As a follow up to
yesterday's post on Bill Gates' presentation style, I thought it
would be useful to examine briefly the two contrasting visual
approaches employed by Gates and Jobs in their presentations while
keeping key aesthetic concepts found in Zen in mind. I believe we
can use many of the concepts in Zen and Zen aesthetics to help us
compare their presentation visuals as well as help us improve our
own visuals. My point in comparing Jobs and Gates is not to poke
fun but to learn.
A key tenet of the Zen aesthetic is kanso or simplicity.
In the kanso concept beauty, grace, and visual elegance
are achieved by elimination and omission. Says artist, designer and
Koichi Kawana, 'Simplicity means the achievement of maximum
effect with minimum means.' When you examine your visuals, then,
can you say that you are getting the maximum impact with a minimum
of graphic elements, for example? When you take a look at Jobs'
slides and Gates' slides, how do they compare for
'Simplicity means the
achievement of maximum effect with minimum
— Dr. Koichi Kawana
The aesthetic concept of naturalness or shizen 'prohibits
the use of elaborate designs and over refinement' according to
Kawana. Restraint, then, is a beautiful thing. Talented jazz
musicians, for example, know never to overplay but instead to be
forever mindful of the other musicians and find their own space
within the music and within the moment they are sharing. Graphic
designers show restraint by including only what is necessary to
communicate the particular message for the particular audience.
Restraint is hard. Complication and elaboration are easy...and are
The suggestive mode of expression is a key Zen aesthetic. Dr.
Kawana, commenting on the design of traditional Japanese gardens
'The designer must adhere
to the concept of miegakure since Japanese believe that in
expressing the whole the interest of the viewer is
— Dr. Koichi Kawana
In the world of PowerPoint presentations, then, you do not
always need to visually spell everything out. You do not need to
(nor can you) pound every detail into the head of each member of
your audience either visually or verbally. Instead, the combination
of your words, along with the visual images you project, should
motivate the viewer and arouse his imagination helping him to
empathize with your idea and visualize your idea far beyond what is
visible in the ephemeral PowerPoint slide before him. The Zen
aesthetic values include (but are not limited to):
- Suggestive rather than the descriptive or obvious
- Naturalness (i.e., nothing artificial or forced),
- Empty space (or negative space)
- Stillness, Tranquility
- Eliminating the non-essential
Gates and Jobs: lessons in contrasts
Take a look at some of the typical visuals used by Steve Jobs and
those used by Bill Gates. As you look at them and compare them, try
doing so while being mindful of the key concepts behind the
traditional Zen aesthetic.
Above. Does it get more 'Zen' than this?
'Visual-Zen Master,' Steve Jobs, allows the screen to fade
completely empty at appropriate, short moments while he tells his
story. In a great jazz performance much of the real power of the
music comes from the spaces in between the notes. The silence gives
more substance and meaning to the notes. A blank screen from time
to time also makes images stronger when they do appear.
Also, it takes a confident person to design for the placement of
empty slides. This is truly
'going naked' visually. For most presenters a crowded slide is
a crutch, or at least a security blanket. The thought of allowing
the screen to become completely empty is scaring. Now all eyes are
Above. Gates here explaining the Live strategy.
A lot of images and a lot of text. Usually Mr. Gates' slides have
titles rather than more effective short declarative statements
(this slide has neither). Good graphic design guides the viewer and
has a clear hierarchy or order so that she knows where to look
first, second, and so on. What is the communication priority of
this visual? It must be the circle of clip art, but that does not
help me much.
Dr. Kawana says that 'to reach the essence of things, all
non-essential elements must be eliminated.' So what is the essence
of the point being made with the help of this visual? Are any
elements in this slide non-essential? At its core, what is the real
point? These are always good questions to ask ourselves, too, when
critiquing our own slides.
Above. Here Jobs is talking to developers at the
WWDC'05 about the transition from the Power PC RISC chips to Intel.
Sounds daunting, but as he said (and shows above) Apple has made
daunting major shifts successfully before. (He also said sheepishly
earlier in the the presentation, that every version of OSX secretly
had an Intel version too...so this is not a new thing. The crowd
A note on having an 'open style'
One thing that would help Mr. Gates is an executive presentations
coach and a video camera. One unfortunate habit he has is
constantly bringing his finger tips together high across his chest
while speaking. Often this leads to his hands being locked together
somewhere across his chest. This gesture makes him seem
uncomfortable and is a gesture reminiscent of The Simpsons' Mr.
Burns. By contrast, Steve Jobs has a more open style and at least
seems comfortable and natural with his gestures.
Above. Mr. Gates needs to read Cliff Atkinson's
Beyond Bullet Points, ironically published by Microsoft Press.
Atkinson says that '...bullet points create obstacles between
presenters and audiences.' He correctly claims that bullets tend to
make our presentations formal and stiff, serve to 'dumb down' our
points, and lead to audiences being confused...and bored. Rather
than running through points on a slide, Atkinson recommends
presenters embrace the art of storytelling, and that visuals
(slides) be used smoothly and simply to enhance the speaker's
points as he tells his story. This can be done even in technical
presentations, and it can certainly be done in high-tech business
The 'Microsoft Method' of presentation?
The approach we've seen in Microsoft's last public presentation we
can label the 'Microsoft Method.' This method is not different than
the norm, in fact it is a perfect example of what Seth Godin and others call
Bad PowerPoint.' Here's the rub: A great many professionals see
the absurdity of this approach, even a great many professionals on
the campus of Microsoft in Redmond. But change will continue to be
slow, especially when the executives of the company which produces
the most popular slideware program in the world use the program in
the most uninspiring, albeit typical way.
Above. Chief technology Officer, Ray Ozzie follows
the 'Microsoft Method' too. (Left) Bullet No.3: '...interfaces
through...interfaces'? (Right) Fundamental presentation rule: Do
not stick your hands in your pockets. Informality is fine, but this
is inappropriate even in the USA (and especially in cultures
outside the U.S.).
Refrain: It all matters!
We've talked about many presentation methods here at Presentation
Zen, methods that are different than the 'normal' or the 'expected'
but also simple, clear, and effective. Who wants to be 'average,'
'typical,' or 'normal'?
Ridderstrale & Nordstorm say it best in
Funky Business: 'Normality is the route to nowhere.' I'm not
suggesting you 'present different' for the sake of being different.
I am saying that if you move far beyond what is typical and normal
in the context of presentation design, you will be more effective
and different and memorable. Maybe Microsoft can afford
lousy PowerPoint presentations, but you and I can't. For 'the rest
of us,' it all matters.
Can we learn from a Japanese garden?
inspiration in different places? Find a book on Japanese gardens
from my friend, designer Markuz Wernli Saito) or visit
one in your area (if you are lucky enough to have one). You can
learn a bit here about the Zen aesthetic and Japanese gardens in
by Dr. Kawana. Living here in Japan I have many chances
to experience the Zen aesthetic, either while visiting a garden,
in a Kyoto temple, or even while having a
traditional Japanese meal out with friends. I am convinced that a
visual approach which embraces the aesthetic concepts of simplicity
and the removal of the nonessential can have practical applications
in our professional lives and can lead ultimately to more