Review: Say It With Presentations

4 Star, Best Practices in Management, Decision-Making & Decision-Support, Intelligence (Public)
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Gene Zelazny

4.0 out of 5 stars Fundamentals Most Ignore A Bit Too Generic, October 6, 2013

I was lent this book by a colleague. Here is some context for my appreciation of the book:

01 The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (C/JCS) once BANNED all powerpoint presentations, for two reasons. First, because they had become “death by powerpoint” monstrocities in which intellectually limited people tried to substitute technology for thinking and color for precision of thought; and second, because more often than not, something would go wrong with the computer and the briefing officer would be found to be empty-headed. Too often (and I include myself) powerpoint presentations have been an aid for the BRIEFER, rather than a visual map for the DECISION-MAKER.

02 Presentations as most understand them are didactic tools (I talk you listen) instead of socractic tools (I spark, you engage, we create new understanding). Yes, one good visual can equal 10,000 words, but every visual past one radically loses value in a downward spiral. Less is more.

Presentations are not charts — they are different, a point the author addresses by publishing a separate book, The Say It With Charts Complete Toolkit, Cd-Rom.

Presentations are also not visualizations, an area where Edward Tufts is a leading light, a mind whose two books below I highly recommend:

Envisioning Information
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Presentations are a tool for thinking and a tool for inspiring human engagement, on this point I have been guided by Howard Rheingold and his books and web blogging, see for instance, Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology from the 1980’s and the more recent Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter? (Kindle Single).

Put as simply as I can, a presentation is a tool for thinking — one third of the value is in the thinking and doodling and exploration of alternative paths leading to the presentation; one third of the value is in the final product that can inspire others on its own and as a tool, and the last third of the value, almost never achieved, is in the reaction, engagement, inspiration, and collective intelligence that the presentation might elicit.

Click on Image to Enlarge
Click on Image to Enlarge

Presentations that are placeholders and crutches, presentations that are not memorable (for a superb example of memorable see Napoleon’s March to Mowcow – the War of 1812, image loaded above with book cover), and presentations that can not be carried away in digital or printed form are generally more fluff than substance.

Now here are some of the fundamentals this book, now it its second edition, covers.

01 WHO is the target audience?

02 WHY are they being briefed?

03 WHAT is the end-state you are seeking once the briefing is over?

04 HOW MUCH TIME do you have? Cut that in half. Your job is to inform, influence, and INSPIRE. Leave time for your slides, if properly done, to elicit engagement.

05 WHERE is the substance? The image is a key to substance that is generally not present — it is in documents, in human minds, in other forms. Think of your briefing as a portal.

07 DO NOT CONFUSE words on the screen with words of explanation. There is no greater crime in the world of presentations than to read the words, with the possible exception of having images that are irrelevant. “Cute” does not cut it.

The author open the book with an Audience Bill of Rights that I find helpful. 24 rights in each of the following seven categories — these are the RIGHTS (e.g. the EXPECTATIONS) of the audience, among which I single out two: the right to have time to think and not be asked to commit on the spot; and the right to be SEEN and HEARD by the lowest ranking person in the room furthest from the presentation.


If the purpose of the presentation can be satisfied in another way — a single email, a one-page summary, a ten-minute conference call or video-teleconference — consider the alternatives. Wikis have not been well established, especially in large bureacracies, but I anticipate the day when a weekly briefing will instead be a weekly wiki, with various elements contributing visualizations, text, links to references, crafting an outline of what needs to be considered that week, and then filling it in from multiple perspectives.

Briefing is DIDACTIC (I talk you listen). Wiki is SOCRATIC — visual spark, collective engagement.

I fully expect the author of this book to publish a book on Wiki Communications. As I once wrote for General Al Gray, then Commandant of the Marine Corps, “Communications without intelligence is noise; intelligence without communications is irrelevant.” Living wikis are the next step up, in part because they end the obligation of humans to show up at a given time and place to serve technology, instead of technology serving all of them.

HAND-OUTS — or TINYURLS make a difference. Most organizations are trying to reduce paper use, so I will focus on the alternative of a TINYURL, something I use a great deal but sadly, something the US Army cannot handle. The Army Cyber-Command treats any TINYURL as a hostile virus and deletes the communication. For the rest of the world, a persistent TINYURL, e.g. (URL stuff for tinyurl/Pogo6) is memorable. See for example my persistent tiny url /OSA2011 or IADB-Open.

An alternative is a shared file system, something that the Pentagon bureaucracy does understand but does not manage well. A typical organization should have no more than seven top-level shared files (e.g. J-1 through J-7) and below that, no more than seven levels, and so on. Clutter on the first page of shared files means that digital stuff will be lost and most will not bother looking for it.

The author loses me in the middle portion of the book, which has too much test and too many generic images that are irrelevant to serious business needs.

The section on text visuals is helpful, if one understands that the presentation is a visual aid for the audience, not for the briefer. I translate all this into two rules:

24 font minimum

3-5 words per line maximum

The author makes an important point that some might overlook,i.e. that presentations should not be created as solitary endeavors, but rather as team brain-storming. Most managers will have a pre-briefing review to assure the narrative and the quality of the planned briefing. What if there were a pre-briefing conceptual meeting instead, treating using the planned briefing items to do an internal “week in review” and discuss what really matters, changing emphasis as needed?

The author has a graphic on page 113 that I like, consisting of the following:

CIRCLE: Know yourself
Big Arrow: Know your material
CIRCLE: Know your audience
Big Arrow: Know your objective

This translates into a successful presentation. Reflecting on that, I am given pause by the realization that many audiences (e.g. those that accompany a commander to a meeting) are not really well known to the briefers — they have all been operating in little stovepipes, and the meeting that briefs the commander may be one of the few times when they come together as a group. WHAT IF each briefer had reviewed their briefing with the J-3 and J-5 and J-7 beforehand, gotten a red cell check, and then modified the slide(s) so that the commander is receiving an appraisal that has been pre-validated (without drinking the kool-aid of the other staffs)? There is no substitute for human engagement in the preparation of anything for the commander.

The author concludes with notes on the search for imperfection, to which I will add my own sense that we get wrapped up in numbers and “proof” too often, to the detriment of what the Germans call “the feeling in the fingertips.” Presentations should be as clear and rigorous as possible, but they should be considered a spark for discussion, not “the final answer.”

There is a useful appendix, a presentations checklist, and one item on that checklist jumped out at me:

“What are the three toughest questions you are going to get from the audience?”

This nicely emphasizes my point that presentations are a tool for engagement. If the purpose is to inform, a memo with a graphic is a better option. If the purpose is to bring everyone together on the same page, prior preparation might include mini-engagements within each stovepipe. If the purpose is to stimulate the creation of new understanding and new inter-branch dialog, then the presentation is a living document, not just in the moment, but over the course of the week, month, or quarter that it covers.

I am surprised to find that hidden slides are not covered in this book, nor are slides as building blocks. The importance of geospatial and time series presentation platforms are also not included. Tufts remains best in class here. I think three-dimensionally: space, time, and tribe. What is each tribe thinking and doing over space and time?

This is not a three-star book, in my view, as some reviewers suggest. It is a solid four star book and as good as the time one chooses to invest in it. For five star books, look at Tufts as well as books on holistic analytics, true cost economics, values-based decision-making, and so on.

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
INTELLIGENCE for EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, and Sustainability

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