to fill in all the empty spaces.

But the empty space brings elegance and clarity, and a precise role: it gives the design air and lets the positive elements breath.

The four pillars:


Contrast means difference, and our brain, still programmed by genetics to be on the alert for predators in the Savannah, is designed to note the differences. So, when we enter a room, we notice its scent(if it is different from where we’re coming from), then we don’t smell it anymore. Visually, the contrast is what strikes the eye, and in our slides, the differences must be clear, not subtle.

First and foremost, we identify what is in contrast with the environment. Here, it’s the pink tree that catches our eyes first. However, it’s only one tree among a dozen others. If it had been a green tree that stood in the middle of a dozen pink trees, it would have been first noticed…

Photo by alordelo

It’s possible to establish a contrast in many ways, by:

    • The manipulation of space (near and far, empty and full)
    • The choice of colors (dark and light, hot and cold)
    • Text formatting (font with and without serif, bold and normal)
    • The position of the elements (above and below, isolated or grouped)
    • etc.


The repetition of certain elements in a slide or series gives a clear impression of unity and consistency. The use of a template provided by a preparation software guarantees unity thanks to the presence of the same background and the same type but be careful not to overdo it and not to use templates that have been seen time and time again.


This principle means that nothing in a slide should look like random placement. Each element is connected to another via an invisible line. The repetition aims to create consistency in a set of slides, while the alignment aims to achieve unity among the elements of a single slide. So, when you place elements in a slide, try to align them with another element.


According to this principle, related elements must be grouped so that they appear as a set instead of independent elements. The audience easily identifies items close to each other as belonging to the same group.

And finally, do not forget:

The more visually striking the presentation is, the more people will remember it. And more importantly, they will remember you.

– Paul Arden

Chapter 7: Examples of slides: images and text

Here are some examples of quality presentations, which are not necessarily perfect. And without context, it’s difficult to judge its impact in real life. What these presentations have in common is that they are simple and visually striking.

The Sustainable Food Lab by Chris Landry

Sustainable Food Lab

View more presentations from Chris Landry.

This presentation is used by Chris Landry to present his organization of which the goal is to preserve the food industry. It contains more text compared to the original in order to be comprehensible by itself.

Truemors by Guy Kawasaki


View more presentations from Guy Kawasaki.

This presentation was used by Guy Kawasaki to explain how, with just $ 12,107.09, he launched a user-run citizen journalism Web 2.0 website (of which the French equivalent is Agoravox).

The Science Of Presentations by Kevin Gee

The Science Of Presentations

View more presentations from Kevin Gee.

A presentation clearly designed to be a support for a talk about the art of making good presentations…

Note: you can find many other presentations on Slideshare and see especially the most popular.


Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated

– David Bader

Chapter 8: A question of presence

If we try to maintain a conversation or conduct an interview with someone and the person doesn’t give us their full attention, it bothers us. Yet we are used to having presenters who are not fully engaged with their audience and subject. One of the most important things for a successful presentation is to be 100% present at that moment.

One of the most basic things Zen teaches is mindfulness. But our mind is often occupied by a thousand worries, distracted from the present by past or future problems. Meditation is an excellent remedy for this permanent distraction and allows us to realize that our actions and our judgments are in general only automatic responses resulting from an internal dialogue. Through it, we can be free to detach ourselves from such judgments. So instead of hating to do the dishes, we can do the dishes. When we’re writing a letter, we write it. And when we’re giving a presentation, we’re doing it for good.

Note: I have been practicing meditation since February following my reading and my review of The Art of Meditation and I agree wholeheartedly with the author’s view. Meditation allows, in a breathtaking way, to become aware of our inner dialogue and of the non-stop murmuring that our brain creates. And to become aware of it ultimately allows us to be less distracted by it, making it easier to focus on the present moment.

Charismatic presenter

The perfect example of the charismatic presenter with a presence on stage is Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple whose iPhone video above you have seen. He was a smooth communicator; his visuals were always striking and perfectly synchronized with what he would say. He would seamlessly scroll his own slides, without even a noticeable gesture. It all seemed so automatic and natural for him. But you would be wrong if you thought this talent came to him naturally and was due to his exceptional charisma.

When Steve was on stage, he was an artist, and like any artist, he perfected his form and technique through practice and experience. And as an artist who has practiced a lot, there was no thought of technique or of form, nor of success and failure when he was on stage. It sounds paradoxical, but as soon as we think of technique or success and failure, we have lost, just like a sword fighter can die at any second because of a distracting thought. To be present, we must be in a state of flow, being completely immersed in what we do, as Steve Jobs did.

Note: you can watch many other videos of Steve Jobs on the Apple website or on YouTube. You can even find old videos from the 80’s like the presentation of the Macintosh in 1984. At the time PowerPoint and video projectors did not exist.

This state of flow is due to having an empty mind, of “abandoning it without being abandoned”. You have to get rid of the obtruding ego consciousness but also, as Suzuki says “…as if nothing special was taking place at the moment.”

The best advice for presentations can come from unexpected sources, such as the following five principles:

  1. Observe carefully: carefully observe your situation,carefully observe others, and carefully observe your environment.
  2. Take the initiative in everything you undertake.
  3. Take all the elements into account, act decisively.
  4. Know when to stop.
  5. Stay in the middle.

These wise words that seem to be from a presentation book are actually Jigoro Kano’s five principles of judo. It’s easy to imagine how these precepts can be adapted to presentations.

Remember that the ideal is that you work seriously while not taking yourself too seriously. By acting in such a way, you will lighten up the others and put them at ease with your humor.

Chapter 9: Connecting with the audience

Consistent content with a logical flow is important, as we have seen; but it is also necessary to establish a connection with the audience. We have to appeal to both the logical and emotional side of the audience members.

The first principle is that if our subject deserves to be talked about; then we must put energy and passion into our presentation. Every situation is different, but there is never an excuse to be dull and tasteless. It is therefore useless to show restraint: if the subject fascinates us, we must show it.

In addition, it’s also important not to give too much away to the audience. In fact, it’s better to not say enough, in reasonable proportions, leaving the public eager to know more, than to give too much away, leaving the audience stuffed and feeling that they have had more than enough.

A common mistake in presentations is to turn off the lights as soon as the presentation starts. It may have been mandatory at a time when the power of video projectors was insufficient to display an image; other than in the dark, but this is no longer the case today. Keeping the lights on allows both the audience to see you and keep a connection with you; and it’s up to you to see the audience and measure their temperature by using the subtle reactions you hear.

Finally, eliminate all obstacles between you and the audience: avoid the use of a desk if possible; use a wireless microphone and a remote control for the slides to move seamlessly and freely (we still see all too often people who are forced to go back to their computers in order to scroll through their slides).

Book critique of Presentation Zen” by Garr Reynolds:

Pleasantly formatted and filled with images, this book contains a substantial amount of valuable content. In a simple way; by offering both easy-to-apply practical tips and theoretical concepts that will take time to be further developed; Garr Reynolds provides the perfect handbook for a successful presentation. The subject may seem narrowly focused, and it may be; but this book is an absolute must for anyone who is required to give presentations; frequently or occasionally, as it will help avoid the many pitfalls that emanate from 99% of presentations. Moreover, this book doesn’t at all focus on preparation software technology; but on the spirit of successful presentations, which somewhat protects it from the obsolescence that characterizes all books dealing with computer science.

As the author says, most presentations are so mediocre that the application of a few tips and principles will help you stand out. And in this way, even if you only apply a small part of the methods; tips and advice offered by this book, you are sure to do better than the average person.

In terms of its flaws, I sometimes found it to be somewhat superficial; not going far enough in the discussion or the topics covered. However, that is also what helps it to be accessible and to get to the point.

I do recommend it. Once you have delivered your first presentation and have had the opportunity to make an impression and to convey your message more effectively, you will realize that the small investment of this easy-to-read book was well worth it. A nice and practical book.

Strong points of the book Presentation Zen:

  • Graphically pleasing.
  • Easy to read and well-illustrated with picture examples.
  • Contains both practical tips that are easy to apply and theoretical concepts to further develop.
  • Articles by well-known personalities (Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin, etc.).
  • Focuses on the spirit of the presentation, not on PowerPoint or Keynote technology, which makes it rather timeless.

Weak points of the book Presentation Zen:

  • A bit superficial at times.
  • A somewhat narrowly focused subject.

My rating : Presentation audience slide Presentation audience slide Presentation audience slidePresentation audience slidePresentation audience slidePresentation audience slidePresentation audience slidePresentation audience slidePresentation audience slide

Have you read “Presentation Zen”? How do you rate it?

Mediocre - No interestReasonable - One or two interesting paragraphsIntermediate - Some goods ideasGood - Had changed my life on one practical aspectVery Good - Completely changed my life ! (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)


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