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.


This explains a lot… and it isn’t good.

The incomparable Maria Popova (whom you must follow on twitter @brainpicker) recently posted a review of the incredible book “This Explains Everything” from John Brockman. The book presents 150+ brilliant thinkers’ answers to the question:

“What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”


A brilliant book with a fatal flaw.

With magnificent insights from Jared Diamond, Brian Eno, Steven Pinker, and Susan Blackmore, the book covers pretty much everything we know — or really should know — about the underlying order of the universe. (In other words, there is a lot to think about in this book.)

But there’s a big problem. A huge problem. A problem that makes me want to either cry or start shouting REALLY LOUD.

Out of 150 brilliant minds introducing their favorite theories, only one* used pictures.

WHAT?!This is crazy — especially since EVERY ONE of the entries I’ve read so far (just passed 50) would benefit enormously from the addition of a simple clarifying sketch.

And these pictures aren’t hard to draw. I got so mad while reading this book on the short flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I managed to draw the first three while sitting on the plane. Here they are:

1) Susan Blackmore on Evolution


2) Matt Ridley on DNA


3) Richard Dawkins on how we process patterns


The big takeaway: If we’re explaining a theory, why wouldn’t we use every means available to make that theory clear, memorable, and alive? If we’re going to use words to describe an image, why don’t we just draw the image we’re trying to describe?

It’s not that hard. I did these three in less that 30 minutes, using nothing but a pen and paper. Imagine what a true genius could do in a day.

When the smartest people we have reject the use of simple images to support their own theories, is it really any wonder that more people reject science?

This really upsets me. Come on, smart people: SHOW me what you’re talking about.

(*That one BTW, is Stewart Brand. My new hero.)


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)





Napkins at 35,000 feet

Delta airlines flight attendant Jewel Van Valin found a unique way to help passengers relax on long flights following the bleak days of 9-11. She gave them crayons and asked them to draw.


She found that the mood of passengers changed dramatically when they put crayon to paper. She's kept the drawing in flight tradition going ever since and now has 3,000 sketches created by her passengers. The Palm Springs Air Museum now has a show of Jewel's passengers' visual thinking.


Photographer Ricky Mia has taken excellent photos of Jewel and her passengers at work. He also links to this brief video documentary about Jewel.

The lesson for me? I spend most of my time showing businesspeople (who KNOW they can't draw) that creating simple pictures is an incredibly powerful way to discover ideas. Jewel's approach demonstrates one of the most important hidden aspects of this approach: when people think with a pen in hand, they relax. And when people relax they are able to think more openly than when stressed.


See those smiling passengers — many of whom would rather be anyplace other than on an airplane? Now imagine what happens when you have a conference room full of smiling managers. Ideas flow. Decisions get made. Pictures work.

Thanks Damon for sending this link along.


Want be more creative? Move abroad.

Frommer's travel site today quotes a study in the May edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, indicating that people who have lived outside their native country may develop more creative minds. The full study is here.


I can't speak for anyone else, but I know that in my own life the times I lived outside the USA forced me to become a more creative thinker. At age seventeen I moved from Montana to Thailand for a year. That was an extreme shock, but after the initial cultural drowning period I loved every minute of it. It was a wonder in every way to see that the world was more than downtown Billings, MT.

Later, I lived and worked in Russia for several years. I often say that everything I learned about business I learned while watching communism stagger towards becoming capitalism. It wasn't all pretty, but it was without a doubt the most formative business experience of my life.

The APA study concludes with this thought:
It may be that those critical months or years of
turning cultural bewilderment into concrete understanding may instill
not only the ability to “think outside the box” but also the capacity
to realize that the box is more than a simple square, more than its
simple form, but also a repository of many creative possibilities.


Chrome in comics

Scott McCloud’s classic book Understanding Comics had long been in my mind when I decided to write my own book on visual thinking. Although I don’t agree with everything in his approach (and suspect Scott probably doesn’t agree with everything in mine), I admire tremendously his genius in understanding how we process visual stories, and his ability to tell stories with pictures. When it comes to communicating with images, Scott is a god.

As of yesterday, Google clearly agrees.


Google announced the Beta launch of Chrome, their new open-source web browser. Sort of aimed at Firefox, but clearly targeting Microsoft’s territory, Chrome in theory represents a new concept in how we will browse the web. More importantly, Chrome (again, in theory) represents a new concept in how our computers will themselves talk with the web.

I emphasize "theory" here because superficially Chrome doesn’t seem to do a whole lot more than existing browsers do. (I’ve been testing it all day and mainly notice its drawbacks — like the fact that in Chrome my Typepad interface shows only raw HTML code. Yuck: back to Firefox folks.)

But here’s where things get interesting. Because the important nuances of Chrome lie in the guts and technical details of how it was designed and built, a lay person like me is unlikely to get right away what makes it so great.


And that’s where Scott’s genius enters the picture. Google hired Scott to create an entire comic book explaining Chrome’s inner workings. Not only is the comic lovely, after reading it I now for the first time understand what the heck a browser really does.

Proving once again the power of a simple picture to clarify a complex concept. Thank you Google. And thank YOU Scott!


This one time at brand camp…

Tom Fishburne is the funniest brand manager alive. (Probably the smartest too — especially when it comes to seeing what really goes on in the alternate universe known as "product marketing".)


Tom just published a new book of his marketing cartoons called "This One Time at Brand Camp". It is good. I mean, really good. It’s not just that these are great cartoons (they are) nor that they are timely (Tom’s brilliant take on greenwashing is alone worth the price of the book), it’s that Tom gets inside the mind of marketers better than anyone I’ve ever come across… and then draws it out in a way that will be beautifully painful to anyone who has ever wondered "where in the heck did they come up with THAT slogan?"

Anyway, enough words. Here’s my Post2Post review:

I had a chance to ask Tom to single out his favorite single cartoon. Here’s what he picked, and the story behind it…


From Tom: About 8 years ago, when I first started drawing cartoons in
business school, I took a trip to Paris with my wife and stumbled
across a gallery filled with cartoons by Jean-Jacques Sempe (who I
later learned does covers for the New Yorker, among other things). I
had a Wayne’s World "I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy" moment. They were
screamingly funny and poignant all at the same time, but none of the
cartoons had any caption or dialog.  He did it all without a single
word, just by how he drew it. 
Since then, I’ve thought the highest zen master form of cartooning
was where you didn’t need to even say the punchline. It’s deceptively
hard to do.
I like this cartoon because (even though it does have a title),
all of the humor is in the scene. We’ve all heard the expression, "you
can’t cut your way to growth", but most organizations are equipped with
cutting tools, not with growing tools. And, if we’ve ever been
passionate about innovation, sometimes you feel like that lone farmer
in the center, planting the tree while warily looking at all of the
naysayers. But, you do it anyway, even against those odds, because you
believe so much in the idea. And every once in a while, the idea
blossoms and proves all of the naysayers wrong.
In the case of the inspiration for this cartoon, the cutting tools
won the round, but I kept at it, and eventually got it to grow.

I love that story. What I love even more is that when I read Tom’s book, I marked my own favorite cartoons with post-its. My top choice?

The same cartoon.


The ultimate master class of visual thinking. With Kermit.

Every once in a while we stumble across something that we connect with so deeply, we’re left transformed and breathless with wonder. So it is with Kermit.


This unbelievable clip is from the Ed Sullivan show of 1966. Wow.

Click here to watch.

I’ve always known that I was only only standing on the shoulders of giants. Now I know that those shoulders are green, and about 10 inches high.

As Mr. K, the visual guru says, "You gotta rewind into the cosmic infinity of everything, see… cause I am a bonafide, true-blue, guaranteed-or-your-money-back visual thinker."

Ah. To learn from the best.