Hooray for Zen


Creative Commons License photo credit: miheco

I’ve been intrigued for many years by the philosophy of Zen and its impact upon the aesthetics of traditional Japanese art … particularly Noh theatre, a topic I teach in a history course. I also love good design. So, I’ve been a fan of Garr Reynolds’ blog Presentation Zen for some time. Reynolds’ writing and practice on presentation design and performance is simply excellent.

This weekend my reading companion was his recently published book of the same name (New Riders: Peachpit). I must say it is a delight; form and function meet superbly as you might expect from this Zen master of contemporary design. Reynolds refreshes Zen’s ancient principles of minimalism, restraint, elegance, engagement with material and audience in an entirely accessible and practical way. The winner is the contemporary professional presenter.

Reynolds unpacks the design principles behind good presentation … he refers almost entirely to the familiar Powerpoint or Keynote … and is nicely egalitarian in mentioning both of the big brands. Presentation Zen the book, is fully indexed, beautifully laid out and illustrated just like Reynolds’ website. The whole first-time reading experience was most pleasurable, but it’s a book to return to for inspiration, and to lend to colleagues. Death by Powerpoint (or Keynote) is now no longer an option. Spread the word!

I’d recently finished Dan Pink‘s A Whole New Mind, an influential book that’s been getting lots of attention since its publication in 2006. Pink calls for a new millenial way of thinking for the ‘Conceptual Age’ (he claims we’re in it right now) and for the exercising of our often dormant, not well-understood, or at least underrated right-brain activity. Pink has conceptualised six new senses for the age: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. It was intriguing to see Reynolds meshing his presentation Zen approach based on an ancient philosophy with Pink’s for a new milennium; they are congenial bedfellows.

As is so often the case, the Zen philosophy which Reynolds applies to principles of presentation apply equally to performance, so it was fascinating to observe his precepts taken from the art of Judo. Here they are:

1. Carefully observe oneself and one’s situation, carefully observe others, and carefully observe one’s environment.
2. Seize the initiative in whatever you undertake.
3. Consider fully, act decisively.
4. Know when to stop.
5. Keep to the middle.

Perfect advice to any performer … add the Zen advice to be fully present in the moment, and you could be reading a textbook on modern acting. No wonder I enjoyed this book so much.

PS. Loved the way he urges getting away from the computer, and going ‘analogue’ with pen and paper during the design phase of a presentation. Luddites will smile gently.


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