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

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 architect, Dr. 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 kanso?

“Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means.”
— 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 common.

The suggestive mode of expression is a key Zen aesthetic. Dr.
Kawana, commenting on the design of traditional Japanese gardens says:

“The designer must adhere to the concept of miegakure since Japanese believe that in expressing the whole the interest of the viewer is lost.”
— Dr. Koichi Kawana

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):

  • Simplicity
  • Subtlety
  • Elegance
  • 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.

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 on you.


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 laughed.).

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 presentations.

The “Microsoft Method” of presentation?
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 “Really 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.


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
Can we learn from a Japanese garden?
GardenLooking for inspiration in different places? Find a book on Japanese gardens (like this one
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 this article
by Dr. Kawana. Living here in Japan I have many chances to experience
the Zen aesthetic, either while visiting a garden, practicing zazen
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 enlightened design.