Saturday, May 29, 2010

Two books present useful thoughts on presentations

Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your Presentations 

The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever 

Smart design and the power of crosstalk and snark can help persuade and engage.


Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your Presentations. Garr Reynolds. New Riders. 252 pages.

I really liked Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen, which provided a very smart way of thinking about PowerPoint and other ways that we convey information to persuade, inform and inspire groups and individuals. Unfortunately, we still encounter too many people who didn't get the memo. The presentations and "decks'' are dense, wordy, convoluted and soulless.

Reynolds' understanding of the need to establish an emotion connection between the audience and the subject, and not throw piles of stultifying data and glitzy images at them, was refreshing. But the author — a corporate veteran — has a powerful sense of whimsy and valued creativity in all its manifestations. This new book is a really worthwhile continuation of the Presentation Zen theme.

While just about every biped with a computer these days thinks they're a designer, the smart folks still leave the dangerous stuff to the professionals. Yet Reynolds boldly goes, regardless, and attempts to teach the principles of design to the PowerPoint crowd. This is fairly audacious, but because he's such a knowledgeable guy, deft designer and all-around brilliant person, he actually pulls it off. Of course, being a great presenter helps quite a bit, and he pulls out all the stops in telling and showing just how it's done, with plenty of great examples. Type, white space, images, contrast, humor, metaphor and just about every element of design are at least touched upon or delved into.

Throughout, Reynolds' personality and philosophy shine through, adding an extra layer of goodness to the proceedings.

The question, as always, is whether or not those who need this book — the ones who stand the most to gain from it — will buy it and actually read and follow its instructions.

The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever. Cliff Atkinson. New Riders. 222 pages.

If you remember passing notes in class during boring lectures and lessons, you'll easily understand how audiences armed with laptops, BlackBerries and iPhones now Tweet, post and e-mail back and forth during presentations and events. This poses some extraordinary obstacles, but it also opens up some new opportunities for all involved. Atkinson, who, like Reynolds, wrote an earlier book on PowerPoint, shows how savvy presenters, hosts and participants can use this crosstalk, chatter and snark to extend and expand their own presentations into full-blown participatory multimedia experiences.

There are some painfully hilarious instances of the use and misuse of these channels -- backchannels, as Atkinson calls 'em — along with examples that they either trashed the presentation along with the presenters' credibility and reputations, or turned hostile audiences into engaged and delighted participants.

Some of the material herein is pretty basic, since it's necessary to establish and define terms, conditions and technologies, but once past that, The Backchannel is a very helpful and smart resource — quite entertaining, too!

originally published in The Miami Herald

Monday, May 24, 2010

Harvey Mackay still good-naturedly pushes envelope

Use Your Head to Get Your Foot in the Door: Job Search Secrets No One Else Will Tell You 

Experience and enthusiasm drive the veteran author's advice on job seeking and keeping.


Use Your Head to Get Your Foot in the Door: Job Search Secrets No One Else Will Tell You. Harvey Mackay. Portfolio. 352 pages.

Harvey Mackay's books, starting with 1989's Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, reflect his relentlessly upbeat, can-do ethos. Back before I jumped on the weekly biz-books review treadmill, I gobbled up each of Harvey's missives in turn. They were, upon reflection, pretty similar, but also fast, positive tracts full of homey, commonsensical wisdom, relevant anecdotes, judicious name-dropping and practical advice. Nothing weighty, ponderous or tedious, yet MacKay's preternatural positivism was a great comfort and helped a youngish promo guy making the first of several career reinventions avoid feeling like Tony Curtis' character in The Great Imposter.

With the success of that first book, Mackay, who owns a Minnesota envelope company — and seldom fails to make pitch on its behalf — became an author of a series of books on self-improvement, sales, networking and marketing, as well as a syndicated columnist and speaker. And he continued to sell envelopes!

This new book is vintage Mackay, chock full of all the stuff that everyone who works for a living should know, though few do; the things that used to be called "common sense'' but have proven to be anything but. Harvey understands the process inside and out, having sat, spoken and listened from both sides of the interview desk. Luckily, he picked up on all the big and little things that too many others either ignored or just assumed, like how to dress, how to speak, how to deal with other applicants, timing and just about every other aspect of the job-search process.

And though the author is far from a kid, he's savvy about the ways of the Web, both as a tool and a communications medium, and as a weapon for self-inflicted wounds, especially in the social networking realm. There's great guidance on the hows and the whys and the musts-to-avoid. Plus, there are some wise hints on cleaning up one's errant reputation when the embarrassments inevitably surfaced.

But Mackay doesn't just draw from his own extensive experience. There are interviews and contributions from a fairly diverse group of outside sources on the various stages of the job-seeking process. There's even advice on what to order — and what to avoid — if a prospective employer decides to take an applicant out for a meal. And he goes further, by suggesting ways to keep a job, which is pretty valuable information to have in this precarious economy with its jobless recovery (such as it is).

There's some really great stuff within, and it's fairly current, too, with ample examples of Harvey's optimism and determinedly good-natured personality, though the book is also suffused with pragmatism and even some urgency, as befits the subject and the tasks that are involved.

You can do far worse than have a mentor, coach or helpfully friendly uncle like Harvey Mackay offering encouragement and advice in these difficult times. It's kind of nice to know, too, that in terms of employment and career books, the dear old guy is still doing his best to push the envelope.

Originally published in The Miami Herald

Saturday, May 22, 2010

No need to leap. Just make small changes.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard 
Engage the rider and the elephant, and you will get results, say Chip and Dan Heath


Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Broadway Books. 320 pages.

Not a big fan of change, per se. Change my underwear, change the channel, change tables, change the scenery (once in a while, for a weekend or so) or hope that my favorite pitcher throws a change-up, but when it comes to big, hairy, fundamental changes, include me out. It's not that I'm averse to change; I'm not, truly. But I've pretty much got it down, so I'm not looking to change wives, kids, favorite sports teams, preferred breakfast (steel-cut oats, please) or any number of other elements in my life. And I'm not alone. But life is change and if we fail to alter our behavior when required to do so, dire fates often await.

The Heaths' previous book, 2007's Made to Stick, looked at the reasons some ideas gained traction and made it through the morass of marketing, media and more to attain "stickness'' in our consciousness. Good one! But this new brotherly collaboration is something completely different. The pair looks at why we're resistant to change and the means by which we can, er, change that.

As with Made to Stick, the text is smart, breezy and humorous, but no less elegant, well researched and insightful. The biggest takeaway, for me, was not anything new. In fact it's a variation of one of the most important tenets of child rearing, "Praise the good.''

How does that apply here? Well, they start with dividing the brain (similar to Godin and Pink in their recent books) into "the rider'' and "the elephant.'' The latter is our emotional and instinctive side, say the Heaths, and the former is the part of us that tries to stay on track and get things done. The Heaths contend that in order for change to take place, both the rider and the elephant need to engaged and satisfied. And instead of focusing solely on problems that need to be solved or negative behaviors that must be eliminated, they advocate seeking the bright spots and replicating them (aka "praise the good''). They also offer the idea that small adjustments can make more of a difference than seeking the root causes of the dysfunctionality.

They tell the story of a frustrated psychologist who was having trouble with her golf swing. The pro who helped her didn't examine her childhood for clues or ask about how she related to her mother. Instead, he suggested minor changes to her swing and achieved immediate favorable results. It was a revelation that informed her approach to dealing with her patients, henceforth concentrating on small, achievable steps that worked.

There are plenty of similar anecdotes herein from business, government, healthcare, academia and other areas of human interaction where change seems difficult or impossible, yet someone found ways to get from here to there. They also offer specific steps for a variety of scenarios.

While not every transition is easy, the Heaths show that it can be done, and how to do so when it seems impossible. Now, when business needs to be more nimble than ever, reading this great little book could well be among the most effective small steps you can take.

Originally published in The Miami Herald