Simply beautiful

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When is the last time you went to a meeting and saw a presentation that knocked your socks off? It’s a rare occurrence, isn’t it? Generally we sit there and suffer Death by Powerpoint. As we watch slide after slide, we either know what’s coming, so it’s a waste of time, or we don’t understand what the point of it all is. And let me tell you, if you’re presenting in English it’s worse for your foreign listeners.

Part of the problem is “slideware”, which is an insult to our intelligence. Edward Tufte calls it “evil”, because the templates our data are converted into reduce the analytical quality and actually weaken what we have to say. Bullet points have a way of turning any presentation into a sales talk – which corrupts the conversation. (Wired 2003) We need a lot more high class communication before we’ll buy anything these days.

The next problem is that presenters very often hide behind their visuals, instead of just going in there and telling their audience a delightful, unexpected, helpful story. Once you have your story, visuals are great. Everybody likes a story with pictures – right?

My “eureka” moment came with Steve Job’s presentation of the iPhone. keynote 2007You’ll remember, there he was in his jeans and sneakers using normal language and delighting his audience with one drop dead gorgeous picture or single word after the other. It was simply beautiful. So maybe he had two slides with bullet points on them, but we survived those because the tech details added some cred. Anyway, as he broke all of the rules of presentation in every “Business Presentations in English” book I know, I saw my trainer life flash before my eyes, and thought, oh man, what crap have I been teaching my students? We need to go back to the drawing board.

So the lowdown is: For business presentations, you need to have a clear strong message and a storyline first – something you developed away from your desk. And then you need to craft your visuals – ideally the way you would craft anything of value, applying your creative energies to finding associations that will entertain and win your audience. During the talk, you need to mark transitions properly and refer to your visuals with the right kind of language – natural language, you know? The only way to really get it right is to practice it again and again, ideally with a professional trainer.But that’s just the beginning, OK? There is something that needs to come from inside which no training can get you. We are all becoming so much more media savvy and visually sophisticated. As reality goes virtual on us, people are hungry for authenticity and emotional honesty. Just using standard language and making slides more readable and adding a good picture or two is simply not enough. Even in this bottom-line focussed economy you need to work with simplicity and emotion telling concrete stories that make you credible so your ideas are “made to stick” (Chip & Dan Heath, Made to Stick).

I warmly recommend Garr Reynolds’ blog “Presentation Zen” on issues related to professional presentation design. He’s been living in Japan now for some 20 years which really shows in his sense of design. Just recently he made a presentation at Google on how to make presentations. He breaks his approach down to three concepts:

  • Restraint – in preparation, working with limited time resources
  • Simplicity – using less rather than more, and
  • Naturalness – especially in the way the presentation is delivered

Obviously, making things look simple is supremely difficult. But it can be learned. Thanks to the Internet, we are all being treated to first rate presentations that are really moving the goalposts in the art of presentation. I’m talking about the TED talks, of course, and if you are not watching them yet, wake up and tune in. And tell your friends, because people need to know about them. The speakers there delivering “ideas worth spreading” in technology, entertainment and design are truly remarkable individuals. They are creating presentations that will make you rethink your whole approach. And they will help you make your presentations simply beautiful.

Garr Reynolds quotes Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


Pecha Kucha Night is a presentation format in which (mostly creative) work can be easily and informally shown. 20 slides are each shown for 20 seconds, making a total presentation time of 6 minutes 40 seconds on a stage before the next presenter is up. These events are happening all over the world – e.g. in Munich on 6 May.

Learning the ropes – Schöne Worte

knock your socks off – umwerfend sein (was dazu führt, dass man total von den Socken ist)
rare occurrence – Seltenheit
to suffer – leiden
slide – Dia, Folie
slideware – software + slide = hier: Präsentationssoftware; manchmal (nicht hier) auch: ein gehyptes (Software)produkt, das nur in Präsentationsform existiert
insult – Beleidigung
templates – Vorlagen, Schablonen
to weaken – schwächen
bullet points – Aufzählungszeichen
to hide – verstecken
visuals – Grafiken
eureka! – Heureka
delightful – entzückend
to delight – entzücken
drop dead gorgeous – umwerfend schön
to survive – überleben
tech – technical
cred – credibility – Glaubwürdigkeit
crap – Mist
go back to the drawing board – noch einmal von vorne anfangen
the lowdown – (infml.) die Wahrheit
storyline – Geschichte
to craft – von Hand fertigen
audience – Publikum
transition – Übergang
media savvy – medienerfahren
sophisticated – differenziert, anspruchsvoll
authenticity – Echtheit
honesty – Ehrlichkeit
the bottom line – Endresultat; hier gemeint: Umsatz
credible – glaubwürdig
made to stick – die Qualität, haften zu bleiben
related to – im Zusammenhang mit
to break something down into – in einzelne Komponenten zerlegen
restraint – Zurückhaltung
to deliver a presentation – Präsentation halten
to recommend – empfehlen
to treat someone to something – jemanden zu etwas einladen
first rate – erstklassig
to move the goalposts – die Spielregeln ändern, wörtlich: die Torpfosten verlegen
to tune in – einschalten
approach – Ansatz

Good presentation language textbooks for English learners

“Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.” – Charlie Parker

Learning English tip of the week

To get ready for an English presentation, find a picture that expresses something you want to explain to someone. Then think of three English words that summarize the message of the picture. You can use nouns like Garr Reynolds (simplicity, naturalness, restraint), adjectives (simple, natural, restrained) or verbs or verb phrases (simplify, act naturally/be yourself, to show restraint).


One Response

  1. I fell in love with Steve Jobs the first time I saw that presentation… and I just remembered I have a lesson plan to go with that – omg, I wonder where it is?

    I agree with you, by the way, about TED – I have even watched some of the talks and presentations over and over again – almost like favourite songs or dvds!


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