There’s a double episode of South Park called Cartoon Wars where Eric Cartman tries to get Family Guy taken off air. Why? Because the jokes aren’t integral to the plot, and Cartman is fed up of people assuming that he likes the show.

The jokes in Family Guy may be funny, but they are irrelevant and disconnected to the narrative arc. Peter Griffin is funny as hell, Stewie is a fantastic character – but most of the jokes they are in could be written at random by manatees, the argument goes. (If you are in the US, you can watch online. The South Park writers absolutely nail Family Guy. Very funny.) Eric Cartman explains the problem best:

“When I make jokes, they are inherent to a story! Deep, situational and emotional jokes based on what is relevant and has a POINT! Not just one interchangeable joke after another!”

Presentation Zen and stock photos

Most of the time, a Presentation Zen approach suffers from the same problem as Family Guy. People know that they shouldn’t use bullet points. They want to communicate visually. But instead of using visuals that are integral to their message, they just go to iStockPhoto and find a photo of a baby, or a bowl of rice, or a mountain. Great. It looks lovely. But a photo used metaphorically doesn’t help presenters to get their point across. And most of the time, the photos presenters find on iStock are completely interchangeable. It’s like manatees selecting jokes at random – any beautiful photo could go in any presentation, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The photos are just interchangeable, with only tangential relevance to the message.

Aren’t Presentation Zen style photos effective visual communication?

The photo in a Presentation Zen style presentation is, of course, visual. But they usually aren’t integral to the message. The actual message is communicated with a single bullet point – i.e. text. The photo may look nice, it’s thematically related to the message of the presentation. But it isn’t actually doing the heavy lifting of getting the point across. Imagine deleting the bullet point and writing the exact opposite. Most of the time, that would work. Why? Because the photo is merely a back drop, it tells you what is being talked about – but it isn’t aiding the communication any more than that.

presentation zen and family guy

Of course a Presentation Zen approach is better than standard bullet points. It’s clearer, it looks nicer. If you are comfortable delivering a great speech, with nothing but a beautiful selection of images behind you – go ahead. But don’t think that you are giving a visual presentation. You aren’t. You are giving a speech, with bullet points spread over multiple slides. If you don’t have many slides, it’s just a speech. If you have lots of slides, it’s bullet points. But the slides don’t help much.

If you want to deliver a visual presentation, you need your visuals to actually be part of the story. It takes more work than selecting relevant images from iStock. But it works better. Your images become ‘inherent to the story’.

You need to start with visualisation. Tell your story visually – don’t just add photos as decoration. If the PowerPoint scares you, use a whiteboard. But don’t kid yourself that iStock photos can help explain your message, unless you are selling something that you can show actual photos of.

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Joby Blume


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  1. Image of Joby Blume Joby Blume says:

    SlideShare has a lot to answer for, of course. Once you separate slides from the context of a presentation, and stop animation working, of course ‘Zen’ slides look the best. Even if the images are mostly just decoration.

    It’s a great example of how technology shapes how we do things, and what we come to think of as effective.

    If it looks good on SlideShare, it’s probably not much use when used as part of a presentation…

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I did not think it was possible for an external team to get our message so quickly and accurately. You got our messages better than we did, and delivered presentations that were slick and really effective.

Guy Shepherd Bouygues