Interview with Garr Reynolds

We took the chance to ask Garr some questions leading up to his workshops at the end of the month.

Webstock: Should everyone learn to present better, or can we just leave it to the marketing people?
Garr Reynolds: Yes, of course. Everyone can get better. Whoever said that presentations were for the marketing department only? If anything, marketers have given presentations (and PowerPoint) a bad name. Understanding story and design and how to present data and evidence in a way that is engaging and compelling is perhaps even more important for those outside of marketing where the information is deep, wide, and critically important.

Garr presenting at Microsoft

Webstock: “Good presentation skills and presenting well are well and good, but it’s really just the sizzle added on top of the substance. If you’ve got a good idea or the right information, that’s all that matters in the end.” What’s wrong with that viewpoint?
GR: Good ideas and information are a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. It is not about dazzle, and sizzle, nor slickness — these are words I abhor. But it is about clarity, and evidence, and engagement, and story. If the content has structure and is true and honest and designed with the audience (or end user) in mind, then chances are it will be a beautiful design as well. It’s not an issue of substance over style. The issue is how do we design visuals (and other messages) that are in balance and in harmony with our narrative in a way that amplifies and augments our spoken words. The best style is the one that is a result of careful reflection on the material and the audience and the selection of a creative approach that is the simplest without being simplistic. “Too simple” can be just as confusing as information overload. The key word is always balance. In all things: balance.

Webstock: Speaking in front of an audience is consistently rated as a fate worse than death. Why is that?
GR: For 99.9% of the population, public speaking is a scary thing, even for professional entertainers. There are many reasons for this. A lot of the stress arises out of our fears that we are not good enough, that we will not measure up. We see all the eyes looking at us and we worry about whether or not they like us or if they approve. We worry about being successful, and worry even more about failing. Through practice your confidence will grow and you will feel more relaxed which enables you to be your natural, engaging self. But more than anything else, it’s about being present in the moment — right here, right now. Once you stop the chatter in your head and the self doubt and your obsession with technique and your worry about failure or success, then you are able to simply tell your story and engage with the material and with your audience. It’s just a presentation and you can not do any better than you can do at that moment. You’re just human and so are they.

Webstock: Aside from reading your book and coming to these workshops, what are some things people can do to improve their presentations?
GR: The first step is to notice there is a problem and that the typical way of presenting is out of kilter with how people actually communicate and learn. Awareness is the first step. Learn about design, not from presentation books, but from books on graphic design, typography, architecture, and documentary film making, etc. As you learn more on your own, notice the world around you — design is everywhere. Most good designs go unnoticed (we usually only notice bad design), but now that you are learning about the principles, concepts, and techniques, you’ll begin to see them everywhere. There is a hole in our education. Most of us never got the design and visual communication education that we need. But it is never too late. To improve your own visual literacy, notice the world, read the books, and practice applying what your learn. You need not become a master over night, simply get better day by day. You’ll begin to find that improving your visual literacy will improve far more than just your presentations.

To improve delivery, volunteer to present as much as you can. You have a story (or skill, etc.) — share it with the world. Toastmasters is a great organization that has helped a lot of people.

Webstock: Do you see yourself on a mission? There seems almost a moral imperative in your rallying call around presenting well.
GR: It is indeed a mission of sorts. A lot of misunderstanding and misinformation has resulted because people have lost (or never learned) the art of presentation. I’m not talking about selling soap here, I am talking about — in your own way — changing the world. Leaders know how to communicate, period. But there is a lot of obfuscation and clutter in the world, which is why presentation is perhaps more important now than ever before. We need a new generation of people who know that credible information, research, and evidence are crucial to presentations. We need this generation to know too that design is not about decoration or what goes on top, but that design is fundamental and it’s about removing the superfluous and adding the meaningful. We need this generation to know that simplicity is not about making things dumb or simplistic, but that it’s about making ideas and messages more powerful, meaningful, and memorable. If your idea is worth spreading, then presentation matters.

Must stop bad presentations

Webstock: You’ve chosen to live in Japan for a number of years now. What keeps you there?
GR: We humans notice and are stimulated by differences. Without differences and contrasts we become bored. Since I am not from Japan originally (I’ve lived there for almost 20 years), I notice things that may seem quite ordinary to Japanese but are extraordinary to me. The language is different, the culture and customs are different. There is always something a bit unexpected that I learn. Not all the differences are pleasing (no society is perfect), but I am never, ever bored for even one second in Japan (except during 90% of the business and academic presentations I see). Japan is an ancient culture whose Zen traditions for simplicity and beauty run deep. Yet, this is juxtaposed with the craziness of today’s fast-paced Japanese cities and the clutter and noise that has crept into modern design. You can find lessons no matter where you live, but I find that the lessons and the differences and contrasts found in Japan are a wonderful and stimulating teacher. I love living in Japan.

Webstock: You can be honest with us on this question Garr. You really don’t get much work done under a palm tree on a beach in Hawaii, do you?
GR: Work is not always about “getting things done” or always having something to show for it at that moment. Creative thinking, for example, requires alone time, solitude, and even thinking about a problem by not forcing it — that is, by not thinking about it. So yes, under a palm tree in Hawaii or while going for a ride on my mountain bike around Osaka bay is working. That time is important and necessary and is all part of the process. Since I work for myself, I have a very understanding boss. I am lucky. I used to worry about “procrastinating” or “being lazy” because, for example, I spent the day alone on a long bike ride in the mountains thinking about the problem but while having a good time and not sitting inside my home office at my Mac. But it is my wife — a Japanese designer trained in the USA — who told me that that time away from the office and the computer when it seems like I am not “working” is all part of the creative process, it is part of the work. I needed, she said, to stop feeling guilty and worrying. It’s funny that I needed “permission” to just do what comes naturally: to play. Yes, work requires dedication and grinding it out. It’s hard. But healthy play makes for better work in the end, it is not wasting time. So “doing nothing” while sitting in a coffee shop or strolling alone on the beach is not wasting time, it is the best use of the time at that moment. It’s all part of the process. So, sitting in a boring meeting? Yes, that is wasting time. Sitting under a palm tree with a note pad…what could be a better use of time?

Under a palm tree

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