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.


A portrait of the artist as a book buyer

This modern world our ours works in mysterious ways.

The Guardian newspaper (the London one, not the San Francisco Bay Guardian one where I started my career twenty years ago, nor the Moscow Guardian one where I served as Art Director fifteen years ago) asked me last week to write an article about my book and visual thinking. The article ran in Saturday’s paper across the UK, and I received several complimentary notes from readers, which was great.

Then today I got a Google Alert about a blog mentioning me and that article, so I clicked through to Andrew Smith‘s blog "In Front of Your Nose".


There I saw Andrew’s napkin sketch about how he had come to decide to buy my book. It’s a great picture, and the accompanying article serves all authors (or hopeful authors) on how complex the process can be by which a potential reader becomes an actual book buyer.

Thank you Andrew for the blog, the sketch, the insight, and above all for the purchase. You’ll be happy to know I sent your link through to everyone I know in publishing as a reminder of all the eggs we need to keep up in the air: books, websites, links, blogs, tools, downloads. It all matters and it all adds up.

Thanks again!


Napkin tools: now downloadable!

Ever since The Back of the Napkin appeared, people have been asking me for download-friendly versions of the key visual thinking tools I introduce. So due to popular request, here they are; high-resolution PDF files for:

The Visual Thinking Toolkit. (A visual summary of all the lessons in the book.)

The Visual Thinking Codex. (The master checklist for creating any problem-solving picture; a combination of the SQVID and the <6><6> Rule.)

The SQVID. (The five questions that get your mind’s eye kicked into gear.)

The <6><6> Rule. (The six ways we see mapped to the only six pictures we need to be able to draw.)

For anyone who asked for these — THANKS. I hope they’re useful for you.

If you don’t know what these charts mean, let me tell you about this book I wrote… :-)

UPDATE: These tools can now be downloaded at my website:


Miami Herald follow-up: “Potent and Effective” :-)

Richard Pachter of the Miami Herald offered his readers an early chance to read and review The Back of the Napkin.

Back in mid February, he put my book on his reader’s list, and his review just went live. I’m happy to say that Richard "got it":

That’s where Dan Roam comes in.

His book does three big things
really well. First, it presents a persuasive argument for employing
simple iconography as a means of communicating and persuading. Next, he
provides some important and powerful examples. Finally, he tells and
shows how to do it.


One hour soapbox

Tom Crawford is a classy guy. Not only is he the CEO of VizThink, he also asked me to do a podcast with him about my book. But on top of all that, he then gave me *all the time I needed* to go into real detail on many of the big ideas in my book.


Thanks to Tom (and VizThink CTO Chris) you can now watch an animated version of an hour’s worth of live  "solving problems with pictures" as a podcast on the VizThink Blog.

Thanks Tom!


Post2Post Virtual Book Tour

Paul Williams is an interesting guy. After leading marketing efforts at Starbucks and Disney, he headed to Amsterdam to found his own innovation lab, and Idea Sandbox was born. Among other ideas, every month Paul sponsors a virtual book tour where bloggers and authors meet.


This month, I’m honored that Paul selected The Back of the Napkin as the book in the spotlight.

Jeff De Cagna kicks off the tour on his Principled Innovation blog with a podcast we recorded yesterday.

Talking with Jeff was great. Among other things, he let me really go into detail on several of the aspects of visual thinking that I find most compelling. I appreciate all the time Jeff spent, and I hope you find the interview interesting.


When Tom Peters calls…

I’m honored to be featured this week as Tom Peters’ newest "cool friend". Several days ago, I had a wonderful interview with Erik Hansen of the Tom Peters company. It was supposed to last 30 minutes but instead we ended up talking for an hour and a half.


(On that note, thanks especially to Shelley Dolley and Cathy Mosca for an amazing editing job!)

It was such a pleasure to be included in Tom’s list of "good idea people". Tom’s book "Re-Imagine" was a huge inspiration for me a couple years ago when I embarked on the task of writing my own book. To now appear on Tom’s site brings things nicely full circle.


Doodling for Dollars this week features "The Back of the Napkin" as the basis for their slide show on the rise of quick sketching as a business tool.


Online editor Douglas MacMillan interviewed me in NY last week where we had a great time swapping napkin stories. I may be biased, but I think his article makes a great case for why my own clients (Wal-Mart, Infosys Consulting, Microsoft) and others (UPS) are turning to simple drawings as effective problem-solving tools.