Publicious Book Review: Presentation Zen

It’s been a while since I’ve recommended any books, but right now I have two good ones to share, Presentation Zen and Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide. The first is an absolute, five star, required reading, go get it RIGHT NOW book. The second is more of a textbook that will appeal to a limited audience of brainy desingers who get off on knowing how we got from Roman majuscules to uncials to, God help us, Comic Sans. I’m not finished with Graphic Design History, so I’ll save my thoughts on that one for now. But Presentation Zen rocks. (pun intended)


If you have ever been the victim of “death by bulleted list”, or suffocated by a boring speaker droning on until all the air is sucked out of the room, I think you will love this book. Over the years, I have endured many a dreadful presentation consisting of a person basically reading over a set of ugly, confusing slides, that taught me nothing. Presentation Zen recommends quite a different approach: clean slides with very little text, bold visuals, and..get this…speaking in a real human voice. What a revelation!

The author practices what he preaches. The book is beautifully designed with lots of white space surrounding the text and examples, so reading it is a pleasure. It’s the rare book where you feel like you learned something on every page. Edward Tufte’s data-ink ratio is honored. Nothing is wasted. Inspiration is drawn from daVinci, Einstein, Thoreau, and that master of Zen presentation, Steve Jobs. 

There are plenty of examples of good and bad presentation design. Most of the bad stuff comes from people mistaking decoration for design, or trying to make their PowerPoint slides into full-fledged documents, aka slideuments. Slideuments suck. Your slides are not supposed to be pages in a document, crammed with tiny details. For that, you should create an actual supporting document to hand out to your audience after the presentation. Giving it to them beforehand, or even worse, giving them your slides printed out, is the kiss of death. Everyone is so busy flipping back and forth, dividing their attention between page and screen, that they will remember nothing. I’ve seen it many times.

Dissolves, logos, 3D effects, and tired PowerPoint templates are all to be taken out behind the barn and shot, for the crime of crippling human communication.

One of the most interesting points the author makes is that slide presentations have more to do with comics and documentary film making, than anything else. It’s about the story, the audience, and using emotion and visuals to maximum effect to get the audience to remember your story (and you, BTW).

Presentation Zen also has a companion website well worth visiting. I’d recommend you check the book if you plan on speaking in front of an audience any time in the foreseeable future.

5 Responses

  1. Final link isn’t right.

  2. Thanks, Michael. It’s fixed now.
    Note to self: copying an URL before the page has finished loading = fail.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Garr Reynolds, Keith Nash. Keith Nash said: Loud cheer!RT @presentationzen: Dissolves, 3D effects tired PowerPoints are taken out behind the barn and shot […]

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  5. There should be a class and a test before anyone is allowed to use presentation software. We don’t let people drive cars without a license, so why do we let people hold their colleagues in coma-inducing thrall for millions of hours every business-week?

    How many billions are wasted because people are sitting in bad presentations instead of working, not learning anything, then having to find the information they should have gotten in the presentation once they actually need it. How many billions of reams of paper are wasted every day because people think a presentation handout is a printout of the slides.

    (I wanted to represent all this with a picture of a sad clown, but I don’t think you can do that in the comments section.)

    Next time you go to a meeting and someone offers you a packet of printed slides, politely decline and ask if you can get a PDF or something instead. If the presentation consists of the presenter reading the slides, loudly interrupt with something like “We DO know how to READ, you know.” That’s especially fun when it’s your boss who you’re interrupting. Or, if you value your job, I guess you can send the presenter a link to Mike’s review or to the book itself.

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