How to become the Michelangelo of Powerpoint

4 Books That Can Help You Turn Your Presentations Into Sublime Works of Art

Michelangelo—best-books-about-presentation-powerpoint-design-of-slides

Maybe it’s so 10 years ago to talk about the sad state of the Powerpoint slides we see out there in the business world—in company meetings, Webex sessions, trade-shows and more. You’ve seen the kind of slides I’m talking about or (gasp) maybe you’ve made them yourself! You know, presentation slides riddled with bullet points, overflowing with text, and data, and unsightly graphs, or worse…clip art!

A while ago, Seth Godin and Steve Jobs valiantly decried bad Powerpoint but in the decade or so since, things haven’t improved much.

And what a waste this is!

When you get up in front of an audience you have a unique opportunity to connect with people; to transmit valuable information, insights, and emotions all wrapped-up in a powerful message that resonates and persuades.

But in a world besieged by artless, heartless, gutless Powerpoint, the signal is drowned out by the noise.

We can do better and it starts by going back to basics.

Here are 4 books that have helped me to create better presentations in Powerpoint, Keynote or any other software you may choose for this task. I’ve looked quite hard and these are the most helpful books I’ve found.

I encourage you to check them all out.

How to get better at any skill you desire

4 Things You Absolutely Need to Know to Become an Expert at Anything

Kid-coloring-with-crayons-Peak-Anders-Ericsson-best-business-book-club

I was born with a pencil and sketch pad in my hand, drawing.

At least that’s the way it seems, because for as long as I can remember, that’s exactly what I’ve always been doing.

And by the time I was a teenager I had acquired the bad habit of drawing superheroes in class when the subject matter or teacher was too “boring” for me to pay attention. My classmates would marvel, “Man, you’re really good,  I wish I could draw like that!”

“You can!” I would invariably say. “All it takes is practice.”

Since that was a frequent exchange seemingly everywhere I went, I thought a lot about my supposed “talent.” Early on I reached the conclusion that I had no innate gift, and that my ability was merely a reflection of the countless hours I spent in my room trying to draw like the comic book masters I admired, Neil Adams and John Buscema. My first attempts were quite crude but as time went on, as I practiced faithfully, I acquired some proficiency.

If I had any innate gift, I thought, it was a deep-seeded desire and passion for drawing like the masters I admired. That passion made the “hard work” fun and I stuck with it. Eventually, I got good. Then people saw my ability and assumed I had a gift.

But the gift was the desire to draw, not the ability to draw.

We conflate those two things and, in doing so, limit our potential. It turns out you can shape your talent and there’s a methodology for doing so, correctly.

That’s the essence of Anders Ericcson’s new book Peak and the ideas contained in this remarkable work can forever change your life.

Here are 6 key takeaways from this inspiring book:

1. Forget everything you’ve heard about innate abilities or natural talent

Right from the start, Ericcson and Pool pull no punches in Peak.

In the very first chapter, we are treated to the paradigm-busting re-telling of the legend of Mozart.

Young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it seems, was a tot scarcely 7 years of age when he publicly performed sublime feats of musical prowess, on violin and keyboard instruments of all types.

In 1763 the young boy was dazzling audiences in Europe with his seemingly miraculous abilities. His feats appeared all the more magical because he possessed yet another “gift”—the gift of perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is an exceedingly rare ability that allowed the young Mozart to recognize the exact note being played on any instrument; even if he was in another room; even if the emitter of the sound wasn’t a musical instrument at all! In other words, Mozart was so gifted that if he heard a bird singing, or your car made a sufficiently musical noise—he could tell you what musical notes were being reproduced.

Miraculous?

Maybe not.

Ericcson gleefully lifts the curtains and lets you peer behind Mozart’s magical performances. I won’t spoil it for you, but the point is as powerful and thunderous as a lightning strike. After decades of studying prodigies, geniuses, savants and top experts in different fields, Ericsson has yet to find a single case that cannot be attributed to purposeful, deliberate practice.

Why is this important for you to know?

Because science is telling you that you can follow a clearly defined process to get better at any skill or ability you desire. It’s not a matter of talent or natural gifts. It’s a matter of practice, of doing the work.

Think how valuable and empowering this insight is in the 21st century world of the fourth industrial revolution. Those who embrace entrepreneurship and lifelong learning will flourish. Those who don’t, will pay a heavy toll. Now, lifelong learners have a clear process to get better, faster. That’s why I think that Ericsson’s book is one of the most important books of the last couple of decades.

It takes away all the excuses we make for not pursuing the work that matters most to us.

2. Build the correct set of mental representations

Ericsson tells us that expert performers can perform at a high level because over time they have developed complex, robust, and finely detailed “mental representations” about what works.

Think of it this way: what would happen if I were put in a baseball game to face a major league pitcher hurling a ball right at me at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour? Mind you, I have played almost no baseball in my life.

Well, the first thing that will happen is that I will likely freak out. Survival instincts will kick in and my likely reaction is to gird myself against the missile. It might take me weeks, maybe months (years?), to get totally used to the sensation of staring down those projectiles coming straight at me, without flinching.

Then, I’d have to learn how to position my body, how to swing the bat properly, how to pick up on subtle clues from the pitcher about what pitch is coming next, how to distinguish between a speed pitch and off-speed pitch and acquire the muscle memory to respond appropriately, and a million and one other little things which, together, combine to create a nearly magical result.

This very fine tuning of your thought processes, instincts and motor coordination, to create a specific result, is what Ericsson has dubbed mental representations.

That’s why “Big Papi” hits homers and I would likely swing the bat a full second (or two) after it smacks the catcher’s mitt.

But almost no one who’s reading this blog will be facing a major league pitcher anytime soon, but we all face professional and personal challenges that we could meet with gusto with the right mental representations.

Maybe you want to sell more widgets; market more effectively using social media; pass some professional certification; become a more powerful communicator; write a novel; become a world-class salsa dancer?

Want to be an exceptional performer in those fields?

Get an existing elite performer in that field to coach you. If that’s not possible, at least observe them carefully and try to reconstruct the mental representations they are working with. What do they do? What routines do they follow? What habits do they faithfully keep? How do they train? What do they read? What do they say? How do they think? Deconstruct as much as you can so you can see exactly what they’re doing. Then compare their approach to your own to see if there are any clear gaps that could improve your own game.

Then get busy working on those.

3. Engage in Deliberate Practice

In Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, there’s a memorable exchange between her and Ericsson concerning Duckworth’s running. She tells him that she has been running for quite some time, spending many hours that could be considered “practice.” So how come she’s no where near good enough to become an olympian, she asks.

“Interesting,” says Ericsson as he proceeds to ask her some questions about the nature of her practice sessions.

The takeway is that you can run every day for a million years, if you like, and never get anywhere good enough to be an Olympian because what counts is not hours spent practicing, it’s hours spent in deliberate practice.

Here are the components of this more purposeful and effective form of practice:

  1. Motivation
    This one’s obvious. You need a healthy dose of motivation to do the work and put forth the effort to improve your performance.
  2. Design
    Practice tasks should be designed taking into account your pre-existing knowledge and skills so that the practice session challenges you to reach beyond your comfort zone, but not so far that you feel completely lost. Practice sessions must have clear goals and objectives.
  3. Feedback
    Practice must give you immediate informative feedback. This feedback should provide you with clues as to where you may be falling short and thus stimulate learning and growth.
  4. Repetition
    And of course, one must repeat the practice tasks and similar tasks until there are clear signs of proficiency.

4. It Takes Time and Patience

Lastly, because there is nothing magical about deliberate practice, becoming an expert performer is all about the “mundanity of excellence.” It’s all about trying, failing, and trying again. But this takes time. Perhaps many years.

Years ago, Malcolm Gladwell took Ericsson’s ideas and postulated the 10,000 hour rule. He asserted that to become a top expert invariably required 10,000 hours, the rough equivalent of 10 years of practice. But Gladwell, according to Ericcson and Pool, got a lot of things wrong.

For example, there is no 10,000 hour rule. In some fields, the amount of required practice may significantly exceed or fall short of that mythical mark. Furthermore, it’s not mere practice that counts, it’s deliberate practice that ensures continuous growth and learning.

The takeaway for us is that improving our performance in any endeavor will take time, and lots of it, but the ultimate number of hours required will vary widely by skill and by the level of proficiency we seek. Again, we may not all wish to become Major League Baseball players. Maybe all you want is to master your company’s accounting system or learn how to manipulate data sets and apply statistical regressions. If so, chances are you will require months, or a couple of years, in order to achieve proficiency, but nothing close to 10,000 hours.

Now that you’re free from the tyranny of the talent myth—what will you do?

Here’s the essence of what you need to know: You have enough talent to become an expert in any field you choose. Don’t be fooled by the tyrannical notion that you should give up because you’re not a natural. What matters is: your willingness to do the hard work of deliberate practice; your patience; your perseverance to stick with it for the long haul.

And if you’re the parent of small children, just imagine what this gift can do for them.

It should be comforting to you, that in a world of constant flux, a world that demands life-long learning, there is a simple stepwise process you can follow to acquire the ever-changing skills you need to stay competitive. Think of it as the Missing Manual of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Ericsson’s ideas are a God-send. And they arrived not a minute too soon.

Now that you know—where will you choose to go?

Book Recommendation: Humans Are Underrated

How To Stay Competitive in the New Automated World of Work

Humans Are Underrated - Best Business Book Club

When you get to the end of Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will, you realize just how great a public service Geoff Colvin has rendered to us. Tremendously well-researched and crisply written, the book is a friendly, far-sighted and reassuring primer on how your work may be transformed by “infotech” and what you can start doing about it.

If you want to understand how the job market is about to change, what skills will be in high demand, and how you can stay competitive—this is a tome you can’t afford to ignore.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is Underway, Are You Ready?

5 Key Insights from Klaus Schwab's Book You Can't Afford to Ignore

photo courtesy of Web Tomorrow

The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab is a book that everyone should take some time to review because it lays out a comprehensively sober assessment of the momentous changes already underway—changes that will forever alter the way we live and work.

As you look through the catalogue of evidence presented in the book, you’ll notice that there are reasons to be both highly optimistic and deeply pessimistic about what’s about to happen.

Like a Polaroid instant print, an image of the implications is emerging but that image is not perfectly clear, at least not yet.

We need to pay attention.

And whatever your own interpretation of the known facts may be, it is clear to Schwab, as it is to most economists who are peering further down the road than most, that humanity needs to buckle its collective seat belt. We’re in for a massive dose of unprecedented change.

Millions of people in the U.S. and around the world will be affected and, according to informed estimates, as many as half of all current jobs will be automated in the next 10 to 15 years. And as with all the technological tsunamis of the past, there will be winners and losers.

The winners, of course, will be those who understand that great change is coming and get ready, not just to tolerate the transition, but to help drive it! Not to survive, but to thrive! The losers will be those who ignore the warning signs, fail to understand the drivers of change, and do little more than bemoan the unfairness and injustice of the upheaval once it finally arrives at their doorstep.

In times of powerful change, the last thing you need to do is fight to hang on to the status quo. Instead, focus on your own sphere of influence—what can YOU do, where you stand, with what you’ve got, right now?

To quote Mr. Schwab: “There has never been a time of greater promise or greater peril.”

The question is, what are you going to do about it?

But before we can answer that, we need to further understand what’s happening:

Key Aspects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Success Depends on What You Do, Not Talent

Here are 9 Things Successful People Do Differently

Runners

Whether you choose to define success in broad terms (i.e. “success in life”) or in more specific contextual terms (e.g. success in completing a project or achieving a goal) it is helpful to understand what behaviors or course of action can improve your chances of reaching the level of success you desire.

Endless volumes have been written about this ever-pressing question—How can I achieve success? But few manage to be as straightforward, accessible and concise as Heidi Halvorson’s, 9 Things Successful People Do Differently.

In only 112 short pages, Halvorson, a motivational psychologist, manages to lay out 9 actionable ideas gleaned from the scientific literature of success. After having scoured decades of research, she gives us the strategies that successful people use to catapult their performance far above the average. “In the end,” she states, “not only will you have gained some insight into all the things you have been doing right all along, but you’ll be able to identify the mistakes that have derailed you. More importantly, you’ll be able to use that knowledge to your advantage from now on.”

This book is a fantastic little manual, which I encourage you to read.

Personally, I’ve taken Halvorson’s framework and arranged it into 3 essential prescriptions: (1) “Be a Realistic Optmist” (2) Get Super-Specific and (3) Focus on Continuous Improvement

Here’s a brief description of each:

To Achieve Better Results—Ask A More Beautiful Question

As answers become commoditized, curiosity and inquiry are vital

Ask More Questions

Not too long ago, the people who had all the answers had all the power, but in a connected world awash in petabytes of data, answers are becoming commodities, and the people who know how to ask more beautiful questions will carry the day.

Warren Berger’s 2014 book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, is a good place to start if you want to understand why questioning has become so critical in today’s economy. This book is a primer on how to get started crafting questions that can help you get ahead in your career, and in life.

After all, as Case Western professor of Social Entrepreneurship, David Cooperrider states in the book:

The Power of Habit

What you absolutely need to know in order to create powerful and lasting change in your life

The Power of Habits—Best Business Books by Charles Duhigg

We like to think that the things we do every day (in actions big and small) are the result of our conscious choices and the exercise of our free will, but scientists who study the human brain are questioning that assumption. Based on abundant research data, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we rely on subconscious habits more than we realize (or care to admit).

Are we then creatures of habit, rather than creatures of choice?

If we even suspect that the answer to that question might be “yes”, then it behooves us to understand what habits are. How do they work? How can we change bad habits and install new and better ones—habits that pull us closer to what we really want?

Answering those questions was Charles Duhigg’s precise purpose for writing, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Explained in Duhigg’s highly entertaining and rich story-telling style, habits are thoroughly demystified allowing readers to visualize how they might apply the ideas in their own life.

In fact, using the insights I picked up in this book, I was able to finally lose 40 lbs and get back into shape. It had a real impact on the quality of my life and I can’t think of a higher tribute that anyone can pay to an author’s work.

For this reason, I’m very confident that you too can apply the ideas presented in this book, to improve the quality of your personal and professional life.

Here are 5 powerful ideas that I took away from the book (among many, many others):

Here’s the stack of books I’ll be reading in the coming weeks

What’s on your reading stack, and why?

stack of books to read

Warning! Reading books is a mind-altering experience! Ralph Waldo Emerson knew as much when he wrote, “The Mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”

Indeed. That’s why leaders, who are responsible for solving difficult problems and challenging the status quo, would do well to become voracious consumers of books, for books, as Seth Godin brilliantly put it, are “souvenirs of ideas.”

And leaders need all the souvenirs they can get!

So, I thought I’d share my big fat stack of books to read.

Maybe some of the books on my list are of interest to you. I hope they are.

I’d also love it if you could share your insights on great books you’ve recently read and/or books you can’t wait to read.

Let’s get started…

What did the Primatologist say to the Chief Marketing Officer?

Go sleep in their nests!

photo courtesy of Fiona Stewart & W.C. McGrew via LiveScience.com

Perhaps I should explain…

Primatologists are scientists who specialize in the study of primates, usually of the non human variety. For almost a century they have been studying the nesting behavior of  chimpanzees in an attempt to understand why they build nests every day and sleep in them every night.

The way it’s always been done is to stand on the ground with notebook and binoculars in hand and observe, as astutely as possible, the behavior of their subjects. That’s the way primatologist Fiona Stewart had always done it but then she went further and did something remarkable, taking our understanding of primate nesting behavior to new heights in the process.

As told by LiveScience:

For six nights in 2007 and 2008, Stewart climbed 5 to 29 feet (1.5 to 8.8 meters) into the trees, either crashing in pre-used chimp nests or building nests using chimpanzee techniques. She spent another five nights sleeping on the bare ground.

By having the guts to do this she discovered things that ground-based researchers might have never understood.

Here are some of her discoveries: