As author of the classic, Say It With Charts, and its sequel, Say It With Presentations, Gene Zelazny can
easily be called the godfather of visual business communications.
Based on his experience as director of visual communications for a
major consulting firm since 1961, and as a presenter at all of the major
business schools around the world, Gene speaks with authority when it
comes to the way organizations and individuals use
CA: In Say it
with Presentations, you wrote that business presentations are
different from other presentations. How and why are they
GZ: Business presentations
usually have an action objective in which we want the audience to do
something as a result, vs. say, a course in school, which is meant to
CA: You recommend that presenters
begin with their recommendations, then spend the rest of the time
supporting them. Why shouldn’t people begin with their support and then
lead up to a recommendation?
GZ: Start with
recommendations 90% of the time. Too often, speakers feel that if they
re-create the problem-solving approach they followed to surface the
recommendations, the audience will then be convinced. BBBOORRIIINNNGGG.
Save me the pain of mystery stories, and give me the answer up front,
and then spend the rest of time letting me know how you got to it. I’m
giving you a 10% margin of safety when the audience is incredibly left
brained, or if they won’t like the recommendations.
CA: When do charts help communicate
something, and when do they stand in the
GZ: They help when they demonstrate
relationships more quickly and more clearly that leaving the information
in tabular form. They don’t when they are data dumps or so complex that
they detract from the flow of the presentation since the speaker needs
to take the time to explain how to read the chart, which is too often
CA: The CEO of a 100,000-person
company obviously cannot process every piece of data the company
produces -- she has to rely on her staff to select and present only the
most information she needs to know. How can an organization get better
at this process of distilling information from its most complex, at the
operational level -- to its most distilled, at the executive
GZ: Hmmmm, no easy answer. What
we’ve done here is to retain the services of communication specialists
or editors, who are as professional in their field as the presenters are
in theirs, who sit together to review the important messages and how
they should be structured. Otherwise, the speaker often gets too close
to his or her material and fails to synthesize it as it needs to be.
Probably the best book on the market is that of Barbara Minto, The Minto
CA: What do you
make of the recent criticisms of PowerPoint by Edward
GZ: With incredible and due respect
to Edward Tufte, and I mean incredible and due respect for his books,
his role as a teacher, his ideas, I disagree with his criticisms of
PowerPoint. Going back some 45 years, and having lived through the eras
of producing visuals with pencils and varityping machines and India ink
and ruling pens and protractors and slide rules and zip-a-tone and Dr.
Martin’s washes and speedball pens and …, PowerPoint is one of the most
advanced and sophisticated production tool on the market, which deserves
a standing ovation.
One area Edward is arguing against is its
misuse and abuse in terms of the animations that have been built in.
Here I’d have to agree with him. As I state in one of my 10 commandments
of onscreen presentations: “Thou shalt not use animations unless it
helps to make a point.” Otherwise, it runs the risk of the audience
wondering if what they’re paying for the presentation is being wasted on
being gimmicky, as well as running the risk of appearing to speak below
the level of intelligence of the audience. That said however, it doesn’t
mean we should abolish the tool as Edward would have us do. It’s like
blaming cars for the accidents that drivers cause.
lies one of the major changes of business presentations; they’ve become
visual/oral presentations where I continue to argue for oral/visual
presentations where the audience appreciates that it’s the speaker who’s
the presentation, and the visuals are secondary -- they’re visual
aids as the term describes it.
When someone presses the "b" key during a PowerPoint presentation,
the screen blacks out until the "b" key is pressed again. How should
people best use this feature?
GZ: The use
of the letter “b” or of the period "." on the laptop quickly focuses the
audience on the speaker and what he or she has to say without the
distraction of the image on the screen. I marvel at the number of
audience members who feel that this one recommendation that I make in my
presentations on the subject is worth the price of
CA: What is the role of silence
in a presentation?
GZ: Listen to the
silence. It shows respect for the audience. It gives you time to think
and the audience time to reflect. It gives the audience a chance to be
heard. Wait till the end of the question before jumping in; the speaker
may come up with his or her own answer, or it may be the setup for the
real question that’s coming up.
will your new book Say it with Imagination be about?
GZ: It’s going to be a show and tell for all
those presentations that use visuals other that the traditional charts
and text pages, such as famous paintings, music, metaphors, analogies,
themes, etc. My next book, Say It with Charts Workbook, will be
published in the fall. I’ve included charts that belong in the Hall of
Shame and ask readers to draw their improved version before showing and
discussing the idea I came up with. I invite readers to visit my website which includes
reference to my professional books, as well as my personal book of
essays, In The Moment.