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November 2005

Give it away give it away give it away now...

Where do you stand on giving it away? Most everyone agrees that doing volunteer work for your community or school, for example, is a noble and worthwhile thing to do. But what about in business? Big companies can afford to give away things, from software to trips to Hawaii, but what about us little guys/gals? There are those who say that as a highly-skilled professional, you should not "give it away" by agreeing to offer your services unpaid. You've worked hard to get where you are today, they say, and you deserve to be paid for your time. They say offering your skills for free cheapens what you have to offer. There is some merit to these arguments, but I believe in the idea of "giving it away" when I can.

"Eat like a bird and poop like an elephant"
My philosophy about "giving it away" or sharing information freely relates well to an idea I first read in Rules for Revolutionaries. I recall reading this book by Guy Kawasaki in 1998 while on the bullet train bound for Tokyo. In chapter seven Guy says "Eat like a bird, poop like an elephant." In other words, (1) get out there, meet people, press the flesh, consume knowledge like crazy, attend seminars, etc. (birds eat a lot!). And (2) spread the knowledge, information, and contacts that you gained around, share of your time and talent (elephants are good at...well you know). Below: sample slides from a past presentation where I talked about Kawasaki's idea.

    Bird_1    Elephant_slide_2

I may be naïve, but my philosophy concerning public speaking has long been to remain open to non-paid opportunities, outside the business world, if I can actually be of help. Doing "free gigs" does not lower the value of what I usually "sell." In fact, doing the unpaid work outside of business probably adds value to my "brand" so to speak. My thinking is that discounting my services, say, to an investment firm, may indeed cheapen my brand. So I don't do that. However, I do not think doing some (sometimes more) work 100% free of charge cheapens what you have to offer, depending on the circumstance. Discounts cheapen, but free is free — and some of the best things in life are free. (They don't say, "Some of the best things in life are...discounted 50%"). Selling yourself (too) "cheap" is different from "giving it away." For example, Starbucks is not going to discount their drinks, but maybe they'll give free hot chocolates on Christmas Eve evening in certain stores for tired, procrastinating shoppers.

"Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable."
                                                  — Sydney J. Harris

"I poop therefore, I am"
You can't share everything, of course, but I like the spirit behind "pooping" (sharing and spreading). For all the free gigs I do, I always get something out of it such as a new contact, new knowledge, a recommendation, etc. As Guy says: "I poop therefore, I am. The more information you give away, the more you get as people come to trust you and see mutual benefits." I have never regretted doing a free presentation. Years ago I used to seek out speaking opportunities at business associations, user groups, etc. so that I could improve my skills and learn. Now I no longer look for opportunities to present free, but I usually end up "giving it away" several times a year anyway. And that's fine with me.

"Pooping" this Friday in Kobe, Japan
Pg_preso_1This Friday I will be "giving it away" again at the Far East Headquarters of P&G out in Kobe for a special ACCJ event. For those of you in the area (Kansai), you can get more information on my presentation by contacting the people at ACCJ here. Or send me an email and I'll forward you the ACCJ announcement (in English and Japanese). My presentation begins at 5:30 pm in the P&G auditorium. At about 7:00 pm interested audience members can join ACCJ at the Sheraton next door for a mixer. The title of the talk is "The Art of Presentations," covering some of the same issues I explore in this blog.

Do you have any stories about how the "eat like a bird, poop like an elephant" philosophy has helped (hurt?) you, either as a person or organization?

It just depends: Should you "go analog" or "go digital"?

Way_3When I was an employee with Sumitomo in the mid-90s, I discovered that Japanese business people often used the term "case-by-case" when discussing details of future events or strategy. This used to frustrate me since I was used to more concrete plans and absolutes and making decisions rather quickly. I learned, though, that context, circumstance, and a kind of "particularism" was very important to the Japanese I worked with.

Today, I might use Japanese expressions like jyou kyou ni yotte (judgment depends on circumstance) or tokito baaini totte tsukaiwareru (use depends on time and circumstance) when discussing what techniques or equipment to use for a particular presentation. I used to think that "it depends" was a weak statement, a copout of sorts. Now I see that it's smart. really does "all depend" on the unique context and circumstance found in each situation.

What tools or techniques you use to make your presentation depends on a great many things, of course. Often the best "PowerPoint presentation" is the one you never give. Slides and projectors/displays are good tools for many kinds of presentations, but by no means are they appropriate for all situations. Often it is more appropriate (and refreshing) to go completely "analog."

Presenting "analog"
LaughLast week I attended a good example of an "analog" presentation. My friend, Ricco Deblank, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton Osaka  — the most preferred hotel employer in Japan —  invited my HRM class into the hotel for a short seminar and a behind-the-scenes look at the Ritz-Carlton brand and a peak at what makes it so special. There were about twenty-five in our group. Ricco is a very engaging figure and passionately believes in his message. For this particular situation, I think slides could have taken away from the message. The only visuals used (besides the Ritz-Carlton Hotel itself) were a flipchart/pens and the Ritz-Carlton Credo. The Credo, a small card which every employee carries with them, contains 20 important principles that are the heart and soul of the Ritz-Carlton promise. Each audience member received the credo and could refer to it as Ricco called attention to particular sections of the card. The Credo also served as a great takeaway.

Above: Ricco Deblank, Ritz-Carlton GM, goes "low-tech" and gives an impassioned presentation on why it's the employees that make the Ritz so special.
Above: Ritz-Carlton executives and front-line managers demonstrate the "line up" and act out a few scenarios. 

Present "digital" and plan "analog"?
So sometimes (often times?) presenting without the aid of slideware is appropriate and desirable. But what about planning a presentation that will be delivered with the aid of slideware? Even if you are going to make an important presentation with the aid of slideware, I still think it is important to "go analog" in the early stages. I am not a big fan of planning a presentation on the computer. We are so glued to these machines (Macs and PCs) and the software (Office, Keynote, S5, etc.) that I often wonder if Tufte is right — maybe there is a "Cognitive style" to the software itself that that affects even our best intentions and brightest ideas.

Peter Drucker:"The computer is a moron"
Analog_beachThe planning stage should be the time when our minds are clearest and all barriers removed. I love technology, and I think slideware can be very effective in many situations. But for planning, I say "go analog" — paper and pen, white boards, a note pad in your pocket as you take a walk down the beach with your dog...whatever works for you. Peter Drucker said it best: "The computer is a moron." You and your ideas (and your audience) are all that matter. So try getting away from the computer in the early stages, the time when your creativity is needed most. For me at least, clarity of thinking and a generation of ideas come when my computer and I are far apart. Walks on the beach are my greatest source of inspiration and clarity.

Would love to hear your examples of "going analog" for the presentation or in the planning stages (or both).

The "Microsoft Method" of presentations

Ballmer_1Microsoft did not invent PowerPoint. That honor goes to a small company called Forethought, which released PowerPoint for the Mac in 1987. The company was then purchased by Microsoft and the Windows version of PowerPoint eventually hit the market in 1990...and the world hasn't been the same since.

But did Microsoft invent the wordy, bulletpoint-ridden PowerPoint slide approach, the approach ridiculed by Edward Tufte and so many others? I don't have the answer to that, but judging from the presentation visuals (slides) used by high-profile Microsoft executives, the company is certainly perpetuating this approach, an approach we'll call the "Microsoft Method."

Examples of the "Microsoft Method" of presentations
You can find a plethora of the actual PowerPoint files used in many Microsoft presentations, including those by CEO, Steve Ballmer and Chairman, Bill Gates. The company also provides many video streams to past presentations, often including written transcripts.

On November 7, Steve Ballmer kicked off the "Ready Launch Tour." The audience for this presentation and others on the tour consist mainly of developers and database administrators. The keynote presentation was at a high-level and not overly technical. The presentation was more of an opportunity for the CEO to show his leadership, vision, and what it all means. I don't have any problems with the content of Steve Ballmer's keynote (that's not the focus of this blog anyway). My focus here is only on the slides he chose to use to support his messages. Below I show a few slides from Steve Ballmer's keynote (you can download his PPT file here). But first, allow me to introduce another concept from the Zen aesthetic we can refer to when examining these visuals and our own visuals.

Shibumi is a principle that can be applied to many aspects of life.  Concerning visual communication and graphic design, shibumi represents elegant simplicity and articulate brevity, an understated elegance. In Wabi-Sabi Style, authors James and Sandra Crowley comment on the Japanese deep appreciation of beauty:

Their (Japanese) conceptualization relegates elaborate ornamentation and vivid color usage to the bottom of the taste levels...excess requires no real thought or creativity. The highest level of taste moves beyond the usage of brilliant colors and heavy ornamentation to a simple and subdued refinement that is the beauty of shibumi, which represents the ultimate in good taste through conscious reserve. This is the original "less is more" concept. Less color — subdued and elegant usage of color, less clutter...

                                        — Wabi Sabi Style

I do not suggest you judge a presentation visual the same way you do a work of art, of course. But understanding the essence of shibumi can have practical applications in your creative work. And I believe presentations are best viewed as creative endeavors — all of it — preparation, design, and delivery.

Examples from Steve Ballmer's Nov 7 Keynote

  Thank_you    People_1
Above left: Saying thank you is a wonderful, gracious thing to do, especially at the beginning. If you use a visual for this, a simple "Thank You" without the noise of a busy template, catch phrase (Ready), and three different logos would be better. I like the background color for this visual, but it doesn't fit with the bulk of the slides which have a familiar blue background. Above right: Suddenly a blue background. A lot of images to convey a simple point. The images of people in the bubbles are labeled "People"... in case we weren't sure those were images of people?

  New_platform    Platform
Above left: It would be better if Steve had broken this up into three slides with declarative titles for each, less colors and fewer bullets. Above right: I get it, but a simpler, more elegant visual was surely possible.

  Trusted              Lucky_charms
Above left: Many colors. Gradients. 3-D effects. Small text. When you are one of the most powerful business figures in the world, it's better if your presentation visuals do not resemble a cereal box.

  Platform_mo   Summary
Above left: More 3-D graphics, gradients, colors. Above right: Nothing closes big quite like a bulleted list on a "Summary" slide.

It all matters
You might say, "So the PowerPoints aren't great? So what? Content is what matters." Content does matter a very great deal. Great content is essential. But my point is: It all matters.

Microsoft says the sky's the limit for us consumers. Work can be creative. We can help. I want to believe them. Really I do. Yet, when given the opportunity to show how one of their most visible products can actually be used practically and harmoniously to help their own speakers present important ideas, they revert back to PowerPoint-as-usual. Uninspiring...and typical.

A Flash pitch on the Microsoft "your potential" website says "we stand in awe of your potential." Their whole campaign evolves around this one message: “Your potential. Our passion.” And templates, auto-content wizards and "paper-clip guy" are suppose to help people be more creative?

What must it be like inside the Redmond campus? If top management is implying that this is how best to present, then what incentive do regular workers have for being different, creative...and more effective? But surely not all the people at Microsoft, a company which attracts great minds from across the planet, agree with the typical "death-by-PPT" approach?

Microsoft has smart, creative employees who get it
I think it's very cool that Microsoft allows employees to blog on the company. That's smart. One new MS employee, Prof Elizabeth Lane Lawley, currently working in Redmond on sabbatical from RIT comments today on Microsoft's love affair with the PPT deck in her post called The Culture of The Deck:

"There are many things I’ve been delighted and impressed by during the nearly five months I’ve now spent at Microsoft. However, there have also been a few things that I’ve found extraordinarily disheartening. One of the latter has been the organizational dependence on “the deck” (that is, PowerPoint files) as the standard mechanism for conveying nearly all information."

                                         — Elizabeth Lane Lawley

The professor goes on to say that the Presentation Zen site, Beyond Bullet Points and Tufte's The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint should be required reading for employees. Right on, Elizabeth!

Here's hoping a new way of presenting will one day make it up to the top levels of Microsoft management.

The sound of one room napping

Conference_1Have you ever been bored at a business or academic conference? Maybe it's not your fault. Seth Godin writes that conference organizers too often shoot to satisfy the middle of the bell curve with the goal of being average and avoiding failure in an attempt to pull off a successful event. It's all so similar. All so typical. Even conference presentations aim for the average. Says Godin,"...we end up being flown on average planes to average hotels to sit in average conference rooms and hear average speakers doing presentations filled with bullet points." Since most conferences focus on the "typical," Godin suggests we become atypical if we're serious about making an impact. "Stories and irrational impulses are what change behavior. Not facts or bullet points." We need to connect, then, with people's emotions too.

Just the facts?

Conference speakers need to appeal to the rational side of their audience, of course. Humans are rational beings after all. But our evidence, proof and "facts" need to be placed in context and need to connect and appeal to the emotional too. Some argue that emotion is not necessarily irrational, that intelligence and emotion go hand in hand. And that may be. My point is that facts alone are rarely a sufficient condition for change or impact (though they are a necessary condition).

Typical PowerPoint fails twice
A college professor told me that she attended a national conference in Japan on English teaching recently and that one presenter gave a PowerPoint presentation on the topic of multimedia in the classroom. Sounds exciting, right? The speaker's presentation, however, consisted of an endless stream of bullet points detailing (with text) what is possible today with multimedia. Ironic...but not unusual.

Proof that we live in a sick "PowerPoint culture," many conferences today require speakers to follow uniform PowerPoint guidelines (to insure that they all look fairly similar) and submit their PowerPoint files far in advance of the conference. The conference now takes these "standardized PowerPoints" and prints them in a large conference binder or includes them in the conference DVD for attendees to take home. What the conference organizers are implying, then, is that an encryptic series of slides featuring bullet points and titles makes for both good visual support in your live presentation and for credible documentation of your presentation content long after your talk has ended.

Trying to kill two birds with one set of slides
Attempting to have slides serve both as projected visuals and as stand-alone handouts makes for bad visuals and bad documentation. Yet, this is a typical, acceptable approach. PowerPoint (or Keynote) is a tool for displaying visual information, information that helps you tell your story, make your case, or prove your point. PowerPoint is a terrible tool for making written documents, that's what word processors are for.

Why don't conference organizers request that speakers instead send a written document that covers the main points of their presentation with appropriate detail and depth? A Word or PDF document that is written in a concise and readable fashion with a bibliography and links to even more detail, for those who are interested, would be far more effective. When I get back home from the conference, do organizers really think I'm going to "read" pages full of PowerPoint slides? One does not read a printout of someone's two-month old PowerPoint slides, one guesses, decodes, and attempts to glean meaning from the series of low-resolution titles, bullets, charts, and clipart. At least they do that for a while...until they give up. With a written document, however, there is no reason for shallowness or ambiguity (assuming one writes well).

To be different and effective, use a well-written, detailed document for your handout and well-designed, simple, intelligent graphics for your visuals. Now that would be atypical.

Thanks to Jon Gabriel for the inspirational title of this post.

Gates, Jobs, & the Zen aesthetic

As a follow up to yesterday's post on Bill Gates' presentation style, I thought it would be useful to examine briefly the two contrasting visual approaches employed by Gates and Jobs in their presentations while keeping key aesthetic concepts found in Zen in mind. I believe we can use many of the concepts in Zen and Zen aesthetics to help us compare their presentation visuals as well as help us improve our own visuals. My point in comparing Jobs and Gates is not to poke fun but to learn.

A key tenet of the Zen aesthetic is kanso or simplicity. In the kanso concept beauty, grace, and visual elegance are achieved by elimination and omission. Says artist designer and architect Dr. Koichi Kawana, "Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means." When you examine your visuals, then, can you say that you are getting the maximum impact with a minimum of graphic elements, for example? When you take a look at Jobs' slides and Gates' slides, how do they compare for kanso?

"Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means."
                                 — Dr. Koichi Kawana

The aesthetic concept of naturalness or shizen "prohibits the use of elaborate designs and over refinement" according to Kawana. Restraint, then, is a beautiful thing. Talented jazz musicians, for example, know never to overplay but instead to be forever mindful of the other musicians and find their own space within the music and within the moment they are sharing. Graphic designers show restraint by including only what is necessary to communicate the particular message for the particular audience. Restraint is hard. Complication and elaboration are easy...and are common.

The suggestive mode of expression is a key Zen aesthetic. Dr. Kawana, commenting on the design of traditional Japanese gardens says:

"The designer must adhere to the concept of miegakure since Japanese believe that in expressing the whole the interest of the viewer is lost."
                                  — Dr. Koichi Kawana

In the world of PowerPoint presentations, then, you do not always need to visually spell everything out. You do not need to (nor can you) pound every detail into the head of each member of your audience either visually or verbally. Instead, the combination of your words, along with the visual images you project, should motivate the viewer and arouse his imagination helping him to empathize with your idea and visualize your idea far beyond what is visible in the ephemeral PowerPoint slide before him. The Zen aesthetic values include (but are not limited to):

  • Simplicity
  • Subtlety
  • Elegance
  • Suggestive rather than the descriptive or obvious
  • Naturalness (i.e., nothing artificial or forced),
  • Empty space (or negative space)
  • Stillness, Tranquility
  • Eliminating the non-essential

Gates and Jobs: lessons in contrasts
Take a look at some of the typical visuals used by Steve Jobs and those used by Bill Gates. As you look at them and compare them, try doing so while being mindful of the key concepts behind the traditional Zen aesthetic.

Above. Does it get more "Zen" than this? "Visual-Zen Master," Steve Jobs, allows the screen to fade completely empty at appropriate, short moments while he tells his story. In a great jazz performance much of the real power of the music comes from the spaces in between the notes. The silence gives more substance and meaning to the notes. A blank screen from time to time also makes images stronger when they do appear.

Also, it takes a confident person to design for the placement of empty slides. This is truly "going naked" visually. For most presenters a crowded slide is a crutch, or at least a security blanket. The thought of allowing the screen to become completely empty is scary. Now all eyes are on you.


Above. Gates here explaining the Live strategy. A lot of images and a lot of text. Usually Mr. Gates' slides have titles rather than more effective short declarative statements (this slide has neither). Good graphic design guides the viewer and has a clear hierarchy or order so that she knows where to look first, second, and so on. What is the communication priority of this visual? It must be the circle of clip art, but that does not help me much.

Dr. Kawana says that "to reach the essence of things, all non-essential elements must be eliminated." So what is the essence of the point being made with the help of this visual? Are any elements in this slide non-essential? At its core, what is the real point? These are always good questions to ask ourselves, too, when critiquing our own slides.

Above. Here Jobs is talking to developers at the WWDC'05 about the transition from the Power PC RISC chips to Intel. Sounds daunting, but as he said (and shows above) Apple has made daunting major shifts successfully before. (He also said sheepishly earlier in the the presentation, that every version of OSX secretly had an Intel version this is not a new thing. The crowd laughed.).

A note on having an "open style"
One thing that would help Mr. Gates is an executive presentations coach and a video camera. One unfortunate habit he has is constantly bringing his finger tips together high across his chest while speaking. Often this leads to his hands being locked together somewhere across his chest. This gesture makes him seem uncomfortable and is a gesture reminiscent of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns. By contrast, Steve Jobs has a more open style and at least seems comfortable and natural with his gestures.    

Above. Mr. Gates needs to read Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points, ironically published by Microsoft Press. Atkinson says that "...bullet points create obstacles between presenters and audiences." He correctly claims that bullets tend to make our presentations formal and stiff, serve to "dumb down" our points, and lead to audiences being confused...and bored. Rather than running through points on a slide, Atkinson recommends presenters embrace the art of storytelling, and that visuals (slides) be used smoothly and simply to enhance the speaker's points as he tells his story. This can be done even in technical presentations, and it can certainly be done in high-tech business presentations.

The "Microsoft Method" of presentation?
The approach we've seen in Microsoft's last public presentation we can label the "Microsoft Method." This method is not different than the norm, in fact it is a perfect example of what Seth Godin and others call "Really Bad PowerPoint." Here's the rub: A great many professionals see the absurdity of this approach, even a great many professionals on the campus of Microsoft in Redmond. But change will continue to be slow, especially when the executives of the company which produces the most popular slideware program in the world use the program in the most uninspiring, albeit typical way.
    Bullet_by_ozzie_2    Pocket_ozzie
Above. Chief technology Officer, Ray Ozzie follows the "Microsoft Method" too. (Left) Bullet No.3: "...interfaces through...interfaces"? (Right) Fundamental presentation rule: Do not stick your hands in your pockets. Informality is fine, but this is inappropriate even in the USA (and especially in cultures outside the U.S.). 

Refrain: It all matters!
We've talked about many presentation methods here at Presentation Zen, methods that are different than the "normal" or the "expected" but also simple, clear, and effective. Who wants to be "average," "typical," or "normal"? Ridderstrale & Nordstorm say it best in Funky Business: "Normality is the route to nowhere." I'm not suggesting you "present different" for the sake of being different. I am saying that if you move far beyond what is typical and normal in the context of presentation design, you will be more effective and different and memorable. Maybe Microsoft can afford lousy PowerPoint presentations, but you and I can't. For "the rest of us," it all matters.

Can we learn from a Japanese garden?
Looking for inspiration in different places? Find a book on Japanese gardens (like this one from my friend, designer Markuz Wernli Saito) or visit one in your area (if you are lucky enough to have one). You can learn a bit here about the Zen aesthetic and Japanese gardens in this article by Dr. Kawana. Living here in Japan I have many chances to experience the Zen aesthetic, either while visiting a garden, practicing zazen in a Kyoto temple, or even while having a traditional Japanese meal out with friends. I am convinced that a visual approach which embraces the aesthetic concepts of simplicity and the removal of the nonessential can have practical applications in our professional lives and can lead ultimately to more enlightened design.

Bill Gates and visual complexity

Cloudy_days_6"It was one of the most poorly executed events I've seen Microsoft do in years." These were the words industry analyst , Rob Enderle, used to describe Tuesday's presentation by Microsoft executives, including Bill Gates, in an interview with PC World.

According to the PC World article, and various other media reports, the presentation for unveiling Microsoft's new Live Software strategy to the media, held in San Francisco, was one filled with logistical and technical errors, seemed "hurried" to some and ran long over the scheduled time. "It was Ray Ozziea's (CTO) coming out party and it wasn't a good one," Enderle said.

One of the goals of the presentation was to share the company's vision. But early media reports coming from the few people who attended the event have been less than glowing. Now, four days after the event, many in the media (and blogosphere) are still unclear just what exactly is "revolutionary" about Microsoft's new Live strategy and what it all means. If industry pundits don't fully get it, what hope do mere customers and investors have?

But my aim is not to discuss Microsoft's strategy but to focus on this particular presentation.

Rule No. 1: Know your message inside out (and backwards)
Leaders use speaking opportunities to communicate their vision in a crystal clear fashion (otherwise, what's the point of getting on stage?). It appears this recent presentation by Bill Gates, in the end, left things quite unclear, at least in the minds of many who attended the event.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs
Jobs_gatesI am not attempting to be glib or sarcastic (really), but perhaps Bill Gates and company should look to Steve Jobs and Apple for more than just technical inspiration. Bill could learn a lot about "presenting different" from observing Jobs' artful presentations. Sure, not everyone will agree with Jobs' observations, conclusions, and projections after his presentations, but at least people are not left scratching their heads in befuddlement. Jobs' presentations generate a lot of positive buzz and always release yet another wave of viral communication about the presentation's content. This happens in part because the contents are easily grasped and remembered by both the media, and regular customers and fans. You can't "spread the word" if you don't get what the word was. With Jobs' public presentations there is both a verbal and visual clarity. This is what great leaders do. Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, authors of Creating Customer Evangelists make a good observation about Jobs:

"Jobs does just what a leader is supposed to do: Provide a vision of where the company ship is headed and make sure everyone understands it."

Bill Gates is a very smart man. He can surely do better than his last presentation.

Rule No. 2: Remove barriers to effective communication
Aside from appearing not to have a clear message (or at least being guilty of trying to cram too much into a two-hour presentation), it looks like Gates and his staff did what many millions of other PowerPoint users do daily — they used PowerPoint in a way that did not help their message. In fact, their PowerPoint visuals probably hurt their message. If the visuals did not help, then they quite possibly got in the way of Gates making a meaningful, personal connection with the ninety or so people in the room.

To be fair, I was not at the presentation, so it is possible that the presenters did an amazing, inspiring job in spite of their bulletpoints an clip art. But judging from the many previous executive presentations currently available on the Microsoft website, along with the early media reports by those in attendance, it is doubtful.

Design matters, visuals ALL matters!

Here's the deal: It all matters. If you are going to get up in front of a lot of people and say that the design of your strategy matters, that the design of your integrated software matters, then at the very least the visuals you use — right here and right now, at this moment in time with this particular audience — also need to be the result of incredible design, not hurried decoration.

Let's examine a few of the slides used by Gates in the "Live" presentation Tuesday. To see even more slides, take a look at the many photos on Niall Kennedy's flickr site (brace yourself Beyond Bullet Points fans:

Bill Gates explains the big picture (but can he explain that picture behind him?).

"...this slide really pulls it all together" Bill Gates said of the slide above. You decide. You can see Bill Gates spend 60 seconds explaining this slide on "The Microsoft Platform" as well as observe him go through each bullet point on his other wordy slides on the website.

To get a non-biased point of view on the visuals, I asked my friend, Atsuko Ito, a graphic designer who works with some of the worlds top global brands in Japan to comment on these slides. Here's what she said.

"Wow, where to begin? Generally, and from a pure visual point of view, in both of these slides (above) there is (1) too much information in one slide. This is typical in Japan too. But people can't read and listen at the same time, so that is a problem. (2) The Clipart looks cheap. Soulless. (3) The choice of colors are not the best. I’m personally not comfortable with it. Maybe because the colors don’t represent lifestyle or work style so well. It looks very cold. It makes life and work seem so depressing...

How about the slide with the clouds?

"For the 'The Live Era' slide, (1) communication priority is weak. Not sure what he wants to communicate the most. (2) Gradation is overused. Even the text has gradation! Especially when used on text, it makes it hard to read. (3) Overall impression is "clutter." One possible reason is using an image on the background. It is OK to use an image (in this case the cloud image), as long as the images that go on top of it are kept simple. In this case, they aren’t. Actually, the whole Gestalt is bad. It is a little ugly and confusing. Sorry."

There are many more visual problems with the slides as well, problems we have discussed on the site before. Let me just touch on just one more.

Don't rain on my parade 
Concerning the "Microsoft 'Live' Platform" slide, it is important to note that not all people will view the use of clouds in a positive light. Just think of the many ways we use "cloud(y)" to convey negative images or feelings in the English vernacular. For example, "Never a cloudy day" is used in many songs to convey love, good times, a bright future and so on. The phrase "...clouds up ahead" implies danger or difficulties in future.

Angry_daffy_4Now it is true that a few fluffy cumulus clouds can represent a fine sunny day and convey other positive associations. But the slide Bill uses has enough cloud formations to make an experienced sailor give the order to batten down the hatches. Bill has some real cumulonimbus-looking clouds underneath his title, a sure sign that bad weather is ahead? There is even "digital rain" being released from one low cloud, showering "experiences" down (and up according to the double arrow) onto other software and "other devices," like an ancient iMac.

It may seem like a small thing, but you have to be careful with the implied messages sometimes hidden within images. This is especially true across cultures.

Slides matter, because it all matters. Well-designed visuals won't save a weak message, but poorly designed visuals will necessarily detract from — or even completely undermine — an otherwise strong verbal message.

Others comment on Gate's presentation
Former Apple employee, Mike Evangelist: Presentation skills 101.
CyberPsych: How to present Microsoft-style: Steve Jobs, you've got nothing to worry about.

Read comments on the "Live" photos on Niall Kennedy's Flickr site, the source for these event photos.

Watch Bill

Gates announces Windows Live, Office Live (
Various Bill Gates presentations on the Microsoft website. 

Watch Steve
Various Steve Jobs presentations on the Apple site

More on wabi-sabi and simplicity

Japanese_houseBack in July, I discussed applying the principles of wabi-sabi to your presentations in Wabi-Sabi and Presentation Visuals (part I) and Wabi-Sabi and Presentation Visuals (part II). In from Wabi-Sabi to Golden Mean I looked a bit more at this ancient "organic" approach to examining visual communication.

I was quite interested, then, to read this article, Wabi-Sabi's Simplicity, over at one of my favorite sites, 37signals' Signal vs. Noise. The article has some great links as well. A key tenet behind wabi-sabi, of course, is the idea of simplicity. You can apply the concepts discussed in these articles and posts to presentation design, web design, software development, user interface design, and myriad other creative disciplines as well. So if this "wabi-sabi stuff" is new to you, go make yourself a cup of tea, relax and take some time to explore wabi-sabi's origins, meanings, and applications.

"...we all seem to have an innate longing for primitive simplicity, close to the natural state of living."

                                               — Daisetz Suzuki

I hope you will be inspired, if only ever so slightly, by this simple idea,... wabi-sabi.