As we reach the final countdown before the launch of my new book (pre-order Show and Tell now and join me for a secret webinar on April 10), I am reflecting on the many incredible presentation books I have relied on for inspiration, guidance, and reference.
Scanning across the bookshelves in my office (I buy them all on paper because I like to draw in them), it dawns on me that my collection falls into three must-read categories. I’m going to say a few words about the books in the first two categories, then a lot about the last.
1) Must-read books about presentations
2) Must-read books sort-of about presentations
- Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (Be a thief, be a sleuth, be original)
- Moments of Impact by Chris Ertel and Lisa Solomon (Be serious, be rigorous, be enjoyable)
- The Doodle Revolution by Sunni Brown (Be free, be a doodler, be cocky)
- The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde (Be a sketcher, be giving, be coherent)
- Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte (Be truthful, be expansive, be thorough)
- The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler (Be a hero, be a historian, be a therapist)
3) Must-read books not at all about presentations
This is the group I really want to talk about, because all these books changed how I think about my life and my presentations. I know that anyone who makes presentations will get value out of these three books, but will never see them in a list of “presentation books.”
So here they are: the three greatest presentation books of all time – that aren’t about presentations.
1) The best book ever written on understanding the machine in our head:
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
As a presenter, we’ve got a lot of heads we need to think about. First, there is our own: what’s on our mind, what we’d like to share, how nervous we are, etc. Then there all the heads of all those people we’re presenting to: what’s on their minds, what are they willing to listen to, what’s making them wake up or fall asleep.
In reality, being a presenter is more about being an engaging psychologist than it is about being a sage or a teacher or an entertainer. And no one on earth is a more engaging psychologist than Daniel Kahneman. Without even opening his book again, my mind immediately alights on some of these presentation gems:
- Positive vs negative priming. Want people to enjoy your talk? Say upbeat things. Avoid the negative. Don’t say, “This sucks because…” instead say, “This is lovely because…” Yes, this flies in the face of everything we read in the news, BuzzFeed, Gawker, etc, but that’s precisely the reason we’re so cranky when we read the news: it negatively primes us to expect bad things, and our body physiologically prepares for badness. End of happy presentation, right there.
- Framing. The way we initially “frame” a comment defines how it will be received and recalled. If we say our team lost the game, we think our team was bad. If we say the other team won the game, we’re still left open to the possibility that our team was great as well. I can think of ten thousand ways to use this when presenting ideas I want people to want to remember.
- The Two Thinking Modes. As the title of Daniel’s book tells us, our brain breaks thinking down into two modes: one ‘fast’ for getting things done and one ‘slow’ for thinking them through. We shift back and forth between the two modes all the time. Knowing why – and being aware of it – is like someone finally handing us the instruction manual for our mind.
2) The best book ever written on using the machine in our head:
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Throughout my life, I’ve worried that my memory wasn’t as reliable as I needed. (Especially a problem when you’ve got a four-hour presentation to give.) In fact, one core element of the stage fright we all feel at times is the fear that we’re going to forget what we wanted to say. Thank you Joshua for letting me know I’m not a flake and even more for showing me how to remember. (And even more, the solution is PICTURES!)
A few highlights:
- Introducing the Memory Palace. Now all the rage thanks to BBC’s Sherlock, it was Joshua’s book that re-introduced the memory palace to our toolbox of cognitive tricks. The memory palace is the tool that the ancients used to prepare long presentations before the days of PowerPoint. It is the simple process of listing all the things you want to say, then mentally walking through a favorite place (Tuscan palace, vacation spa on the Aegean Sea, olive grove on the hills above Athens) and placing all the “things” in obvious sight. Once it’s time to remember, all you need to do is “walk” through the palace in the mind’s eye, and presto – there are the things you wanted to say.
- What this means for me: I almost never write more than five words on any presentation slide. Instead, I turn my entire presentation into a visible memory palace. When I see a particular picture, chart, map, sketch, or graphic, I immediately remember (most of) what I wanted to say about it. And if I forget something, nobody notices. Why? Because we’ve all got a nice picture to look at.
- Seriously, reading this book will give you a whole new sense of hope for what your mind can do, and a whole new sense of wonder for how far can we push visual thinking.
3) The best book ever written on using the rest of our mind and body:
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Back in Junior High and High School, I ran all the time. It was the late seventies and early eighties and everybody ran. Track, cross country, family weekend fun-runs. Since I was a kid and indestructible, it never occurred to me that the running might 1) help my body stay strong so that it could better withstand the rigors of daily life 2) physically enlarge and oxygenate my brain and 3) encourage my body’s naturally calming and thinking chemicals to flow.
Stronger body, bigger brain, less stress? They didn’t mean anything to me at age fifteen, but I can’t think of a better cocktail now at age 50. We don’t often talk about how physically demanding giving a presentation is, but we should. I now see that aside from having my content prepared and practiced, the single greatest contributor to my confidence as a presenter is feeling physically well.
Okay, there are lots of books about health and fitness. Why am I so ga-ga about Christopher’s? Two reasons: One, this is the first book I have read in one sitting in twenty years. It is that fun, captivating, illuminating, and full of fantastic stories. More importantly, reading this book – especially the description of how to run well – got my adrenaline pumping so fast that the moment I finished I went out for my first long run in almost twenty years.
Did I hurt myself? I did not. Did I find myself effortlessly visualizing my entire next presentation as I floated along? I did. Have I stopped running since? I have not. And neither have I stopped giving ever better presentations.