Book review: Zen and the art of presentations

Presentation Zen (Second Edition)

The Art of the Pitch

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of conversations about upcoming higher ed conferences floating along my Twitter stream. A lot of folks are also talking about submitting their proposals to present at those conferences.

In this post, I review two recently published books that can help you become a better presenter. (Actually, one of the books is a second edition, originally published in 2008.)

This information may come too late to help you with your proposal submissions (as you’ll read below, even submissions to present at a conference are presentations). But maybe it will encourage you to think differently about your next conference presentation. Or if you work on one of those campuses with tight purse strings and won’t be going to any conferences in the near future, maybe this information will help you with other presentation opportunities around campus or in your community.

How to avoid this (photo from
How to avoid this (photo from

If nothing else, maybe this post will help you avoid a horrible death-by-PowerPoint presentation. (But if you’re really worried about that, you should read Eric Stoller’s brilliant post on Inside Higher Ed, Conference Sessions Do Not Have To Suck, and his recent addendum to that post.)

Pres_Zen_2ndEdSince publication of the first edition in 2008, Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds, has become required reading for anyone who wants to improve their visual presentation skills — in boardrooms, classrooms or conference rooms. So is Reynolds’ Presentation Zen blog. Many of you have probably read the book and also read the blog from time to time. I’m embarrassed to say that I never read Reynolds’ book until the revised, updated second edition came out earlier this year. I didn’t know a revised edition was coming out until I read about it on Reynolds’ blog.

The second edition’s focus remains consistent with that of the original book — the importance of simplicity in PowerPoint presentations (“zen” in the book refers more to the artistry of a Japanese zen garden than the Buddhist philosophy) and the power of storytelling and compelling visuals. Consistent with those themes, Presentation Zen is simply and beautifully presented in words and pictures. And the storytelling element is there. Reynolds enlists the help of many big names in marketing to help tell the story — Guy Kawasaki writes (actually, he presents) the forward to the book, and Seth Godin shares a short essay on pages 20-21 about the importance of evoking emotion — and shares examples of presentations delivered by speakers, educators, technology experts and others.

Presentation Zen is an enjoyable, quick read, and a book you can return to over and over for reference or inspiration. The principles presented in this book can be applied to other situations besides presentations.

How does the new edition differ from the original? It’s bigger — with about 70 pages of additional content — and, if you purchase the exclusive Barnes & Noble edition, you also get a DVD video of Reynolds serenely discussing the Presentation Zen ideas. The video is a nice addition, and if you’ve had a harried day, it’s a nice way to unwind and refocus. But if you already own the first edition, it probably wouldn’t be worth the $30 bookstore price (or $18.98 on Amazon) to buy the second edition.

* * *

artofpitchWhile Presentation Zen focuses on crafting an artful approach to creating presentations, another book that came out this year, The Art of the Pitch, looks at the idea of “presentation” through a broader lens.

The Art of the Pitch is by Peter Coughter, a veteran advertising guy. As an ad man, he’s presented all manner of pitches for business to all manner of potential clients. So his perspective differs from Reynolds’ — and is in fact more philosophy than art in the visual sense. (Maybe the titles of these books should be altered to Presentation Art and The Zen of the Pitch.)

Like Reynolds, Coughter is a masterful storyteller. His book is filled with anecdotes about pitches won and lost — miniature case studies of what to do and what not to do when trying to win business, persuade others or simply present information.

Coughter’s book is not at all like Reynolds’s. The Art of the Pitch doesn’t discuss visuals until page 55, whereas Presentation Zen dives right in to that aspect of presenting.

Rather, Coughter’s emphasis is that every conversation, every business transaction, is a presentation. Or should be. Even your submission to present at a conference could be viewed as a presentation.

“Great work has to be sold,” he says (page 75). It’s not enough to simply do great work and expect it to win on its own merits.

Coughter peppers his book with a bit of Zen philosophy too. Like Reynolds, he believes in the merits of simplicity and restraint. On page 36, Coughter quotes a Zen proverb:

Make a choice about what’s important and let everything else go.

That’s an approach Garr Reynolds would also embrace, I’m sure.

Perhaps Reynolds might also embrace another quote from Coughter’s book: One attributed to British writer Sake (H.H. Munro) and a favorite aphorism of “legendary San Francisco ad man” Howard Gossage (whom I’ve never heard of):

When baiting a mousetrap with cheese, be sure to leave room for the mouse.

That gets back to The Art of the Pitch‘s greatest takeaway: Many of us are in the business of presenting — of trying to persuade. We could learn a lot from Coughter’s ideas, not just for conferences and PowerPoints, but also for meetings with the boss or dinner-party conversations.

If there’s one thing I don’t like about The Art of the Pitch, it’s the few occasions when Coughter slips into the old-fashioned, cigar-chomping, ad-guy writing style. This doesn’t happen often, but there are times.

While his tales of ad accounts won and lost would be fascinating cautionary tales to any student of advertising, PR or marketing, he sometimes comes off as a hypester. For instance, if Howard Gossage is really such a “legendary” ad man, would Coughter have to use that phrase to describe Gossage?

The same goes with the book-jacket description of Coughter as a professor at “the prestigious VCU Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University.” Come on. If the VCU Brandcenter is really prestigious, do you have to call attention to that fact?

Perhaps Coughter could have used just a bit more restraint in his writing.

P.S. – For another perspective on both of these books, I recommend Karine Joly‘s reviews from her 1-1-1 Express Book Review series:


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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