Reflection on Zen

In full disclosure, I was asked to read Reynolds’ Presentation Zen for a course I am taking on data presentation. Other texts that came recommended were those by Nathan Yau and Edward Tufte. I like the topics all three folks focus upon in their writing. Zen is probably the best to speak of, and perhaps not for the most obvious of reasons.

So, to paraphrase how the book came about, and before that, simply the idea, picture a guy riding on a train. He happens to be in Japan, where they serve food different than what you’d probably get on a train here in the U.S. (go figure). He’s had a fulfilling day, and he pulls out his bento box meal. He looks outside, and sees a majestic mountain–Mt. Fuji. So far, you can probably picture all of this: sun setting with a mountain outside, a fast-moving train, business people around him, and he pulls out his meal, a bento box. You’ve likely seen them at a Japanese restaurant.

He looks over and sees one of those business men looking at a handout (education parlance creeping in) of Power Point slides. They are chock-full of images and bulleted text, and the guy looks awful. We can’t be sure why he looks tired and upset, but Reynolds assumes its the tedium of reading through a “deck” on paper of poorly-prepared slides.

Inspiration hits. “Presentations,” it comes to Reynolds, “should be like my bento box. It’s beautiful, and everything is in its place, and it’s just enough. It won’t over-stuff you, or cause stress. Presentations need to take on the zen of the bento box.”

And that’s the gist of the book.

So, Reynolds prescribes to not do all the things I feel I shy away from doing now: using clip art, using bullets, using small text, using illegible charts and tables, etc. He also believes the presentation is the speaker. Slidware, such as Power Point or Keynote, is there to support the speaker, who ultimately, should be a story teller.

Yes. I know this, and who knows how I assimilated these ideas years ago. It probably was through Reynolds, his blog, and those who liked what he had to say.

But I got more out of this than I thought. He shares the ideas of Ben Zander, whose TED Talk I loved. To wit:

Look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you are doing it… if the eyes are not shining you have to ask yourself a question… Who am I being when I am not seeing a connection in the eyes of others?

He’s talking about engagement and when you know you have it. Reynolds talks about rows of chairs (in a lecture hall) not lending itself to engagement. Yes! He is a fan of Steve Jobs and found a reason why he was a successful speaker: you knew he believed what he was talking about. He was authentic.

And he talks about stimulating curiousity in your audience. For an educator, that is your students.

the problem today in many schools is that the methods of instruction do a poor job of nurturing students’ natural curiosity. This is nothing new. Einstein said many years ago that ‘it is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiousity of inquiry.’

He goes on to say quote Kenichiro Mogi, a brain scientist in Japan. “By forgetting how to be curious we are losing something really valuable. Because curiousity is the single most important trait that brought us here today.”

Chapter 10 is the one on engagement and it opens with the photo of a classroom. Reynolds says “We praise the best teachers for being able to engage their students. With or without multimedia, engagement is key.” Reynolds goes on to suggest that emotions are the key to winning an audience’s engagement.

Finally (no not finally, there’s more good wisdom in the book than what I’m rehashing here) there’s a mention of Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want to Write which speaks of finding a way to maximize your creativity. I believe creativity is at the heart of all good education. Reynolds writes:

Harnessing this creative energy and being fully present is more of an intuitive activity, not an intellectual one. Brenda compares this kind of creativity and connection to a wonderful musical performance.

And with that, I’ll leave you with two TED Talks. The first from Benjamin Zander, which I referenced above, and the second about the importance of creativity (and I believe too, curiousity).