Presentation design ideas


Daily inspiration to design better presentations (try them in our new presentation app!)

Finding images that do not look like stock photos

Finding images that do not look like stock photos

Cheesy stock photos look worse than a list of dense bullets. If you need an image of a normal-looking person here some things I try:

  • Try other sources than stock image sites, I put a number of free image sources here
  • Use adjectives to find an expression you want: "calm", "proud", avoid terms such as "happy", "smiling" which will instantly return cheesy images
  • Use images that do not reveal the face (taken from the back, or a frontal crop)
  • Avoid any image with a photoshopped, fake background or added graphics
  • If you find one image that sort of works, dig deeper and bring up all the images that were made with the same model, maybe there is a better one hiding somewhere
  • Use images of kids, they are almost always spontaneous

Image from WikiPedia

Clouds in PowerPoint

Clouds in PowerPoint

The standard cloud shape in PowerPoint is not very pretty. Especially if you need a different aspect ratio, there is no option but to stretch the shape, making it look even worse. My solution is to combine multiple cloud shapes into one to get a decent new shape (SHAPE FORMAT, MERGE SHAPES, UNION). See the example below.

It is interesting to see that merging shapes also kills the "inside" cloud contours.

You can get more sophisticated and design your own cloud shape based on circles. Here is my attempt in 2011 to recreate Apple's iCloud logo in PowerPoint.


Art: View of Haarlem with bleaching fields, Jacob van Ruisdael, 1670

If things are busy, make a busy chart

If things are busy, make a busy chart

Chart loaded with detail are usually not the best way to convey a message. Except, when your message is that things are actually very busy, complex, interrelated. Then by all means make a busy chart. When presenting, don't feel tempted to go into the detail of its content though, the message stays "things are busy" and [click] you can go on to the next chart.


Art: The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1559

Why many vendors find it hard to sell to the "C-suite"

Why many vendors find it hard to sell to the "C-suite"

Many of my high tech clients hire me to design a product presentation that gets them higher up in the client organisation, the so called C-suite (CEO, CTO, CFO, etc.). The IT department buys features and equipment in a tight budget, the CEO can spend more money on what she sees as strategic priorities for the company.

The approach that vendors typically take is to frankenstein "business benefits" slides to the existing technical slide deck.

  • Market research slides that show the ever growing bytes of Internet traffic
  • 10-line quotes of customers who feel more flexible now
  • An Excel spreadsheet that shows how one custom managed to save $42,345.87 in 2013
  • A list of recent technology buzzwords (cloud, flexible, scalable, ROI)

I usually try to go for a different approach. Start with a blank sheet of paper. Trash the traditional system architecture charts. Cut the "business benefits" slides. Instead, I create a presentation that explains why this particular IT problem is so hard to crack, and how clever the client solution is.

The result is a presentation that looks "simple" to techies. "Simple" does not mean "simplistic". It just does not use the complex looking visual language that engineers have gotten used to since graduating form university: network diagrams and acronyms.  Two engineers can communicate using these slides, but the content that is transferred actually has little to do with the network diagram on the slide. If you are not an engineer, you don't get it. And as a result, most of the C-suite will not get it and send you back down stairs to IT.

Should you care about a good investor pitch?

Should you care about a good investor pitch?

Here is a question I was asked to answer on Quora:

"I heard a famous silicon valley investor saying that "the investors and the VCs are able to see if there is something going on through a bad pitch". That being said, why should the entrepreneur care about having a good pitch?"

Here is my answer:

  1. Not all investors are like that
  2. Seeing through a bad pitch is especially hard when you are cold emailing someone a deck without explanation, Q&A
  3. You probably also need to the pitch to recruit people, strategic partners, maybe even customers
  4. Building on 3, settling for mediocre is not a good way to start creating an exciting company culture for the years to come
  5. The pitch is likely to be the basis for other marketing collaterals: web sites, brochures, etc. etc.

Spending time on the problem

Spending time on the problem

In a pitch there is always pressure to keep things as short as possible. It is therefore tempting to compress the problem you are solving is as few words as possible: "[x] is not very flexible", because hey, people know this, right?

I tend to drag out the problem section of the pitch a bit:

  • Remind people of the problem in an emotional way, that they "feel" it, usually with a picture or a statistic
  • Point out what is the cause of this problem, it is often soften very trivial that people did not realise. ("Did you know the reason is that there are no batteries light enough to do this?")
  • Point out why it is so hard to solve the cause (not the problem itself). ("The law of physics that you cannot have this, and this at the same time)

Now you have set up the audience to show why your solution is so clever.


Image: Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr demonstrating 'tippe top' toy at the inauguration of the new Institute of Physics at Lund; Sweden

We say, but we don't do

We say, but we don't do

Many people start of a presentation design project with "we want a presentation like Apple". A great intention. But after you come back with a first version (black background, a few words per slide, no bullets, no agenda pages, no summaries, no logo, no page numbers), people feel that it looks too dark, the flow is not clear, they want to summarise upfront what they are going to say, it is hard to refer to pages, it needs some branding, and to make sure that a certain point comes across, you better spell it out word for word on the slide.


Image by Danny Lion

On stage, it does not matter anymore which software you used

On stage, it does not matter anymore which software you used

On Quora, I see questions like which presentation software did [company X] use at [event Y]. For the audience there is no difference. The same simple, good slide can be made in PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Slides, and Adobe InDesign. The exception is probably Prezi and its complex zooming capabilities.

The process that got you there makes a big difference though. How easy is it set up a basic presentation template (colours, fonts, positions of titles, page numbers, aspect ratio), how is it to create a basic slide layout other than a list of bullets, how easy is it to align items properly on a grid, how easy is to create basic data charts, how easy is it to keep everything consistent page after page, how easy is it to do basic image manipulation (cropping and repositioning).

Either the audience cannot tell in which program the presentation was made and you were either a design pro or have made a huge effort to master the software. Or, the audience can spot your software instantly (most likely PowerPoint), which means that you did not get much further than the standard slide template.

(A secret: you can get away with taking design short cuts in my presentation app SlideMagic and no one will notice).


Edgar Degas, Rehearsal on stage, 1874

The last minute changes

The last minute changes

One of our clients back at McKinsey in the 1990s used to say that "the paper in McKinsey documents is always warm", i.e., they came of the printer only minutes before the meeting. Now that documents/presentations are all in digital form there is even greater opportunity to make last minute changes, especially if you travel by taxi to the meeting.

It comes at a price though. First of all, last minute analysis is prone to mistakes. But secondly: "frankensteining" quickly a chart into a presentation might break that super professional and impeccable look of the presentation.

If the change does not involve the correction of a major error,  it might be better to make that missing point verbally.

"What is different about an American audience?"

"What is different about an American audience?"

I get this question a lot from (potential) clients in Europe and here in Israel. Ten years ago, I would have answered the question with a usual rundown of presentation design basics: not too many bullet points, visual slides, etc. etc.

But in 2016, I think the playing field has levelled. Audiences in any country now recognise a good or a bad presentation.

There are still differences between audiences though, but they do not differ across geographical boundaries. Here are some contrasts that I often come across. It is especially in these situations that an outside presentation designer can help to bridge the cultural gap.

  • Engineers that need to present to more sales & marketing oriented people
  • Engineers that need to present to potential customers
  • Founder/inventors that need to present to potential investors
  • Small company that needs to present to a big trade show and/or large Fortune500 company
  • Internally focused managers (production, logistics, finance) that need to present to an outside audience (M&A due diligence for example)
  • Local subsidiary that needs to present to corporate headquarters
  • CEO that needs to present to Wall Street analysts
  • Sales Director who needs to present to distribution partners

When presenting to someone outside your typical circle of "audiences" it is important to put yourself in their shoes. Simply recycling your usual presentation is unlikely to work.


Art: Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954

 

Better consulting presentations

Better consulting presentations

Management consultants produce tons of charts that might look professional, but in most cases, they are actually not that good. (Most management consultants will admit this if you ask them).

Why does this happen?

PowerPoint is a slide design tool that can be used in many ways. 

  1. The tool to create beautiful keynote address slides
  2. A quick canvas to jot down an analysis
  3. An alternative to a word processor that is better at handling graphics, tables, and shapes

Management consultants use PowerPoint as 2. and 3., and forget to make the jump to 1. after they are done with the analysis. Most verbal presentations go OK, management consultants are usually reasonable presenters and when a horribly dense slide goes up on the screen, the explanation is usually clear.

Still, the visuals can be better, and here are some steps to clean things up based on the work I did for a management consulting client yesterday.

  • Cut sentences down to the essence and leave out filler/buzz words. This is probably the biggest improvement you can make. "Value creation potential", "customer success journeys", "centers of excellence" you know what I mean
  • Rethink the basic setup of a page. Sometimes you start of with a straw man or template: a number of rows with "category" - "elaboration" for example. After you filled out the whole thing, maybe the categories are not right, maybe you don't need the categories because they say exactly the same thing as the elaboration. 
  • If you are left with some bullet points, at least make sure that they line up properly, have a small indent, and leave more than 2 words on one line
  • Add movement to your slides. If there is a sequence, put the boxes in sequence. If there is an impact, use an arrow to point at something, if there is an overlap, draw a circle
  • Don't repeat the headline message in a bubble on the chart, one is enough
  • Make sure all slides follow the template: headlines in the same font, in the same place, if the headline does not fit, cut words until it does, do not be tempted to reduce fonts, or go beyond the margins
  • Try making shapes without box lines around them, usually colours have enough contrast. This makes the slide a lot calmer
  • Clean up logo pages: use the latest ones, use high res logos, line them up properly. If things get too cluttered, make them black and white, or fall to back to just names. Not every company name needs to be expressed in a logo.

A fairly random list with tips to make better consulting presentations. There is one theme though. Separate slides you use to solve a problem/do your analysis, from slides you use to communicate a recommendation. They are completely different.

Problem and solution go hand in hand

Problem and solution go hand in hand

I usually spend 80% of the production section of a pitch on the problem, and 20% of the solution. That might seem an uneven balance. But in fact, these two sections are one and the same thing, they go hand in hand. The way you frame the problem, sets up the way you introduce the solution.


Image: Wikipedia

Mixed PowerPoint Keynote workflows

Mixed PowerPoint Keynote workflows

I have been working with a client on a presentation with 2 different pieces of software: she on Keynote, me on PowerPoint. She kept importing and exporting. The conversion is actually pretty accurate (a compliment to Keynote). The only glitches are in drawing guides and page numbers and the occasional font here and there. 


Image by Kreg Steppe on Flickr

An alternative to a logo

An alternative to a logo

When you need to list a handful of companies on a presentation slide, the main visualisation people use is a logo. It always looks great. Make sure you have the latest one (they tend to change rapidly), and pick one in a nice high resolution. If the colours clash too much, consider toning them down by making them black and white.

But the alternative to the logo, is actually getting an image of the company in action. An ad on the street, the neon on the corporate headquarters (no, not the HQ reception desk), a store front, etc. Make sure you don't have any copy right issues. I usually search for photographs on Google Image search that are "labelled for reuse" Below an example for Vodafone:

Image by Moyan Brenn on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/15754634911

Image by Moyan Brenn on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/15754634911

If you need to deal with a lot of company names, there is no escaping to the logo page. My presentation app SlideMagic makes lining up lots of logos very easy. Use the black and white toggle to mute logos if the colours get too busy.


Corporate language simplification is next

Corporate language simplification is next

A lot of the progress of humanity boils down to improving and simplifying communication. There were huge wins when we figured out how to speak and coordinate hunting strategies, learned how to read/write/print books, speak long distance instead of taking the ocean liner, video, etc. etc.

More subtle improvements happened as well. Clear, simple language impacts the premium/position that bosses, priests, doctors, lawyers, politicians, can command. Long-winded corporate memos and formal letters made way for informal emails and now messaging to get to the point, quickly.

What we lose in style, we gain in efficiency and clarity. Gone are the beautifully hand-written letters without grammatical errors. Now we have the universal "business English" with a tiny vocabulary, full of mistakes, and pronunciation can be whatever you see fit. The English might not be perfect, or sophisticated, its meaning is crystal clear.

The same happens to corporate language. Management consultants took a first stab at making memoranda logical and structured. The exhibits in these documents slowly become more important than the written words themselves. And now presentation software/slides has become the main language in which we do business.

We need a crisp, simple, visual language to get a business concept across. Everyone can understand it, everyone can use it. That's what I am trying to do in the presentation app SlideMagic.


Art: Pieter Breugel the Elder, The Tower of Bable, 1563

The market and company history - you care, they probably not

The market and company history - you care, they probably not

It is interesting to hear/see that when older startup companies (let's 5 or or more years) always start with a background of the market and the company. Back in 2005, this happened, we did that, then this, then we got acquired, then this.

The audience is probably not really interested, they want to find out about today's products or investment opportunity.

So why this habit? It is hard to change your company pitch once you have gotten used to it. Back in 2006, that intro about what happened in 2005 probably was really important to the story. In 2016, it no longer is.

Contradicting myself, this is probably not true in all cases. The company Slack, for example, was born out of a side project for team communication of a failing game development company. That's an interesting detail to bring forward. Keep it short though.

Lining up text, lining up text boxes

Lining up text, lining up text boxes

A post for the purists today. In PowerPoint, a text box and a rectangular coloured shape with text line up the same way: you hover them across the slides and "snap" lines appear that encourage you to line things up with items above or below. To do it correctly though, you need to make a small adjustment.

A text box with a transparent background: line up the edges of the text (without padding) to the object below

A text box with a transparent background: line up the edges of the text (without padding) to the object below

A text box with a coloured background: line up the edge of the box with the item below

A text box with a coloured background: line up the edge of the box with the item below

With my presentation app SlideMagic, you don't have to worry about this. I remember "arguing" with my developer why this was an important feature :-) 

Overdoing the animations

Overdoing the animations

This animation (GIF alert) shows the distribution of music sales over time. Wait a few seconds and you see the pie chart changing for multiple years. This data can be represented much better by a series of stacked column charts. The animation takes too long, and the audience does not have the overview of all the years. 

I copied this image from a Tweet that did not include the reference to the source.

I copied this image from a Tweet that did not include the reference to the source.

There are other problems as well with this chart, gradients, standard Microsoft Office colours, drop shadows, small data labels, and ambiguous labelling ("Internet", "mobile", "video", etc.). 

Keep the CEO in the loop

Keep the CEO in the loop

Investor presentations usually start with the CFO (who naturally puts a finance spin on the story), then the Marketing Director adds product positioning, the Sales Director puts in a highly detailed benefit analysis: the result 3 presentations.

Why is it so important to have the CEO involved early in the process? She is the only one who has a view on the story that cuts across finance, marketing, sales. An equity investor audience is different from a client, is different from a tech conference, is different from a traditional bank that provides loans. More importantly, she is likely to have to make the pitch herself, and so she better is in sync with the slides.

You cannot delegate the investor pitch design, or give the super high level input "you know the story, pitch that we are more flexible". Time to roll up the sleeves.


Art: Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1876