My Interview with Garr Reynolds

I’m delighted to introduce an interview with Garr Reynolds. Garr is an internationally acclaimed communications expert, and the creator of the most popular site about presentations on the net: Presentation Zen. A much sought-after consultant, his clients include many in the Fortune 500.

Garr Reynolds

In this post you’ll read about Garr Reynold’s advice and approach to:

  • Storytelling in presentations
  • Simplicity in presentation design
  • Creating audience engagement
  • Preparing for a presentation
  • Winning with a business presentation

Take me back to the early days of Presentation Zen. How did you get started in blogging, particularly in the public speaking space, and why?

It pretty much started in 2003 when I put up a website with some presentation tips. I had always been helping people at a local level, as part of my job with Apple, but the internet, particularly a rise in the popularity of blogging platforms changed everything. In 2005 I created my blog called Presentation Zen, dedicated to issues related to presentation design and delivery (and related topics). 

My focus was never on making money, it was on creating valuable content. My goal was always to create content that would be useful for my followers. This was all taking place before social media really kicked off. The site simply spread organically by word of mouth and people kept coming back.

Before I knew it, publishers were asking me if I would like to write a book about presentations. My first book, called Presentation Zen, was released in 2008 and it became one of the top 100 of all books sold by Amazon that year.

Garr Reynolds

I’d like to talk about your book and perhaps some of the messages that stood out for me. Firstly, you discuss the power of storytelling. Can you tell me about your approach to storytelling in a presentation?

To first thing to point out is that the best stories always have a conflict, a struggle with that conflict (or problem) and ultimately a resolution (a solution) at the end. If you think about the best movies, they almost always use a form of the heroes’ journey. That is also key in a successful story.

It’s important to note that although we’re dealing with facts there also needs to be a human aspect to our presentation. People are emotional creatures. In a story, the plot is what happens (it’s about facts), but the message is separate from the plot. Any good storyteller needs to be clear on their message – what is the point of this presentation?

Sure I’m going to share some data and facts, but what’s the message I’m trying to convey? If your message isn’t clear to you, then it’s not going to be clear to your audience.

Garr Reynolds

Learn more about the power of storytelling in public speaking here.

Another part of presenting that your book explores is the power of simplicity in design: “To amplify, try to simply”. Can you expand on that point and sum up the process you take to presentation design?

Yes, and often people are afraid to simplify. They think “if I’m overly complicated I look smart or at least nobody can complain that I didn’t say everything because I said everything”. I think it mostly applies to data, charts and graphs – so mostly quantitative displays. My approach is always to look to remove the non-essentials.

Take a bar chart for example. What can I remove to help people understand? The big challenge here is to take large amounts of data and present it in a way that the audience can understand it. That can also help your narrative.

Finally, from the book, you write about building rapport with the audience. Can you share your best advice for readers?

One piece of advice – and something that is very natural to do – go and try to mingle with the audience in a very casual way before the presentation starts. This really relaxes you because you’re not presenting to an unknown group of strangers anymore. It’s almost like an icebreaker! You can then involve the people you’ve gotten to know within the presentation itself – talking to each other, interacting etc.

Find out more about connecting with an audience here.

Taking a step back for a moment, from the delivery to preparation phase, tell us about your approach?

When setting out to create a presentation the key is never to start with a boring outline of your points. Instead I tend to get busy with some post it notes, a whiteboard – whatever it is – making sure to get away from the computer. I sketch things out, let myself go, brainstorm some ideas!

My early preparation is very high level, thinking about the expectations:

  • Why am I presenting?
  • What does the audience expect from me?

Then eventually I’ll get to a structure, but before that comes brainstorming, and even before that, I usually go for a walk to empty out my ideas.

Garr Reynolds

Let’s talk about business presentations. In the years you’ve spent as a Fortune 500 consultant, what is the most frequent advice you offer?

I’ve worked for huge banks, hospitals, tech firms in Silicon Valley and its always similar advice. Here are 2 key points:

  • Inside the company try and develop a culture where small meetings are just meetings. Instead of resorting to the traditional bullet point loaded PowerPoint slides, use a whiteboard, sketch things out and discuss it
  • Then learn the basics of storytelling for presentations. It will help to create presentations that are much more engaging. Usually presentations tend to be data driven rather than actually having a key message, like why this is important. In business it’s usually conflict (a problem), then resolution (how the product can help)

More generally, what is the single most important thing people could do to enhance their presentations?

Slow down! Slow down delivery. Also slow down preparation. Just stop and think. Think about the problem you are presenting. Don’t be in a hurry. Think about what’s most important in your presentation and what’s not.

What one person comes to mind when you think of great presentations, and why?

It’s almost a cliché at this stage but Steve Jobs obviously features near the top of the list. If you consider my earlier point about simplicity in design, this was certainly a feature of a Steve Jobs presentation. He always used very compelling visuals and his words were straightforward and simple. There is something we can all learn from that.

Learn more about the Steve Jobs approach to presentations here.

To pick someone different, Benjamin Zander stands out for me. He’s very dynamic on stage. The reason I like him is that he’s always himself. He’s also super energetic.

Catch-up with some of the other posts in the ‘Expert Interviews’ series here.