How Dan Roam nailed his SXSW presentation

Dan Roam

Dan Roam at MIX08 Photo credit: D Begley (our photos of Dan at SXSW are too low quality to use)

Dan Roam’s presentation was one of the highlights of SXSW 2010 for me. It was an elegant combination of rigorous thinking, conversational delivery and intelligent, integrated visuals.

Rigorous thinking

Dan Roam’s central message is that we can solve our problems with pictures. He’s shown how to do this in his seminal book Back of the Napkin, and by tackling some of the most intractable problems in the world – reforming the United States healthcare system – with pictures (check out his winning slideshare presentation).

In this presentation Dan built on that message. He argued that one of the reasons why we face so many problems in the world is because we don’t use pictures. We’ve equated intelligence with verbal ability. If you can talk, you can be a leader. If you can’t talk, you’re relegated to the ranks. That reliance on talking, rather than pictures, has led to some of the messes we’re in:

Since the industrial revolution, we’ve judged human intelligence by our ability to talk. And just look at where that belief has gotten us: from politics to energy, we’re deeper in conceptual debt than ever.

The ability to visualize problems was not prized, encouraged or quantified. For example, Einstein was a great visual thinker. But he was forced to translate his images into words to explain them to the world. Famous physicist Richard Feynman has argued that that led to Einstein becoming less productive.

This argument had my brain sparking. Our culture does not value pictures. We think pictures belong in children’s story books. Is that why people find it so hard to use PowerPoint and other slideware as a visual medium?

I’ve described just the first five minutes of Dan’s presentation. For more see Dan Roam: Why Words Won’t Work (SXSW Recap).

Dan Roam’s presentation was a live demonstration of Scott Berkun’s great quote:

“Good public speaking is based on good private thinking”

Conversational delivery

Dan Roam is not a performer. He’s not passionate a la Gary Vaynerchuk. He doesn’t have to be (and nor do you!) He was conversational and easy to listen to. His presentation was compelling to listen to because of the calibre of his thinking and his evident commitment to his message.

Intelligent, integrated visuals

In my last post I ranted about the use of irrelevant images in presentations. Not so here. Every image did some work either to help us grasp his point, or making the point more memorable.

Dan Roam combines the slickness of slideware with the grittiness of drawing by drawing on his slides. As Dan says, we love to watch people draw and create – it creates curiosity and engagement. I wrote about this very early in the history of my blog in a post called The Power of the Flipchart (also inspired by Dan Roam!) But a flipchart is not scalable to a large audience, and it takes time to draw a visual from scratch. Dan combines the power of drawing with the scalability and speed of slides. You can see this in this handheld video segment of the last 5 minutes of Dan’s presentation (it takes a long time to load but it’s worth it):

And here are some stills of slides earlier in his presentation – the red pen is the live drawing:

IMG_3649 IMG_3657

The full video of Dan’s presentation is not yet available on the sxsw website. I’ll let you know when it is. It will be worth watching.

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  1. Wow. Terrific post about a fabulously interesting presenter and his techniques. Thank you for introducing me to Dan Roam, Olivia! Like you, I battle against irrelevant images in presentations and have often pointed my clients towards Edward Tufte for ideas about how to present data visually. I look forward to reading Back of the Napkin. Any other suggestions?


    • Hi Dilly

      Glad you appreciated the post. Dan Roam’s work is really useful for presenters. He is working on a new book (some of his SXSW presentation was based on material in the new book) but I’m not sure when it’s going to be published.

      There’s a whole new field called “visual thinking”. Leading lights would be people like Dave Gray and David Armano.


  2. Interesting post.
    A suggestion from the AV Girl – see what you can do with an old fashioned carousel slide projector. Imagine what would happen if you were restricted to ONLY using pictures. Or, even try an old-fashioned overhead projector. You might be surprised at how fun those old transparencies and dry-erase pens can be!

    In any rate, be sure to read Olivia’s advice on how to engage and communicate with (not to) your audience. Because even with cool imagery and pictures, you can still bore your audience to tears (ie Uncle Jim’s proverbial tiresome slide show of holidays in Italy).

    Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl

    • Hi Midori
      Only problem would be trying to find a carousel these days – though I still do come across overhead projectors at the back of office storage rooms.

      • No doubt about that…it would absolutely require pre-arranging the display if you’re a speaker at conferences/conventions.
        You can buy the slide projectors used on ebay and other electronics sites. And, believe it or not, overhead projectors are still for sale. They even have some cool little portable ones :)


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