The 3 greatest presentation books of all time. (That have nothing to do with presentations)

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


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.


Blah Blah Blah is coming. It’s official.

As of today, it's official. My next book has just been formally announced by Penguin Portfolio.

Blah, Blah, Blah

What To Do When Words Don't Work

by Dan Roam

It will be published 11-1-11.

I completed the writing and drew the last of the book's 469 pictures two weeks ago. Now everything is in the good hands of the Portfolio editorial and production masters.

Until they finish, here is something to get started with… (click to enlarge/download)





The Men Who Stare at Boats

The Strategic Studies Group is located at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. This group reports directly (and solely) to the Chief of Naval Operations in the Pentagon. The SSG is tasked with coming up with revolutionary ways of thinking about conflict and winning wars.


I was honored to be invited to give a full "back of the napkin" workshop to the senior officers of the SSG. Last week I packed up my tablet PC and whiteboard and headed off to face the bracing December winds of Newport.


Although I'm not at liberty to share what we talked about, I can say that I had an amazing time and left the Naval War College with an extraordinary sense of confidence in the innovative abilities of our political and military leaders. In other words, the people (quite literally) calling the shots are infinitely more open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and asking tough questions than those of us not in the armed forces are usually lead to believe.

(Aside: Although my father was an Air Force Captain, my uncle a Naval Commander, and my cousin is a career Marine, I never served in the armed forces. I decided early on that I'd rather learn about the world "out there" by wielding a pencil rather than a gun, but that's another story.)

Simming in Sims Hall

From a visual problem-solving perspective, one of the fascinating aspects of the SSG's operations (that I can share) is the floor. Yes, that's right; the floor of Sim's Hall is a historic landmark. Why would a rather somber checkerboard of white and gray stone be of historical significance?


Because it was on that floor that the naval battles of World War II were acted out in advance. "Sims" Hall was named after Admiral William Sims, the commanding officer of the US Navy's European fleet during WWI and who later became a leading advocate of warfare simulation.


When WWII broke out, the floor of the cafeteria in the building bearing Sims' name became a huge oceanic chessboard. As admirals and commanders moved model ships about the floor, strategists and junior officers watched from the gallery above. Here the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, and the island-hopping campaign were first visualized.

Sims Hall; appropriate name, isn't it?


Another insight I learned from the Marines and Naval officers about communicating ideas is the BLUF principle. When presenting to a senior officer, always keep BLUF in mind:

  • Bottom
  • Line
  • Up
  • Front

In other words, get to the point immediately. If that is compelling, there will be plenty of time for details later.

Good lesson. Thank you USMC, USN, and USAF.


Inside Guy’s Brain

One of the really great unexpected outcomes of getting your book published is that other publishers send you advance copies of their upcoming books for review and (hopefully) positive comments. I suppose it shouldn't have come as a surprise since my publisher did the same thing for my book, but it has been fun to collect a nice stack of pre-release business books.

I make a point of reading each book that I receive, thinking not only about the karma involved but also recognizing how lucky I am to see some of what's coming out before many other people get to. Besides, it's a tremendous honor to be asked, and I figure I owe it to the other authors to do my part.

The only problem is that it takes time to really read everything that comes in and formulate an opinion about it that's worth sharing. Which means I sometimes fall behind on getting my comments in on time.


That's what happened with Guy Kawasaki's new book REALITY CHECK: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition. I got an advance copy three weeks ago, put it on the "to read" stack, finally read it, LOVED it (more on that in a moment), drew up a 'cover blurb' that I really mean, and sent it back to the publisher… only to find out they'd already printed the book!

Yikes. Good timing, Dan.

So back in that karmic mood, let me present here for the first time my never-to-be-published blurb for Guy's latest:


Now I know what they mean when they talk about "encyclopedic knowledge".

They mean Guy Kawasaki. This book is the proof.

- Dan Roam

This book is amazing. It really is a complete encyclopedia of everything anyone starting a start-up needs to know about money (and where to get it), planning (more rather than less is the ticket), marketing (I think I finally understand what that means), and succeeding (or failing magnificently, which according to Guy is almost as good).

What I found best about the book was that although it contains way too much to ever fully process (much less remember), everything is presented in short sections, category by category — which makes it easy to find exactly the guideline you need when you need it.

I wish my timing had been better: this is really a book I'd have liked to have a picture on!