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A Presentation Worth Its Salt

an appleMichael Pollan needs little introduction. But even a celebrity journalist can’t rest on his laurels. Much ink is spilled on the common pitfalls of presentations, and the suffering they inflict on audiences everywhere. Yet presentation best practices are still lost on most presenters.

Not so with Pollan who drew a crowd of some 4000 at University of Portland’s Food for Thought conference last Saturday. Pollan, a little incredulous at the crowd’s size, wondered if some of us were in the wrong place. “You’re sure you’re here to see a food writer?” he asked.

While the topic and details were all satisfying and interesting, it was the structure and design of Pollan’s presentation that made it great. Like events that go off without a hitch, good presentations belie the effort that goes into them.

As a designer who helps organizations craft their brand, I see that presentations are still viewed as an element outside the branding and communications. But this is a tragic mistake because the presentation is a critical part of creating confidence, pleasure and interest around your product or service.

You can tackle this several ways: having a professional evaluate your existing presentation(s) and give you feedback to improve it; creating basic guiding principles for all presentations (three main points, no more than x number of slides, no longer than 20 minutes, etc.); or hiring someone to design either templates or a specific full-on designed presentation. The first step is admitting how important a good presentation is. Gretchen Rubin, in her book “The Happiness Project,” said that it takes five positive encounters with a spouse to make up for one damaging one. I’ll take a cue from Gretchen and argue that the same must hold true for a bad presentation’s impact on an audience.

Even when presentations don’t produce a fatal outcome, they can still confuse, repel, annoy and bore an audience. Needlessly so.

I recently attended a presentation by a leading progressive technologist. His presentation was all over the map. It was loaded with old information graphics that didn’t support his points (and many were unreadable). It had a chaotic visual design lacking in cohesion, color scheme, typography and graphic style. In short, it was simply confusing! I left with a bad impression of someone I had held no earlier opinion of!

Why most presentations suck

• They are often obligatory, instead of being spurred primarily by a desire to tell a well-crafted story.
• They often contain information the presenter wants to present and not what the audience desires or needs.
• They often contain too much information and are not organized into digestible chunks.
• They often lack an overriding point or single theme.
• Lack of theme and organization results in a kitchen-sink approach to graphics and photos and fatal bullet lists.
• They are often created by someone lacking storytelling and/or design skills.

But most importantly…

• They overlook what is widely understood about humans’ attention spans, needs, desires, and cognitive ability to read and hear at the same time. (We can, however, simultaneously see visuals and hear words.)

Why Pollan’s presentation was good

Single clear message with solid supporting ideas

Pollan has much to say and much to offer, but his single message was “health.” Broad topic for sure. But specifically, it was the disconnect between our obsession in this country with nutrition, while at the same time being the most unhealthy nation. He very clearly said, “We are going to get into the food discussion via the health door.” He never strayed from the topic. He needed no bullet lists on a slide for us to know where he was and where he was going next.

Connected to the audience via a familiar motif

He engaged and related to the audience (critical for getting your message heard and remembered) by opening his talk with props we can all relate to: groceries. Go ahead and think that’s no fair. Food! We all love it! But he could just as easily have thrown a PowerPoint up there with bar graphs, pie charts and lists of stats…about food. (Infographics rock. They just have to rock the right way.)

With wit and curiosity he unloaded what he calls “edible food-like substances” from the bags, just as you would unload groceries at home, scratching his head over the bogus health claims. Until at last, he pulled out an apple.

“An apple has no health claim,” he said. It lacks a package on which to display a claim, not to mention big money to market it.

It was simple and direct and he used that apple in all its naked goodness to lead us through the health door.

Peppered his talk with provocative statements, tangible examples, quotable quotes, historical references and lots of humor.

“The grocery store is a treacherous landscape,” he said, offering 17,000 new products a year, most of which are “mutant hybrids” of existing food products.

“Migrating nutrients,” was the name he gave to the food industry’s habit of injecting nutrients into foods that never had them and never needed them—fiber in low-fat (but very high in sugar!) yogurt. Calcium in Wonder Bread. Antioxidants in chocolate cupcake cereal. None of the above were any healthier, in fact less so, than if they’d been lacking that nutrient.

“Industry loves nutritionism,” he said “because they can dress up fake foods and sell them as healthy.” Fruit pizza was one such example.

“Food is too beautiful a word to dignify some of these products,” he said as he lamented the loss of culture around food. This line drew applause. He’d been talking about moms. So whether your mom cooked or did not cook, it hit us all close to home. “Nutritionism has undermined mom,” he said.

In short, it felt less like a presentation and more like a conversation.

Empowered the audience

Audiences want to walk away feeling as though they can do something with this information. Even though I’ve read much of what Pollan has written, I felt empowered to buy even less packaged food than I already do. He clearly demonstrated how invested the food industry is in manipulating our sense of what’s good for us. He also asked us to “vote with our fork,” which simply means “eat food.” When one audience member asked how to avoid defensiveness when discussing these issues with people, Pollan advised to “Lead with pleasure. It softens the blow.” No one walked out of there scratching their heads over the ghastly and unwieldy task of saving the planet.

They had two tools they could use to walk through the health door: be skeptical of what you read and eat as much real food as possible.


Of course, Pollan has an edge over many of us. He’s a journalist with skill and talent at storytelling. But you don’t need his skills and talents to create good presentations. You only need to recognize why good presentations are vital. And then walk through that door.


  1. chris north says:

    Thanks Jane. An excellent commentary on why a good presentation matters. I’m going to share it with my students!

    • Thanks Chris. Please do. There’s also a book they might want to look at called “Slideology” that’s pretty comprehensive, not just about design but just how they should be approached. Thanks for reading!

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