Hara Hachi Bu – Presentation Zen
I highly recommend the book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (New Riders Press, 2008). It describes an approach to presentation design which is inspired by principles of Zen, including naturalness, restraint, and simplicity. Reynolds is a designer and college professor who lives in Japan. He is also a part-time musician and a former manager at Apple Computer.
A number of Japanese terms are used in the book. 腹八分 (hara hachi bu) means “Eat until you are 80% full.” The connection with presentations is that you should be careful not to stuff the audience with too much information. Leave them wanting more – and never go over time. My intent in this article is to give you enough of a feel for Reynolds’ book that you can’t wait to read the whole thing.
Reynolds says to start by asking yourself, “What is the one thing I want people to remember?” Presenters have limited time and therefore must focus on what is most important. Also ask “so what?” How is the material relevant to the audience?
Go analog and start your preparations away from the computer. This helps avoid wasting time on details. The book suggests using paper, post-its, and whiteboards as brainstorming tools. Get off the grid and find a quiet place away from busy-ness. When you find that place, think like a beginner. Try to remember what it was like NOT to be an expert at the topic you are presenting.
The author urges using both sides of your brain when preparing. Logic is not enough; use your creativity as well. Reynolds is a big fan of Daniel Pink’s 2006 book, A Whole New Mind.
Presentation Zen makes an important distinction between slides and handouts. Slides are designed to visually enhance a live presentation; your voice should be the main source of “text.” Design your handouts separately to include details you won’t be able to convey. Don’t design slides with the intention of handing them out; in fact, the book urges you not to give them out.
A key aspect of preparation is to identify stories that help make your point. A good story adds meaning and context and can make for a truly memorable message.
Design is not decoration, it is planning how something will look and work – and it involves both art and science. In this approach, simplicity is the key to design. That does not mean dumbing down or ignoring complexity. It means being clean and direct. Rather than adding information, take things away. Presentation Zen is about elegance, subtlety and understatement.
One of the principles Reynolds discusses is signal vs. noise. When audio engineers make a recording they strive to minimize the amount of unwanted sound. When you design a presentation, eliminate information that is not essential in making your point. Strive for quality over quantity.
The “picture superiority effect” says that images are more efficient that text on a slide because they can illustrate and reinforce what you are saying. Use the highest quality images you can find – not cheesy clip art – and don’t be afraid to go full-screen. Reynolds suggests you look for inspiration in comic strips, documentary films, and digital stories.
The book describes a number of design conventions. One is liberal use of “white space.” Among other benefits, it helps emphasize other elements on the screen. Balance is another design principle, and Reynolds reminds us that does not always mean symmetry. He encourages us to follow the rule of thirds.
In the last phase of his approach, the author highlights the Zen-inspired quality of “mindfulness.” A presenter must be completely engaged in delivering a talk. A second idea that comes close by in the book, “no mind,” seems like a contradiction. However, it means that with preparation and rehearsal you become so confident that you don’t even think about inhibitions, doubts, or fears.
The author introduces you to conductor Benjamin Zander, who advocates “one-buttock playing.” He says confident musicians are so into their art that the music pushes them over. The alternative is worrying about mistakes, sitting flat in your seat, and not allowing the music to carry you away.
Reynolds finishes with some very practical advice about removing the barriers between you and your audience. The main idea is to get away from the lectern. Use a remote clicker, so you don’t have to be near the computer. And if you are in a large room, use a wireless microphone.