top of page

PresentationZen - Book Review

1 January 2010
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

PresentationZen, written by Garr Reynolds and published in 2008, explores the art of effectively conveying messages through presentations. The book, although concise, is rich with visual examples that vividly illustrate its ideas. Focused on preparing presentations that communicate messages effectively, it draws inspiration from diverse sources such as filmmaking (a rich and multidimensional channel), comics (a frugal and exhaustive world), and storytelling (akin to the world of presentation preparation), among others.

Reynolds' outlined tools cater to the billions of individuals involved in modern presentation preparation and extend their utility to portal planning, dashboard planning, and more. However, it's essential to note that this is not a recipe book; each case is unique and requires thoughtful consideration of how to apply and balance the principles within its specific context. Nevertheless, the tools offer valuable insights, and virtually anyone can enhance their relevant abilities by implementing the recommendations provided.

The book delves into the following topics:

  • Planning presentations

  • Preparing presentations

  • Lecturing

While the book incorporates theories, its emphasis is mainly practical. Furthermore, it is an enjoyable read, enhanced by the beauty of the accompanying pictures, making it a unique recommendation for everyone. Happy reading.

Planning presentations

For many, myself included in this group of "sinners," the presentation planning phase is often considered synonymous with the actual preparation, either in its entirety or a substantial part. Reynolds challenges this notion and suggests planning your presentation as far away from your computer.

  • Cultivate creativity. Believe that anyone can unleash their creativity by giving free rein to their imagination and avoiding the mindset that specific ideas are unfeasible. Embrace "outside the box" thinking.

  • Harness constraints to your advantage. We are more likely to excel when facing time constraints or the pressure to succeed. Instead of being intimidated by constraints, leverage them. Explore the Pecha-Kucha method, which involves 20 slides, each lasting exactly 20 seconds, concluding the presentation in 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

  • Think analog. Use a notepad, yellow notes, a blackboard, or even draw in the sand. Anything analog, not digital.

  • Allocate dedicated time and space for thinking. Choose conditions and places that are most conducive and suitable for this task.

  • Pose the right questions. These will guide you to the correct answers and the proper presentation. Questions can pertain to the lecture, audience connection, or content. Always ask, "What's the most important thing for your audience to remember from your presentation?"

  • Pass the elevator test. Develop a clear and concise message that can be conveyed in 30 seconds; imagine a scenario where you share an elevator with a crucial person who is the message's subject.

  • Address concerns about forgetting essential points by utilizing comments (visible only to you) or an accompanying document. Use each element wisely; avoid creating a presentation that functions more like a document.

  • To enhance message retention, focus on six components: simplicity, surprise factor, willingness, credibility, touching emotion, and storytelling. Emphasize the importance of these components.

  • Embrace the power of storytelling. A story serves as an envelope for conveying the message, combining information with emotion and sometimes anecdotes. Plan the story you'll use to convey your message effectively.

  • Generate numerous ideas during the planning phase. Don't settle for the first one; instead, filter through options. Quantity holds significance (and may not be trivial to implement).

  • Opt for a concise presentation. Focus on planning only what's crucial rather than attempting to cover everything.

  • Follow the recommended planning stages: brainstorming, core identification, story planning on paper (not on a computer), and creating the presentation skeleton (chapter/structure).

  • Seek feedback from a peer.

Preparing presentations

The preparation of presentations constitutes a crucial stage wherein we gather in front of the computer, striving to transform our thoughts (already defined and partially or fully packaged) into an organized presentation. Restraint is pivotal, focusing not on what is possible but on what is right. Here are some general recommendations:

  • Aesthetics (inspired by Zen values): Uphold aesthetics through simplicity, subtlety, elegance, recommendations (over descriptiveness), natural elements, empty spaces, silence, and the principle of Minority. Specific aspects are detailed below.

  • Simplicity: If we discussed simple ideas in the planning stage, we emphasize simple implementation here. For instance, avoid graphic drawings that aren't immediately clear.

  • Minority: Minimize elements on each featured page (less is more). Draw inspiration from the art of Comics and remember that the slide supports the story, not replace the narrator.

Design Principles:

  • Optimal signal-to-noise ratio: Avoid excessive noise on slides. For instance, if a graph is present, omit an additional image.

  • Avoid 3D graphs.

  • Utilize images extensively, prioritizing those that evoke emotion. I prefer writing on the pictures (in the background) over adding small text next to them.

  • Skip the logo; a memorable presentation speaks for itself.

  • Points are a built-in tool, but their effectiveness is questionable and should be used sparingly.

  • Quotes (not overly long) are powerful tools for conveying messages.

  • Empty areas: Recognize the potency of empty spaces in design.

  • Balance: Balance between empty and full, symmetric and asymmetric elements.

  • Influential slide positions: Optimal positions for important messages are at the four nodes resulting from dividing a slide into two vertical and two lateral ticks.

  • Tables and facts: A presentation aims to aid communication, not to inundate with data. Reserve facts and tables for accompanying documents.

  • Contrast: Ensure good contrast between background and text and within elements in an image when emphasis is required. Black or white are currently the most effective.

  • Repetition: Establish an element of repetition between slides using recurring graphic elements, but avoid overdoing it.

  • Alignment: Align each slide element relative to others; avoid leaving elements floating to facilitate the viewer's connection.

  • Proximity: Group related elements for clarity (e.g., image and explanation). Assist the viewer in understanding interrelated content.

Remember, the goal is the clarity of the message; the appearance of your presentation should not be an end in itself.


Reynolds shares a story about a friend who invested significantly in planning and preparing a presentation. However, there was no time for the scheduled discussion when he reached the client. Instead, the client asked him to accompany him to his car and explain what he wanted. Initially, the friend felt he had invested in something worthless, but upon reflection, he realized the extensive preparation achieved its goal. His ability to concisely describe his ideas, convey the message, ensure client understanding, and ultimately achieve his goal was all thanks to the comprehensive preparation surrounding the presentation, even if it was never formally presented. Without such preparation, he might not have been able to articulate his thoughts so clearly and quickly (refer to the elevator test above). Remember: a presentation aims to help package ideas, plan goals, and communicate them to others. The use of the presentation itself is just part of the story, sometimes not even the main one, and occasionally it can be conveyed through other channels.

Here are some recommendations, with the first set drawn from the world of Judo:

  • Pay attention to the surroundings. Observe and continually assess your situation with the audience. Pay attention to cues like head vibrations and smiles. Connect with your audience; this is the essence of communication.

  • Always be the initiator, not trailing behind the audience.

  • Be flexible: Consider the audience entirely, but be decisive.

  • Know when to stop. It's better to leave the audience intrigued. Rule of thumb: Spend 90-95% of your planned time.

  • Stay center stage; it's better to be in front. Avoid talking behind a table or podium.

  • Be fully present. Refrain from letting your mind wander during the lecture.

  • Stay calm, even with challenging questions. Don't show signs of nervousness; avoid falling into the trap of confronting complex individuals.

  • Remember, your purpose is to contribute to your audience. Express it.

  • The lecturer's voice matters. Speak naturally and humanly, as if in conversation rather than a formal lecture.

  • If you make a mistake, don't panic. Learn from it for the future. It's better to risk and make mistakes than to be calculated and cold.

  • Use humor when appropriate.

  • Lecture in well-lit conditions. Avoid the temptation of darkness where slides may look good. It's crucial that you look good, not just the slides.

  • Utilize technological means (remote control) to navigate slides. Stay away from your computer.

Remember: you are the message's messenger; the presentation is merely a tool. Good luck!

bottom of page