Presenting Matters!

Original image: cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo by Vvillamon:

I have become a recent student in the art of presenting. To motivate myself to learn more about what makes a good presentation, I decided to lead a workshop at Learning 2.011 in Shanghai entitled Presentation Zen and the Free Images. A mix of presentation ‘rules’, with image searching to support those rules, the workshop was meant to spread the gospel of Presentation Zen so that others would understand the importance of making a point interesting.

You will notice in that last sentence that I mentioned ‘a point’, singular, not plural. Perhaps the most important aspect of the book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds is the emphasis on simplification. Too many presentations are so complex that they lose their audience in minutes, if not seconds. There are many reasons for this complexity, but the main two explanations are having too much to share and the curse of knowledge. The two are linked and generally, the majority of presenters suffer from either or both of these afflictions.

Many teachers swear by the mantra that it is better to have too much material instead of not enough. In most instances this is true. For a presentation, the opposite is true. An audience can only learn, understand or absorb so much from your presentation. Once you have gone past that threshold, the rest is ignored. The TED lectures have a strict code of limiting their presenters to 18 minutes per talk. Limits like these are deliberate and appear to have worked incredibly well for this particular organization. To witness an example of what I am describing, watch this excellent TED Talk by one of the founders, Chris Anderson (not to be confused with Chris Anderson the editor of Wired Magazine and author of The Long Tail and Free).

In his talk, Mr. Anderson coins the phrase ‘…Crowd Accelerated Innovation — a self-fueling cycle of learning that could be as significant as the invention of print.’ As fascinating as this concept is, what is really interesting is how closely he follows the rules of being both concise and clear within the stipulated time constraints. He uses short videos, simple graphs, and a few images to make his point. It is pure brilliance.

The curse of knowledge is a phrase used by the Heath brothers in their book Made to Stick. Briefly, it refers to the inability of a person to understand what it is like NOT to know something. Tasks like riding a bike, tying your shoe, or even walking become hard to teach to someone once you know how. Many presenters present their material as if the audience understands the concepts as well as, or close to, themselves. It wouldn’t take long for most of to think of a graph they were shown that needed some detailed explanation or a term that needed clarification. For those of us in the IB (International Baccalaureate), think of the training you received and the numerous abbreviations that were bandied about as if they were part of the dictionary (ex. ATL, AOI, UOI, to name 3.) Perhaps the answer to the joke ‘why is the word abbreviation is so long’ (because it takes many of us such a long time to figure out what the abbreviation means) is very revealing. cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo shared by

Simplification is the key to ensuring you avoid the two hazards of presenting. By simplifying, you are ensuring that there is a clear message you want to convey. If people want details, they will ask for them and you can provide these in a hand-out, via a blog, or with accompanying notes. Don’t be fooled, however, in thinking that it is simple to simplify. Often it can take many, many hours to find the images, videos, and phrases you need to convey the real meaning of your presentation. That effort is not wasted as your audience will thank you for saving their time by synthesizing your findings in such an easy to understand manner.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by real.heightz

Avatar of Ivan Beeckmans

About Ivan Beeckmans

Currently a Digital Learning Coach at the NIST International School (formerly the New International School of Thailand) in Bangkok, Thailand
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7 Responses to Presenting Matters!

  1. Avatar of Tim Pettine Tim Pettine says:

    Reading your post made me think of a quote regarding perfection in design; design is not focused on addition but on modification until there is nothing more to take away!
    I would say simplistic not simpler? Thanks Ivan for the making me about the “curse of knowledge.” It seems appropriate to address with students the enormous amounts of cognition, creativity, and intrinsic motivation that is foundation of not only effective presentations, but of all developed products.

    • You are bang-on with your comment. One only needs to say “iPod” to understand how design matters and how a big part of that design means simplifying. Apple did not invent the MP3 player, but they came pretty close to perfecting it as is evidence by its popularity. Another example of clutter is the typical remote control. Engineers CAN put in hundreds of functions on a remote, but most do not use them and find they get in the way. I would bet that many will pay extra to get a remote that has only three functions; on/off, volume, and channel changing. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Avatar of Daniel Bench Daniel Bench says:

    Your thoughts about presentation are very similar to what I have been reading about lately. The reality of how we learn and pay attention certainly backs up your assertions. More information is not always better.
    In the book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, John Medina spends a chapter focusing on the neurological process of attention. One of the key points he makes in this chapter is about our information processing. He contends that people make meaning from big ideas first. Only after grasping the big ideas will people be able to add relative details in a meaningful, effective way. Medina also suggests methods to help keep the audience’s attention.
    I really believe that the time searching out images and other media that correlate with the big ideas of a presentation certainly is worth it. By hearing and seeing the big ideas, people can better grasp the important material. From there, they can ask questions and pursue their own line of inquiry into the topic, whether its to achieve an academic objective or for self-edification.

    • Dan, you have added a book to my ‘To Read’ list. link to . I read the article for our course on Vision and found it interesting, so I am sure the rest of the book will be worthy. Big ideas are really all we can deliver in a presentation, the details come from workshops, readings, and classes. A presentation is really the skill of highlighting the interesting material so we can all digest it quickly. Medina seems to be on to something.

  3. Thanks Ivan, for another interesting post. As you know, in the last year or so I have also become very interested in ‘the art of presenting’ and I find it fascinating how people like Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte have set the tone in this area.

    I agree with the things said above here and the point Daniel makes that it is certainly worth it finding images that convey with the focus of your presentation. The process is time consuming, but forces you to think and rethink about the main concepts and ideas of your presentation.

    I am curious to see what the next thing will be in this topic, and if ‘presentation zen’ will become even more widely known and grow even further into it’s own style of presenting. What do you think? Is the art of presenting a current hype? What will the next best thing be in this area? Will we continue to see more developments of presentation styles like ‘presentation zen’?

    • Jago, you too have added some books to my reading list.

      Is the art of presenting a current hype? I think it needs more traction before it can be considered hype. There have been a number of changes and technical developments of late that have really highlighted the skills of a good presenter. The TED Talk is becoming a new genre that looks simple but must be pretty hard to do. YouTube and Vimeo have made different forms of presenting possible with the only encouragement being the possibility of a wider audience.

      My guess at the direction of the presentation is a melding of the two points made above. I can see the professionalism of the TED Talk format being adapted by a larger audience to take on a life of its own. An instance where this has happened is the ‘In Plain English’ (IPE) style of video started by Lee LeFever at Common Craft (link to People saw that IPE was a cool and simple way to communicate complicated topics and have mimicked the format to varying degrees of success.

      My hope is that people start to pay attention to these skills and take the time to make themselves clear. If they do, we will all win through time saved and better understanding.

      Thanks for your comments and questions.

  4. Thanks for the reply Ivan.

    Slideology & Resonate are awesome reads if you haven’t seen them already:
    link to

    Recent years we can see more and more of these “styles” and I think you will probably see a few more catch on in the next couple of years. Commoncraft as you said, has definitely grown into it’s own format. I also guess that TED also has it’s own style that is limited by time. I am curious to see how things will go, and all these developments have definitely been fantastic from a teachers point of view.


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